A coffee table isn’t just a place for your guests to put their drinks.
“The coffee table is often the centerpiece of the room,” says Dan Mazzarini, partner at New York-based interior design and styling firm BHDM. It will draw attention whether you want it or not. So don’t overlook its decorative potential.
“Just like walls feel empty without art, coffee tables feel empty without anything on top,” said Anna Baraness, a founder of Studio AK, an interior design firm in New York. “When you walk into a home with a nicely designed coffee table, it feels complete and really works as part of the overall picture.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean cluttered is better than naked. Your coffee table shouldn’t be a dumping ground for remote controls, mail, and anything else that doesn’t have a home. Interior designers and home stagers manage to strike a balance between decoration and function by designing coffee tables in a way that feels almost effortless. How exactly do they do that? We asked for advice.
Play with the scales
When adding accessories to a coffee table, “it’s important to have different heights,” says Leia T. Ward, founder of LTW Design, an interior design and stage design company in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
To ensure there is some variety, “we always start with the tallest item,” said Ms. Ward, “which, unless it’s a large sculpture, is more likely to be a tall vase or a medium-sized vase with oversized branches.”
Mr. Mazzarini considers how a viewer’s eye moves between different objects. “Some people think of it as still life, but I see it more as typography,” he said. “I think of things that move up and down and create islands of objects where the eye can rest.”
Use books creatively
They’re called illustrated books for a reason: large, lavishly illustrated books are designed to remain on display where they inspire casual reading.
All of the designers interviewed for this article agreed that books shouldn’t be chosen just for their cover art. Instead, they should reflect your personal interests – favorite places, activities, artists, designers – both for your own enjoyment and to share your passions with guests.
If your table is small or you’re going for a minimalist look, you can bring out a book or two. On a larger table or in a room with a maximalist design, many designers will create a few low stacks, “with the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top, like a pyramid,” Mr. Mazzarini said.
For each stack, “two books is great and three books is fine,” he said, but he advised against going much higher. He often uses these stacks as pedestals to elevate bowls, vases, or other sculptural objects. And he often removes the dust jackets to reveal the more textured covers underneath.
Don’t ignore the photos on the inside pages of books, either, said Meridith Baer, a home stager and interior designer in Los Angeles. “I usually put the books I like the most on the table,” she said. “Sometimes I love a certain image so much that I leave the book open on this page so I can see it every time I walk by. It’s almost like having another painting in the room.”
The coffee table is a good place to display sculptural objects – whether art or utility bowls, vases, bottles or candle holders with unusual shapes and appealing textures.
Studio AK has adorned coffee tables with organically shaped bowls and faceted vases. BHDM used wooden eggs and woven baskets. LTW Design has designed chunky beaded necklaces and carved wooden necklaces.
However, the best choices are pieces that mean something to you personally.
“A coffee table represents who you are as a host and a homeowner,” said Jonathan Rachman, a San Francisco interior designer whose book Currently Classic is due out in September. “Your style, your spirit, your story.”
It’s an opportunity to display a tasteful travel memento, like a paperweight or small bowl, a ceramic jar made by an artisan, seashells collected from the beach, or a prized find from a trailer sale – almost anything that might serve as a conversation starter.
Create some contrast
You want decorative accessories to stand out visually on a coffee table, so choose objects with colors and materials that don’t blend in.
“If my coffee table is, say, glass and metal, I would bring the opposite, like wood or china, for contrast,” said Mr. Rachman. “Or if my coffee table is, say, an oval ottoman, I would bring something metal like brass.”
Studio AK uses darker accessories like black trays and candlesticks on light tabletops and vice versa. “High contrast is very important to us,” said Kristin Tarsi, a founder of the company. “We want to see variations, interesting textures, and light and dark.”
Coffee table accessories also offer a low-risk way to experiment with color, Mr. Mazzarini said, much like throw pillows. Try to bring out a big book with a bright red cover, and if the look doesn’t meet your expectations, you can pick it up and put it away.
Don’t forget flowers
“No coffee table is complete without flowers,” said Mr. Rachman. “You always want something organic, something natural.”
Formal spaces might call for a traditional arrangement, he said, but in casual spaces he often uses an approach he calls “chop and drop” — a bunch of one type of flower, perhaps hydrangeas or calla lilies, placed in a vase.
But flowers aren’t the only organic option. A potted plant, a bowl of succulents, a large tropical leaf or branches cut from a tree can bring nature indoors and warm a table. Ms. Ward sometimes fills bowls with moss-laden clumps of earth for a green boost.
make it work
Aside from looking beautiful, your coffee table has several jobs to do: It’s a surface that has to hold hot coffee, ice-cold cocktails, snack plates, remote controls, laptops, and maybe even bare feet. That’s why it’s important to leave at least part of the space open to allow things to come and go.
“Our rule of thumb is to cover about 40 percent of the tabletop with accessories,” Ms. Tarsi said, leaving the rest unoccupied.
She also likes to place an impermeable tray on a coffee table to hold smaller items like remote controls and coasters, and to act as a surface for water-filled vases that can mark wooden tables.
A decorative box or wide tray could serve the same purpose, Mr. Mazzarini said, by providing a simple and attractive place to store smaller items at the end of the day.
Unlike large pieces of furniture that you put in a room and leave there, coffee table accessories can change with the seasons or as you discover new books and tableware.
“It can be fluid,” said Ms. Baer, who routinely changes accessories on her coffee table to showcase the things she finds most intriguing at any given moment. “I inherited an art glass collection from my mother and for a while I had the whole collection on the table, arranged by height and color. I had a lot of fun doing that for a while, and then I thought: Okay, I’ve been there, that’s it.”
Ideally, she said, you’ll find joy in composing various coffee-table vignettes. “If you love design,” she said, “you can just keep things moving all the time and enjoy it.”
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