Design WiseShelagh Duncan

Choosing Your Perfect Coffee Table

Rattan coffee tablesBy Shelagh Duncan

The coffee cable is an essential piece of furniture for any living room. Find out what will work best in your space.

In the UK, the coffee table was made popular during the late 1800’s, and low tables have been used in other cultures for a long time before that. In the US, they evolved from taller tables and were marketed as cocktail tables after Prohibition was repealed in the 1920’s says Jan Cummings, who teaches furniture history courses for Johnson County Community College’s interior design department. So what’s the difference between coffee and cocktail tables these days? Not much really. Some say the shape – coffee tables are square or rectangular, and cocktail tables are rounded, but it’s probably more to do with marketing – and what you’re drinking!

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Whatever you choose to call them, they play an important part in any living room. Not only do they anchor the seating area and give you a place to put your drinks, but also offer a wonderful opportunity for you to express your unique personality, either by creative table-top arrangements, or by the style of the table itself.

So what do we have to think about when we are choosing a coffee table?

functional coffee tablesFunction

Think about how you are using your coffee table: do you use it as a footstool when watching TV, for eating informally with friends, doing jigsaw puzzles or playing board games? Should it store coasters, remotes or the Quepolandia magazines we love to hang on to? If your space is small, do you need it to store larger stuff, or have it double as extra seating or even a flip-out bed? The answers to these questions will help you decide if you need an easily cleanable surface, something durable, something with shelves or drawers, or something beautiful, where you can arrange books and collectibles.

Size & Scale

The shape you choose will, in large part be determined by your seating configuration. A square or round table can perfectly suit a sectional, but may overpower a regular sofa and loveseat. Rectangular or oval tables are most useful, and rounded corners are safer if you have tots running around.
Here are some practical ‘rules’ regarding coffee tables.

  • Allow about 18” between the seating and the table.
  • Height is usually between 16” and 21” – should be a similar height to your seats.
  • Length is usually half to three-quarters the length of the sofa.
  • If you have a TV stand nearby, then allow about 30” between that and the table.

The scale should be similar to the rest of the furnishings you have in your room, and the architecture of the home itself. For example, a simple bamboo table will be overwhelmed next to an overstuffed sofa. Everything needs to be balanced in scale and proportion to look and feel ‘right’ together.


Well this is the fun part! You can choose a table to reflect the style of your existing furniture, or something as a counterpoint: an antique or rustic table in a modern living room can look fantastic. For our tropical rooms, mix styles and try a classic rattan table in a contemporary room, or add a global feel with an Oriental style table – just let your imagination free.

Wood coffee tablesMaterial

The material you choose should naturally be suitable for the function of the table, but try and avoid chrome. Although easy to clean, it usually does not seem to do too well close to the ocean. Metal and glass tables are popular as is wood of course, and the use of a tile or slate top is a practical addition. If you have pretty rug, or great floor-tile design, then consider glass to allow everyone to enjoy it. Glass top tables are also perfect in small rooms. They make a room seem larger as they don’t have the visual bulk of wood or other more solid looking tables.
Alternatives to coffee tables.

Well, of course you can decide on a traditional table, and there is an amazing selection out there – but why not consider some other options….? That table could be a trunk, a couple of box ottomans, or one larger ottoman with a tray on top – serving a double purpose! It could be a set of nesting tables artfully arranged, a rustic tree root-ball, a dog bed (you have to see the picture!), or an antique metal window: there are endless possibilities.

Fun & funky coffee tablesFor the adventurous amongst you, your coffee table could be a small surfboard, an aquarium, or a suitcase. In fact I think if Joey and Chandler (Friends sitcom….) had been a bit smarter, they would have sawn off the legs to their foosball table and used it as a coffee table instead of kitchen table – why stand when you can sit and play!

So, for coffee or cocktails – it’s your choice. Happy hunting!

Until next time…
Royal Palm Interiors, Uvita