Designer 101: How to Choose a Coffee Table

Designer 101: How to Choose a Coffee Table

Design expert Kenneth Wingard shares his advice on choosing the right coffee table.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

If choosing a sofa is a difficult, expensive affair, choosing a coffee table is fun, exciting and full of possibilities! A coffee table needs to be functional, but it can also be fun, flirty and add some drama to a room. Being a smaller piece of furniture and a perfect choice for re-purposing or DIY-ing, you can add some flair without breaking the bank.

Let’s start with the basics: Do you need one and, if so, what size?
To answer the first question: yes. Unlike side tables, which are negotiable, you need a coffee table from both a visual point (anchoring the sofa) and a practical point (where do I put this cup of coffee?).

When it comes to size, conventional rules say that a coffee table should be between half and two-thirds the length of your sofa. I know I’m being a little nit-picky here, but unless you’re limited in space, half the length of your sofa is often too small. You want to be at least two-thirds and, in some instances, up almost to the full length of your sofa.

If you’re looking at using a group of tables, then the assembled grouping size is what you should be measuring. Your overall size should allow for 18 inches between the edge of the coffee table and the front of the sofa and 36 inches between the table and any major traffic path.

This you need to be strict about — it needs to stay within 1-2 inches of the height of the top of your sofa cushions. Any more or less and it’s going to look out of place. Keep in mind how you will be using it. If you tend to prop your feet up a lot on the table, a little lower is good; if you tend to eat at the table, a little higher is called for — but still stay within that couple of inches.

What About Shape?
A rectangular or square table is going to visually and physically take up more space. It’s good for larger rooms or for when you need a lot of table space (is this the table used for the Thursday night family pizza party?). It will also give a more rigid look to a room.

An oval or round table is better in smaller spaces, makes maneuvering around the room easier and will give the room a softer feel.

A grouping of tables will look more casual and often more modern, as well as being quite in-fashion. If you go this route, think of the grouping as a total unit and what their overall shape is going to be.

What Should it be Made of?
Many people often make the mistake of getting their coffee table to match their sofa. You actually want to do the opposite. Choose a table that is going to complement the sofa without matching it. If you have a loose-cushioned, over-stuffed, ivory sofa, pair it with a clean-lined, brightly colored lacquered table. A modern sectional looks great with a warm wood table in front of it. A visually heavy sofa works well with a visually lighter table, perhaps glass-topped. A daintier sofa can use a slightly heavier table to anchor it.

Consider the Surface
Really think about how you will be using the table. A table that will be holding your feet up every night is different than one that will be holding homework. For one, you may want to consider using an upholstered ottoman, and for the other, wood may be a better choice. If you will be serving a lot of food and drinks, something in glass will hold up to wear and tear much better than a leather top.


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Most of All, Get Creative!
The best coffee tables I’ve seen did not start out as such. Vintage steamer trunks, ottomans with trays, groups of smaller tables or stools nestled together — all of these are great options. With all the pre-fabricated legs available in home stores, all you need is a screwdriver to turn a moving pallet, plank of aged redwood or woodcutting boards into a stunning conversation piece.

Have fun, and use this opportunity to bring a little pizzaz into your room!

Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tune in Saturdays at 9/8ct on OWN to see his projects come to life and get to know Kenneth here.

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