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.
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.
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.
Sometimes a coffee table that isn’t the standard height or width is exactly what a room needs. In this instance a very low coffee table creates a crisp horizontal plane in the foreground, offsetting the long horizontal line of the credenza in the background. A higher table would have blocked the view of the credenza and competed with it; the varying heights add interest.
When you have two sofas or any larger seating arrangement, a big coffee table might seem like the obvious solution. But also consider a pair of matching coffee tables. They will keep the focus off one large piece of furniture and let your eye move around the room more easily. One classic coffee table size is 48 by 24 inches, so you can plan on that when thinking about your furniture arrangement. A large coffee table is often double that: 48 inches square.
Solid tabletops usually have a very square corner. If you have little kids or the circulation is tight, allow extra space at the ends so it’s easier to get around the corners without hitting your shins. Go for color with an upholstered coffee table, as it will draw people to the surrounding sofas and chairs. Top it with a tray to hold books and other items (and to soften a strong color, such as the pink).
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.
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.
Keep in mind that with most glass tops — if they are not inset — you’ll see a green tint on the sides. You can order a speciality glass that doesn’t have this tint, but it’s more expensive.On the other hand, perhaps you want your space to look cozier (and you need some storage). Stash baskets, trunks and old suitcases under simple legged coffee tables to ground spaces that are otherwise too open.