By day, the coffee table accommodates a relaxed lifestyle when it hosts food or beverages during a tv show or while browsing on a tablet (it’s also the perfect platform for displaying favorite magazines, ahem). But in some homes, especially in the evening, the coffee table transitions to its sexier self: The cocktail table. This inanimate object becomes the center of the party, supporting platters of hors d’oeuvres and fancy libations, drawing the admiration of homeowner and guests alike. The right coffee table can serve that dual function, transitioning seamlessly from a surface for Tuesday’s homework to an elegant support for a centerpiece during a dinner party four nights later.
The first coffee tables were used in Britain during the late Victorian Era. They were designed as low tables mostly made of wood, often based on those used in Japanese tea gardens. This long, low Anglo-Japanese style table remained popular in the UK throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Then the Revivalism design movement in the late 19th century brought other aesthetics to the table. The Louis XVI style’s emphasis on straight lines, fluted legs and carved neoclassical details was popular. In contrast, the Georgian style followed, offering a lighter look of delicate legs and a painted finish. In the US the table took its contemporary form after the expansion of suburbs, casual family rooms and the advent of television in the 1950s.
As in most areas of design, establishing the proper size of the piece and its proportion to the space is the critical first step in selecting a coffee table, followed by functionality. Determine how a room will be used and by whom. A space that hosts formal events with adults calls for a different table than the casual family room where children and adults gather. Unless there is an existing family heirloom or some special find to start the room’s design with, arrange the space for seating before the coffee table is selected.
The table should take size and shape cues from its neighbors. Leave 18 inches between the edge of the sofa and the table—this is just enough space to set a drink down but still accommodate plenty of legroom. When each seat in the room follows this rule it unifies the design, even an eclectic one. An L-shaped sectional works well with a large circular or square table. A regular three-cushion sofa, or two facing one another, falls in line nicely with a rectangular or oval table. The round shape, devoid of any sharp corners, is a smart choice when children are around. The space between the table and the media cabinet should be about 30 inches, which reinforces it as the main entrance into the space. Sometimes a series of smaller, matching tables is preferred to one large table because they can be split apart to form end tables or nest together to form one surface. Modular or not, the table’s height should be up to two inches shorter than the top of the sofa’s cushion. Most tables are under 20 inches in height; for taller sofas sizing up a few inches keeps the room to scale and makes it easier for adults to place a drink or plate.
The table’s surface material should be selected based upon the family’s lifestyle. For high-traffic rooms used informally, opt for something that can withstand abuse, like wood with a weathered or distressed finish, natural stone or poured concrete. Glass, mirror and high-polished wood finishes can be scuffed or broken easily and should be reserved for gently used living spaces. Coasters are a good idea for all tables though not necessary for mirrored or glass tops.
A coffee table doesn’t have to be a table at all, but must offer a surface space conducive to its uses. The cocktail ottoman has gained popularity as an upholstered alternative to a hard-edged table and provides another opportunity to visually soften a room when done in lush decorative fabric and finished with seaming or tufting. Ottomans in spacious, casual great rooms can be as wide as five feet and provide a place that hosts everything from snacks during a game to a sturdy tray large enough for drinks and plates to impromptu seating for last minute guests.
When composing an interior design evaluate furnishings for their visual weight and make selections based on room dimension. In smaller spaces, while the same functionality is required of a coffee table, a lighter table with a sleek top and slender legs is more suitable. The transparent quality of glass or Lucite uses no visual space compared to a heavy wood table with chunky legs or a style with a wide, solid base and are the go-to materials when a beautiful rug needs to be seen.
The coffee table presents an enormous opportunity to define the overall style and mood of a room. Classic designs in fine finished woods or stately brass and scrolled iron with a stone, glass or mirrored top will always bespeak quality and timeless sophistication. Another tasteful approach that brings a touch of refinement to the room is choosing an international inspiration like a French, Asian or Scandinavian model. The coffee table is one of the best opportunities in a room to infuse individuality. Unlike a sofa, it can take various shapes and be made from materials that range from ridged to plush, clear to painted, monolithic to modular. For many it’s easier to express a bold design choice with a coffee table than it is with a sofa or leather chair (and far less risky).
Today’s range of coffee table styles has stretched considerably to include some inventive compositions that add an element of surprise, art or whimsy to décor. Tables full of character, like those of abstract forms or animal sculptures that form the table’s base and are topped with clear glass, retain the look of a piece of art and can be an instant conversation starter.
Those made from repurposed items are a popular trend because of the imaginative combinations of materials. Painted windowpanes or antique doors are instantly charming when converted to tables with the addition of turned wood legs or modern metal ones. Capture a themed décor with sun-faded or weathered wood boards for a beachy feel or a steamer trunk with steel and leather straps for a well-travelled look. Organic creations are increasing in popularity, as well. Using slices of tree trunk is one option. Another is the use of stone slabs atop a contrastingly polished base. Particularly on-trend are industrial designs. Think wheels, gears, steel pulleys or rusted iron at the base—antique railroad handcars are cropping up everywhere as coffee tables and evoke a nostalgic and masculine aesthetic.
On the other end of the spectrum, an explosion of table styles in Lucite, a clear molded polymer, has smashed all traditional ideals of what furniture should represent yet, ironically, it can be mixed seamlessly into classic décor. Adding a tint of color or a lighting element to the finished piece can create a very edgy table. Increased access to global design makes exoticism possible and fun. For instance, intricate carvings on a wood Moroccan-style table provide an escape from the ordinary as well as incredible texture in the design scheme. Retailers like Arhaus, West Elm, Restoration Hardware and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams are among those diversifying their offerings to appeal to a wide range of interior styles and can fulfill either fast turnarounds or custom finishes.