How to choose the perfect coffee table for your home: from storage to style

Here's a piece of furniture that can uplift the look and feel of your space, if you’re willing to put in the legwork

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Although not the biggest nor most expensive piece of furniture many of us will buy, coffee tables are nevertheless a crucial choice for the house-proud owner. Often placed in a central position in a family living space, such as a lounge, a coffee table can be both practical and aesthetically pleasing.

If you’re in the market for one, it’s worth doing some legwork to end up with the right design for your place and personality, and the great news is there are plenty of options to choose from.

Storage v display

Being a subset of tables, you wouldn’t necessarily think there were all that many sub-groupings of coffee tables. But you’d be wrong. There are a host of choices, catering to every need.

At its most basic, a coffee table is a small table that you would use in a lounge as a place to pop a cup of tea or coffee when you’re relaxing on a sofa. Size aside, another basic requirement is that it is lower in height than a dining table.

However, increasingly, coffee tables come with storage, too. This might take the form of drawers or the entire table can become a storage unit, with the flat tabletop lifting off to reveal stowage space within.

Then there are shadowbox coffee tables, which are designed for display purposes. These have glass tops with a segmented space below where you can display your favourite objects. From shells picked up on family holidays to the collection of antique thimbles your grandmother left you, this is about personalising your furniture and decor.

Other coffee tables are more like works of art than pieces of furniture, intricately carved or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, to turn them into real talking pieces.

Wood v metal

Coffee tables come in a huge range of materials, each with their own pros and cons. Wooden coffee tables have always been popular, with the natural material giving a warm, welcoming feel to any room. There are many types of wood to choose from, too, whether you prefer honeyed oak, rich ebony or cheery red cherrywood.

If you’re looking for something more industrial, consider a metal coffee table. Here again, there’s something to suit every colour taste, from stark black to antiqued brass effects and even painted or enamelled metal coffee tables in every colour of the rainbow.

Rattan is perfect for a more laid-back beachy or countryside look, while marble offers a super-luxurious finish.

If you have a small space, glass-topped coffee tables can be effective as the light passes through the structure, making it feel less heavy and intrusive in a room where space is at a premium.

You could also go down the upholstered route with an ottoman-style coffee table. These are visually appealing and can be easily blended into your colour scheme. Whether you choose traditional leather, luxurious linen or something more funky and modern, there are options for every taste and budget.

Safety v style

The downside to a glass coffee table is that it can be tricky to keep clean, with every fingerprint leaving a smudge. This is particularly frustrating if you’ve got young children or pets.

Another factor to consider with little ones is safety. If your heart is set on a glass coffee table, ensure it’s fitted out with toughened safety glass.

Sticking with the safety theme, sharp corners can also be a problem, especially metal ones. If you have toddlers or even a smaller space where you might knock your shins too often, consider a rounded coffee table.

When choosing your piece, also think about the kind of usage it’s going to get. If you’re living alone, you might be perfectly happy to risk soft woods or pale fabrics because you know you’ll look after your furniture. But if your coffee table will be used by a variety of people, make sure it’s robust enough to stand up to the wear and tear.

Table vs trunk

There may be times when an archetypal coffee table isn’t quite the right option – for instance, if you have a tiny living space or if you want to leave the room rug open for children to play on. In this case, consider one of these alternatives.

Nesting side tables allow you to pull out a small version of a coffee table when you need it and keep it stored away otherwise. The same goes for a butler’s tray, which combines a tray with a folding stand.

If you’re looking for a more unconventional option, have a little think about what else might serve the function of a coffee table.

Antique luggage trunks, for example, are the perfect size and shape, and have built-in storage. Or how about an old wire spool, a vintage drum or even a tree stump? Your only limit is your imagination.

Books v flowers

Once you’ve zeroed in on your perfect table, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll decorate it. While it should remain a functional space, where you can put down a cup or a plate of biscuits, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have one or two other carefully placed accessories.

Coffee table books are an obvious choice. Whether you’re into travel, art, design or photography, choose a couple of your favourites to display. You can change them up every few weeks to keep things interesting. If you really want to impress your guests, have a look at the range by Assouline.

Candles are another great option, as they both look lovely and smell good. Choose as high quality a candle as you can afford, as the scents will be more natural and last longer. Byredo, Diptyque, Le Labo, Bella Freud and Cire Turdon are all popular choices.

If you’re a fan of flowers, this is a good place to display them. Varieties such as strelitzia, delphiniums, gladioli and lilies are all well known for keeping their looks and lasting well. Just remember to place your vase on a decorative tray to protect the surface of your table, especially if it’s wood or fabric.

Updated: September 13, 2021, 4:27 AM