A coffee table has a place of honor in most homes. It takes center stage in a room with all furnishings placed around it. Years ago most tables came in sets of 2 end tables and a matching coffee table that made decorating easy. Now we are encouraged to mix and match finishes and styles. But, do you even need a coffee table? Cindy and I have differing opinions on this ubiquitous piece of furniture.
Terrie Gives Coffee Tables a Thumbs Down
I think I may be in the minority on this topic. I’ve never owned a coffee table….never had one in any room in any home I’ve had. I grew up with coffee tables – we always had a matching set of end tables and a coffee table, but on my own…..I’ve never wanted one. In looking through my vast archives of magazine photos and searching online I was able to confirm my theory of being in the minority by the total lack of rooms without coffee tables. Since I couldn’t find pictures, I took one of my home.
I found plenty of photos where the coffee table was out of scale, the wrong shape, the wrong color…but that’s for another day. However, this photo (from my old photo archives so I can’t give credit, sorry) illustrates a couple of points. It’s too low to be comfortable for drinks or eating or even propping up feet. It’s too close to the seating which would make it difficult to move around – can’t you just imagine tripping over it all the time? So I used my trusty Photoshop to doctor it a little and show you that coffee tables aren’t always necessary. See how much the room opens up with that pesky table out of the way?
As a designer I always added coffee tables in rooms I designed for clients because everyone wanted/expected one. However, for me, coffee tables are a totally superfluous piece of furniture.
- The table sits in the middle of the room, taking up space. I prefer the cleaner, more open look of clear floor space.
- People often don’t leave enough clearance between the table and seating making bumped shins a common occurrence.
- Coffee tables are clutter magnets. The top gathers newspapers, magazines, remotes, homework, mail, toys, etc. If there’s a shelf underneath, it sometimes is able to stay organized, but often becomes a place for stacks of magazines, newspapers or books.
- Attempts to keep the top “decorated” are wasted as kids or husbands use it’s top for their own messy needs.
- Often used in place of a dining table, crumbs and dirty dishes and glasses gather exponentially.
- Coffee tables are used to prop up feet while watching TV. Uncomfortably. I’d rather have an ottoman.
- Ottomans as coffee tables are somewhat better in that they are at least comfortable and can be pressed into use as extra seating. However, it doesn’t address the clutter issue.
- Side tables (or end tables) are almost as bad for collecting clutter. However, they are infinitely more necessary as we all need places for a lamp and to set a drink.
Now all of these negative comments are not to say I don’t like tables. I do. I have several console tables and chests around my home. I like console tables behind a sofa, in the entry way, under a window, beside a bed. Chests are great storage options in addition to giving me a top to display my doodahs on. I love accessorizing table tops; they are infinitely changeable and entertaining to decorate. And you know what? They don’t seem to gather the clutter that coffee tables do. I don’t know why. (By the way, I wrote about decorating a table top here.) Is there anyone out there that agrees with me?
Cindy Gives Coffee Tables a Thumbs Up
I like and use coffee tables. In fact, I think some rooms would feel very incomplete without an appropriate coffee table because they are a multi-tasking piece of furniture. Coffee table functions include:
- Anchoring a furniture setting: couches and/or chairs gathered around a coffee table create a unified group for conversation or media enjoyment.
- Reinforcing a focal point: a well chosen coffee table supports the room’s focal point (think coffee table echoing the style of the fireplace it sits in front of).
- Enhancing the room’s style or showcasing the homeowner’s personality: think large wood burl in a rustic home, an old iron gate topped with glass in a shabby chic room or a leather ottoman topped with a tray in a library.
- Providing a stable spot for a drink and a comfortable place for putting feet up: when entertaining guests or watching T.V. a coffee table is a convenient place to set food and drinks within easy reach.
- Providing a sizable surface for accessorizing: when not being used to serve drinks and snacks, the coffee table top can be accessorized to continue the look and feel of the room by holding plants, books, candles, special collections and other appropriate items.
- Adding storage in a room: any room, but especially small rooms, benefit from the additional storage a coffee table with drawers, hinged tops (think trunk), or baskets can offer. I’ve even seen a coffee table that transformed into a single bed – perfect for a guest bed in a small apartment
Aside from the many functions a coffee table provides, its form also enhances the room it occupies. In order to do this, however, the coffee table must first be the right size for the room. An easy rule of thumb is to select a coffee table that is 2/3 the length of the sofa and make certain there is room for someone to easily walk around the coffee table and yet not so much room that someone seated cannot easily reach a drink setting on the table. Depending on your furniture, you’ll need about 14” to 18” between your seating and the coffee table.
The right table helps correct scale problems within a room. For example, a room with a high ceiling can make inhabitants feel small and insignificant. Adding a large, low, massive coffee table helps make the room feel less voluminous by visually lowering the room to a more human scale and drawing attention to the seating area.
A small, cozy room can benefit from a glass or acrylic coffee table because they don’t take up visual space but provide all of the usual functions of a coffee table, except perhaps storage. Using small, multiple coffee table pieces in a limited space allows them to be repositioned as needed.
Coffee tables add energy to the room. Select a bright painted red table for high energy, a natural finish wood projects a light and tranquil feeling, an acrylic or glass table adds brightness and sparkle, while a leather ottoman or iron table makes the space feel more weighty. Use a round table to add softness to a room that has a lot of hard edges or corner. Select a series of small tables instead of a large single coffee table to add versatility as well as a feeling of casualness and spontaneity to the room. An old trunk provides storage but also adds a feeling of history and antiquity to a space while an ottoman as a coffee table sets a relaxing, feet up, feeling in the space.
When selected appropriately for a room, a coffee table adds everyday function as well as decorative form to a room. And forget about the old fashioned matching sets – coffee tables do not need to be a large version of an end table.
What About You?
Do you have a coffee table in your home? If so, what type is it? How do you use it? If not, why not? We want to hear what you think of coffee tables. As usual, there’s no right or wrong answer – just preference. We’d love to have you comment below or email us at email@example.com .