Choose your fabric wisely, since people may want to put up their feet (and shoes). Outdoor fabrics can be smart; steer clear of linen and fabrics with high amounts of rayon or viscose. Take a swatch home and test it out with dirt, red wine or whatever you think your coffee table will encounter, to make sure your fabric choice can handle it all. Keep an upholstered ottoman 18 inches from a sofa or chair, so you can easily put up your feet, and make sure the height is consistent with the surrounding seats.
Using a vintage object for a coffee table adds a bit of history — a story — to a room, and is one of my favorite things to do. Make sure the piece is stable and all the connections are secure. If you need to refinish the piece, ask the vendor precisely what it’s made from, as this will help in the refinishing process.
If you don’t want the coffee table to be the focus of the room, choose one with a glass top and a finish that blends with others in the room, as in this example. This will keep the eye interested in all the items in the room, not just one layer of the design. Coffee table metal bases with glass tops are another good choice to keep rooms feeling open. They’re also great when you have a special rug and don’t want to block views of it. Keep your glass cleaner handy, though, as there is no way around fingerprints.
If you get a tufted ottoman, consider the depth of the tufts — especially if you expect to eat on it. Crumbs will find their way into the tufting and are not always easy to get out. Round coffee tables aid circulation, especially where there are many available seats, as in this example. If not every seat can reach the table, make sure there’s another surface at hand.
First think about what you need your modern coffee table to do for you, or what your room is missing, then pick a walnut coffee table that provides the solution. Before buying a table, mark the footprint with painter’s tape so you can see the scale of the piece in the room and how that affects the surrounding furniture. If you have a very large room and a large coffee table, you can break up the scale of the table by flanking it with pairs of ottomans or benches, as in this example. When there’s a party, they can be moved out of the way for better circulation, but for everyday use these extra seats help connect the sofa at one end and the pair of chairs at the other end. Be sure to use a pair of ottomans — not just a single one.
Coffee tables should be the same height as the surrounding seating, with 18 inches being a good average (although it will depend on your furniture). If you select a coffee table with a lip, make sure the lip isn’t higher than the adjacent seating, or you’ll end up hitting your drink against the lip when you try to set it down. The idea is to put your drink down, not up.
Another consideration is how it will sit on your floor or rug, and if it will damage those surfaces. Splintered table legs or rusty metal bases can scratch or stain the flooring. Secondhand stores sometimes leave those areas unrefinished, so be sure to check. Sculptural wood coffee tables tell their own story and can add a natural element and warmth to a room with multiple upholstered pieces. Sealers and, of course, coasters can help protect the surface from water damage.
A coffee table does a lot of work. It needs to hold books, magazines, drinks, food — even games on game night. You might want to put your feet up on it, or the kids might need a place for coloring. Plus it’s usually smack dab in the middle of the room, where you cannot miss it — so make sure it’s a good one for small glass coffee tables.
Don’t forget when styling a glass coffee table that it’s not just about what goes on top, but also what goes below. A see-through table practically demands a graphic rug. Try a black-and-white rug and use similarly stark accents in differing shapes, or leave the top completely undressed and let the rug be the star of the show.
For a perfectly square table, you may be tempted to use four matching pieces for a perfectly symmetrical look. However, you can get a more intriguing look by using two pieces or groups, one in each corner. Try a tall vase or lantern in one corner with a stack of two or three books in the other (and an airy sculptural accent on top).