If your coffee table has a lower shelf, you don’t have to fill both levels, but if you choose to, try lining up the items on each tier. Use two pairs instead of threes, and don’t forget to play with heights. A lidded storage box or small basket can help keep the bottom level looking sharp while giving you a place to stash items like remote controls.
A coffee table is many things: a place to set your drink, a footrest, somewhere to stash the remote and — of course — a beautiful decorative addition to your living room. Or, at least, it has the potential to be all of these things. Your coffee table can also become a cluttered mess if you aren’t careful, or a drab disappointment if you’re scared to get a little creative. To help you achieve style success, I’ve put together some helpful guidelines with specific situations so you can master the art of decorating a coffee table.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 lip edge or tray top on a coffee table is always a smart choice if you have a tendency to spill your coffee or have kids that will be using the coffee table for snacks and drinks. They’re also good if you entertain often and don’t want to worry about red wine getting spilled on your carpet.