Shopping - Buying Guides

Buying guide: Coffee tables

Function, scale and style: Three important considerations when it comes to buying this functional piece of furniture.

The way you use a coffee table will help inform your selection. For some, it's a canvas for artful arrangements of objets, while for others, it's made a proper dining table redundant. For the latter, ease of clean is an important consideration, making glass-tops and heavy-duty veneers and laminates ideal, and unsealed wood out of the question. A tabletop decked out in weighty vases and sleek statuary requires rock-solid construction, which - depending on your DIY savvy - may rule out tables that require some self-assembly. Solid construction is also recommended for those whose living room must withstand the rigours of the under-six-set. A coffee table can also function as storage in cramped quarters, but don't necessarily limit your search to models with built-in shelving under the tabletop if this double-duty is a must-have feature. Tables with an open and airy base can still accommodate attractive stacks of books, filling the negative space between floor and tabletop.

The proportion of the coffee table needs to be in keeping with both the size of the living room and the scale of the surrounding furnishings. A generally accepted rule of thumb when pairing a classic rectangular coffee table with a sofa is that the table should run from one-half to two-thirds the length of the sofa. What's more, the height of the tabletop should run level - within a few inches, that is - to the top of the seat cushions of the surrounding furnishings. Size also has a huge impact on the traffic flow of the living room, so you must consider ease of movement around the coffee table. Be sure to factor in about three feet in between the coffee table and the closest adjacent furnishings.

Square, rectangular, circular, ovular... There are as many coffee table shapes as there are materials and finishes, but remember that you're not decorating in a vacuum. Pick out shapes from patterned textiles, art and objets in the living room, and let these pre-existing geometrics inform this decision. If the safety of tiny tots is a particular concern, a rounded table with gentle edges may be a wise selection. Stylistically, you may choose a table that either counterpoints or conforms - juxtaposing or mirroring the shape and style of the other furnishings in the living room. Pairing a traditional, curved-back sofa with a crisp and contemporary Parsons table can be an invigorating study in contrast; while on the other hand, pairing that Parsons table with a similarly clean-lined, low-back sectional could make a dramatic impact. Take some snapshots of your existing living room furniture with you on your hunt to help you visualize the possible combinations.


Think outside the box for stunning coffee table substitutes. An upholstered ottoman topped with a tray is an ever-popular swap-out, and a great way to bump up the textile quotient in a room that's feeling chilly. Also consider repurposing antique trunks and low chests for a unique interpretation of this functional piece of furniture.


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