I spent 1,764 days avoiding buying a coffee table. That’s 58 months. Whichever way you slice it, that’s a looong time.
A few years ago, when my (now) husband, Phil, and I moved in together, we decided to pool what we owned—and quickly realized we had almost no functional furniture. I had books and cookware, and Phil had many guitars. So, bit by bit, we started acquiring the building blocks of our shared home: a bed, a sofa, a dining table and chairs…then stopped to take a breather.
That break lasted longer than expected, and somewhere along the way, we forgot all about a coffee table. When my mom spotted an opportunity (i.e., space on a shipping container—she’s a resourceful gal) and sent us assorted goods from India, we became the proud owners of a bunch of paintings, textiles, and my grandma’s Blue Willow tea set. We also acquired an old teakwood “dowry chest,” which I stuffed with miscellany and dramatically plonked in the middle of our living room. That’s how that chest became our de facto coffee table. I wasn't thrilled, but I wasn't seeing any better either.
Two years ago, we moved homes, and the chest continued to play its part. However, a slightly challenging new space (narrow living room; a lot of angles) made it feel too chunky. As months passed, the itch to get something more practical (and light) got more compelling, and I set about scouring the marketplace. I considered a variety of materials, shapes, and heights, but nothing felt right. A 42” round marble table took up too much space; a diminutive two-tier metal table felt too cold for my aesthetic; a floating-glass biomorphic beauty gave me nightmares about accidents. “It’s the black hole of furniture shopping,” I yelled in exasperation to a friend.
If anything, my protracted search made me realize that coffee tables are truly the heart of your seating arrangement, if not the entire living room—they do so much to pull everything else together. So why do so many of us make do with a less-than-perfect fit? To help me wade through these tricky waters, I turned to some of my favorite design experts, to spill the tea (and some sympathy).
Why is it so dang hard to find the right coffee table?
Often it isn’t choice that’s the problem, it’s having too many—far from ideal—choices. Home52 contributor Laura Fenton agrees: “People have a hard time investing in something they're not sure about, so they just end up ordering something affordable that can be delivered quickly.”
“I think the main struggle is you want it to be beautiful—because it's in the middle of your room—but you also want it to be a workhorse,” says Jennifer Morris, a Brooklyn-based interior designer. She’s right: Picking a coffee table is challenging because you really want it to do a lot.
Designer Alex Kalita couldn’t agree more. “They have to accommodate our books, our tablets, our steaming mugs of coffee, a cheese plate and a half dozen wineglasses, our children's coloring books, and—come on, let’s admit—our pad thai as we binge-watch TV,” says the co-founder of Common Bond Design, who among other things customizes people’s rentals.
What you need to know before buying one
Picking a goal for what you want the coffee table to function as might be the hardest first step. “You need to sit down and be honest about your needs and how you use the space,” says Morris. “If you like to watch TV with food on the table, the table needs to be cleanable and not show water rings. If you play tons of board games with the family, a table at seat height, and not too low, might be great for gathering around. With busybodies, I like rounder, softer corners so you don’t bang legs,” she explains.
According to Alessandra Wood, VP Style at online interior design service Modsy, it’s also worth noting what else is in your space before beginning your search: “Picking the right table can be hard because it’s really dependent on your space—especially the size and shape of the sofa.” Look at the scale and proportion of the sofa as well as the overall relationship the coffee table would have to the rest of the seating.
Speaking of size…
Our experts tell me there are primarily two dimensions you have to be careful with: the right height for the sofa as well as the right length to unify the seating area (too far from the armchairs and you’ll have guests constantly getting up to walk to the table to access the dip). Says Wood: “If you have a standard sofa, I like to use the two-thirds rule: the length of your coffee table should be about two-thirds the length of your sofa. Shape-wise, rectangles are great for standard sofas, and square and round shapes are perfect for corner sectionals where you want all sides of the sofa to have even access to the coffee table.”
Morris says she likes the table to be 14 to 18 inches from the seating, adding: “If you have a long room or a square room, the table might want to mimic those proportions.”
What about materiality?
It comes down to contrast, contrast, contrast, according to Kalita. “If your space is overloaded with wood, consider a non-wood table (stone, plexi, ceramic, glass, metal, etc.). Also, let the design style of the space dictate the material of your coffee table.” Wood agrees: “If you’re a modern minimalist, perhaps you have a concrete table. If you’re drawn to classical and elegant space, maybe rattan is what you need.”
Gerri Chmiel, residential design lead at Formica Corporation, also believes that while shape and size are important elements to consider, the key to finding the right coffee table is "one that feels authentic to you and your personal style." Chmiel adds that if you’re having trouble finding a finished option that suits you—and the budget allows it—it might even be worthwhile to work with a fabricator to design exactly what you want.
So, there is no "right" coffee table?
Nope. And sometimes, the best solution is not a traditional coffee table. Or…a bunch of smaller tables. My mother-in-law has a matching trio in different sizes that work as a coffee table when together and as side tables when pulled apart. My sister, on the other hand, swears by her upholstered square ottoman: For a flatter surface area for glasses, she rests a sturdy tray on it—and there’s room for books, too.
Kalita doesn’t have a standard coffee table, either—her small apartment “couldn’t handle one.” “Instead, I have a midcentury reversible ottoman tray table that I bought after pitching it to approximately five clients. When I felt wounded at each client’s rejection, I realized I probably loved it enough to buy it for myself. It offers no storage, but I can put my feet up.”
Or maybe it’s being brave(r) than I am, and going without a coffee table altogether. If you do decide that this is the path for you, invest in a couple of stools or side tables to move in when you have guests, or a snacks-drinks-Netflix night in—and enjoy all the new space you’ve just created in your room.
Post script: I am thrilled to announce that I finally found “the one”—an oldie (and oddie) but goodie that I spotted in an obscure warehouse filled with midcentury furniture in various stages of disrepair (and repair). It’s lightweight, small but tall, shaped like a guitar pick (allowing a guest in an armchair to reach a corner of it), and has a beautiful wood grain. If and when we have a larger living room, it could easily transform into a side table or slide into a corner. Plus, as Fenton says, buying secondhand pieces means I get better quality for my money, and if it doesn't work out, I can recoup my costs by selling it to someone else.
Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.
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