drapes at the wrong height

How to Choose a Coffee Table

So – picture this living room: Two recliner love-seats, one recliner chair, one recliner sofa, a 40-inch T.V., corner fireplace, electric piano, full-sized organ, and three small end tables – all around the perimeter of the room.  The tiny coffee table in the middle of the room was an octagon about 20 inches in diameter and was about 3 feet from any seat. It looked rather peculiar- a little lonely island. 

Function first 

The client wanted a new coffee table for the middle. She assumed that it was necessary to have a  regular coffee table-  but the problem was that when the recliners were all in use (as they often were), the footrests just met in the center – almost touching the little octagon – like a big sunburst.  After agreeing that the most important function of the coffee table was to provide a place for someone to put down a glass or plate, it became apparent that the coffee table in the middle really didn’t meet the function criteria at all. When the recliners were not in use ( as when the ‘ladies came for tea’) the table was too far into the middle of the room to be used. 

The solution? Nesting tables. Three small tables that sit one under the other that could be pulled out for the ladies but would still provide a cup or glass spot for the recliner users.  Nobody said you have to have one big coffee table.  

The lesson here is that it is important to look after the function first.  Then decide on a style.

What do you want the table to do? Hold magazines?  How many clickers do you need to store? Is it necessary to have drawers?   So – think horizontally, you may not need a traditional coffee table at all, but if you do, this is how to choose: In a nutshell, the coffee table should reflect the shape of the space it occupies.


Let me explain. Look at the shape of the area where the coffee table is to sit. Is it rectangular or square? Measure it if you need to. If the space is rectangular, the coffee table should be rectangular or oval. If the space is square, the table should be square or circular. The style of the room needs to be considered:  generally an oval or circular table is more traditional and works well with formal living rooms; whereas square or rectangular tables lean to a more contemporary feel.  Keep the children in mind; rounded edges are much safer for the little ones.  Glass looks great but most often demands daily cleaning.

Distance to other people

We have all been seated on a sofa that is so far from the coffee table it is not possible to use it, or the table is so close to the sofa our knees hit the edge. Bear in mind that the greatest distance between seated people should not be more than 9 feet.  More than this and conversation becomes difficult and a coffee table in an arrangement this large would be massive. In a situation like this, you may want to think about breaking up the space into conversation areas and using smaller tables.   In a more typical arrangement select a table size that allows anyone seated to be no more than 14-18 inches from the table. 

 Now you know how big the table should be;  go shopping with this measurement and don’t look at anything that is not this size. You know what functions the table must fulfill, you know the basic style you want (casual or formal) and most probably the material – wood or iron for example. Stick to your list and you will find just the right table with a lot less shopping than if you went out with no plan at all

There are examples and some more how-to’s in “Every-Day Design Dilemmas’, the book I wrote about just these sort of decorating things we might want to take care of ourselves.

You can buy it here.

every day design dilemmas book front

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