Design Tips: Choosing a Coffee Table

an73/stock.xchngA coffee table, a.k.a. cocktail table, is a low table usually placed in front of a sofa or group of chairs in a living room or family room. Beyond that, coffee tables come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and styles and can be made from many different materials.

The shape: Most coffee tables are oblong in shape, with either square or rounded sides. A smaller square or round coffee table will work nicely in front of a small love seat or two armchairs. A larger square coffee table may go well with a large sectional sofa where the two sides are equal in length. When you select a table, the decision to go with square versus rounded sides can be simply a matter of design preference. Rounded tables are softer to look at and allow for easier access around them in smaller spaces.   

The size: It’s best to select a coffee table that mirrors the proportions of the sofa that it’s paired with. In other words, the longer the sofa, the longer the coffee table. Since the coffee table is a functional piece of furniture, it should be in comfortable reach of those sitting on the sofa. There should be about 18” of space between the edge of the sofa and the table, to allow for comfortable leg room as well as space for people to walk between the two pieces.

The style: Beyond a coffee table's size and shape, style is a major factor. As with all furniture selections, take the intended use of the piece into account. A living room reserved for formal entertaining requires an elegant traditional-style coffee table. Glossy cherry wood or lacquered metal are classic choices. Glass tops are often employed to avoid moisture rings. In less formal settings such as family rooms or dens, tables are usually made from more durable materials since they are likely to get a lot of wear and tear. Pine and walnut make great choices. Though glass tops are excellent for moisture issues, they're prone to breaking and chipping. Informal coffee tables may be theme-oriented. For instance, they might incorporate eclectic items like a surfboard top or a lobster trap base. So, while they are functional, they can also be fun.

Details make the difference: There are many functional options available that help coffee tables multitask as storage units, such as a shelf for magazines or books, or drawers for storage of remote controls or drinks coasters. Some tables come with a “lift-top” feature where the tabletop can be lifted to a height suitable to work or eat at while sitting comfortably on the sofa. You might want to hire a carpenter to craft a custom table with multiple pull-out shelves to extend its length or width, depending on specific needs. 

Linda Merrill writes for

Updated May 30, 2018.

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