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The Coffee Table Revisited

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Image courtesy Catherine Nguyen Photography


It’s more than a place on which to rest your beverage, rest your trusty remote, host a beloved board game or, heaven forbid, put your feet up. Yes, it’s a four-legged workhorse in a room increasingly used less for what it was originally intended. But it can also be the artistic canvas that sparks a fascinating conversation and attracts envious eyeballs.

We’re talking about that time-tested furniture fixture known as the coffee or cocktail table. And it’s overdue for a reappraisal, say the pros.

“The function of coffee tables has changed over the years. It’s now become the replacement of the game table, dining room table and kitchen table in many homes, as we become more relaxed in our living spaces,” says Tammy Leach, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based design consultant for Bassett Furniture. “This table can also be a work of art if used in a more formal space.”

In the past, coffee tables were more “dainty,” says Carole Marcotte, owner/lead designer with Form & Function in Raleigh, N.C. Today, they’re a multifunction platform for storage, display, entertainment and social gathering.

“It doesn’t have to be the focal point of the room – usually the fireplace or TV or a taller, dominant piece of furniture does that. But it should function well for the family living there and yet still be attractive,” Marcotte says.

If yours is an active family with younger kids, you may actually be better served by an ottoman, on which you can rest your feet or place an oversize tray for edibles, says Janet Contrino, interior designer with JC Signature Spaces in Easton, Pa.

“When designing a more formal space, however, I would recommend a glass coffee table – the simplicity of which allows for decorative objects to stand out,” Contrino says.

To help choose the right table material, be mindful of other elements in the room.

“If there’s a lot of wood already in the space, try to find an alternative and interesting material – maybe resin or acrylic. If your room has a lot of cold elements like glass, steel or polished stone, maybe try to warm things up by bringing in textured upholstery, like leather or hide,” says Basia Falcon, head designer/owner at Sycamore & Gray LLC in Highland Park, Ill.

If you prefer a classic wood look for your coffee table, aim for a high-quality solid wood piece, “especially those wonderful mid-century modern designs made of teak and walnut,” says Beverly Solomon, creative director with Austin, Texas-headquartered Beverly Solomon Design, who recommends refurbishing an old table or making one of your own from salvaged wood. “Do not be afraid to refinish a good find. If the wood is not so good but the design is, you might consider painting or even having the laminate redone.”

You don’t necessarily have to have matching end tables, either.

“You can mix and match your tables or choose a set; just make sure they are complementary of the surrounding elements in your room,” says Falcon. “For example, if your room is small, use a coffee table that’s open and airy and skip the end tables. Just be sure to have at least 18 inches of clearance around your table to allow enough room to move and maneuver.”

When it comes to table toppers, avoid clutter at all costs. Aim for interesting objects and stimulating decor.

“Large coffee table books are great, especially ones that display the interests or travels of your family. I also love family photos scattered in a shallow bowl for people to sift through,” Marcotte says. “And a tall plant or orchid with a pair of chunky candlesticks for height can add to the tablescape, as does a large box to corral the remotes and coasters.”

Solomon says what you put atop your coffee table is always a design balancing act.

“Finding the right sculpture, ceramic, mineral specimen, fossil or book can really turn plain into perfect,” says Solomon.

Seasonal additions of small gourds in a bowl for fall or pinecones for Christmas are a nice addition, too, Marcotte adds.

“Avoid framed, leaning photographs, which are better suited to bookshelves or atop a piano,” says Marcotte.

If you keep magazines or newsprint atop your table, be sure to feature the latest issues only.

“Try to bring in a bit of surprise. Maybe it’s an old table clock, an antique box your grandmother gave you, or simply a jar of sticks and shells that your kids gathered at the last vacation,” Falcon suggests.

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