How to Choose a Coffee Table

Neutral living room interior with a decorated coffee table

Spacejoy / Unsplash

Coffee tables come to mind right after sofas when you think of living room furniture. This piece of furniture is the perfect spot to place your drinks, magazines, electronic devices such as tablets or remote controls, display knick-knacks, or doodads, plus offers a great place to rest your feet or eat a meal.

Coffee tables are ubiquitous and come in many shapes, sizes, materials, heights, lengths, and features, providing you with a bewildering variety to choose from. Our comprehensive guide helps walk you through some things you should ask yourself that may help narrow down your choices to get the right coffee table for you.

Before Buying a New Coffee Table

Coffee tables have so many functions, and are used for a number of things. They are one of the first places that books accumulate, keys get thrown, or feet get propped up. Selecting the right table, from the material, size, shape, and features can impact how well it works and how long it lasts for you and your family. They can become an important piece of furniture in the room or one that's cast aside, so as you start searching, keep in mind what you really need to get the perfect coffee table for you and your family.

Buying Considerations for a Coffee Table

Location

Living room and family room coffee tables are used differently, and family room coffee tables get more rough use. Keep that in mind, as where the coffee table is going to be located is a key part of selecting the right one.

Living room: You may want a more formal coffee table in your living room depending on how you have decorated. More fragile and delicate surfaces such as glass can be used in living rooms.

Family room: A family room needs a sturdier coffee table. You may also want to look for one that has storage options, like drawers. The surface should be able to take abuse because spilled snacks or feet on the table are more common in casual settings. Glass tops are generally not suitable for family rooms, not just because of fragility, but finger marks and scratches, too. For glass tops without frames, there is the danger of sharp corners, especially when you have small children. Delicate surfaces can also end up getting scratched if it is a heavy-use area.

Centerpiece

The coffee table is often called the centerpiece of the room. But you will notice that the same term is often used for a sofa, a rug, or any other piece of furniture. If you decide on the coffee table as a centerpiece, then style, size, material, surface finish, and color are attributes that will make it stand out.

A coffee table can be a focal point, with its uniqueness and functionality, and becomes a statement in a room. Combine two or more of the attributes if you want it to truly catch the eye when walking in the room.

Materials

When you shop for a coffee table, you'll become aware of how many choices you have when it comes to material. The most obvious material that comes to mind is wood, but you don't have to restrict yourself to wood if you don't want to.

  • Take a look at your room and other furniture to determine what material would look best. Clear acrylic and glass can make a small room look more open. The glint of metal can accomplish the same purpose. Glass, acrylic, metal, and stone also look good in a modern room.
  • Darker wood, such as mahogany or walnut, or materials such as marble and metal can look good in a traditional room.
  • Leather or faux leather can work well in a variety of settings, and they are also easy to maintain.
  • Consider the material's durability and safety, especially when you have small children.

Shape

Coffee tables are available in many different shapes. While the shape of the room can play a role in choosing a coffee table, you must pay attention to your seating configuration more than anything else.

  • A rectangular or oval coffee table works well for smaller rooms.
  • Squares or round coffee tables are good for large seating configurations, such as large sectionals or a large sofa and a love seat.
  • Round or oval tables are useful around children because of the absence of sharp corners.
  • Abstract shaped tables, which include triangular shapes, add another dimension to the look and feel of the room, and go well with regular size sofas or modular sectionals.
Nested circular coffee table

Spacejoy / Unsplash

Size

The size of your coffee table needs to fit in proportion to the other furniture in the room, especially the couch or sectional that it will reside in front of. The look and style of the table need to pair well with the style of furniture also, whether it be contemporary, modern, etc.

  • Consider scale as well as actual measurements when selecting a size. Select a coffee table that is no more than two-thirds of your sofa's total length. An important thing to remember is to leave enough space around the coffee table for leg space. Leave at least a foot and a half between the table and the sofa.
  • Your coffee table should be the same height as the seat of your sofa or lower. If it is lower, it should measure only one to two inches lower in height than the top of your sofa's seat cushion.

Functionality

The level of functionality your coffee table offers depends on how you want to use it. While most coffee tables have a flat surface supported on a base, there are plenty that offer additional features.

  • Look for coffee tables with additional shelves, drawers, or compartments if you need them to double up for storage.
  • Trunks and ottomans can offer lots of storage.
  • Some tables have surfaces that can be raised for working or eating.
  • Casters and wheels are useful if you need to roll away the coffee table.

Types of Coffee Tables

Traditional

The traditional coffee table has a timeless style offering four legs, a rectangular shape and is usually made from wood. There typically is no storage and it is a basic functional piece of furniture to put in front of the seating area.

Storage

The coffee table with storage options comes in various styles and designs. It can offer storage drawers, a second shelf, or cubbies and baskets. This coffee table might be in the shape of a rectangle, square, circle, or even an oval. It can be constructed of wood, metal or acrylic with glass, wicker, rattan, etc.

Lift Top

The lift top coffee table is not your average coffee table. This table has storage and the top lifts up and moves toward you allowing you to comfortably work on a laptop, write or dine while still sitting on your sofa or loveseat. The typical shapes are rectangular or square, and wood seems to be the most common material used for this type of table.

Nesting

The nesting coffee table has smaller tables or ottomans that "nest" underneath the table, which can be pulled out and used. The smaller tables can be used separately to put beverages, books, or other objects on, and some have storage drawers. The ottomans are great for smaller kids to pull out and be able to sit at the coffee table, plus they also open up for storing items. These tables can be round, rectangular, or square in shape, and can be made from wood, upholstered, metal and glass, and other materials.

Upholstered

The upholstered coffee table usually comes in a square shape. This type of coffee table can have a wooden frame with a tufted cushioned top, or it can be constructed of wood yet be fully upholstered in material with a tufted cushioned top that lifts up for storage. The latter design is also known as an ottoman and is a great place to store blankets, toys, and other items.

Cost

Coffee tables have a wide range in price depending on the material they're built with, the manufacturer's brand, and their functionality. It is good to know how much you can afford and have a budget set in place before you start searching for the right coffee table for you and your home. The average cost will run between $150 to $400.

There are less expensive coffee tables out there that are more budget-friendly if you're just starting out in a first apartment or new home. Be aware that they will not hold up as well, yet can be a good placeholder until you can afford a better one.

How to Choose a Coffee Table

There are so many choices when it comes to coffee tables, and the decision is entirely up to you. It can be a bit mind-boggling since they come in different woods and other materials, colors, shapes, and sizes, and there are so many features available. The challenge here is selecting what will work for you, is affordable for you, and serves its purpose. Start figuring out what you want and need before going to the store to help in the selection process, and ask yourself some questions. 

How Will You Use Your Coffee Table?

Think about what you will be using your coffee table for. Is it going to be a place to rest your feet in front of the couch? Are you going to put decorations and knick-knacks on it?

Maybe you need a drawer to hold items, so you put it on the list to scout around for a coffee table with storage. Or you might want one that the table portion lifts up for eating purposes, then you know to look for one that does that. Determining the features necessary for the proper coffee table for you and your family will make it much easier in finding one.

Who Will Be Using It Most?

Determining what room it is going in and who will be using it the most is vital information to getting the right coffee table for your family. If it will be residing in the family room where all the kids and their friends gather, you might consider a less expensive, more durable structure, while if it is going to be a showcase piece in a living room, it might be nice to have a glass top as an example.

What Does the Rest of the Room Look Like?

That coffee table you're selecting needs to go well with the other furniture in the room. Are you looking at the right color and type of wood? Will a metal table blend or match with the other accent pieces? Make sure the table you are considering purchasing is not going to look out of place or stick out like a sore thumb.

Where to Buy a Coffee Table

A coffee table can be found in numerous places, including furniture stores, home stores, outlet stores, supercenters, and online retailers. It is a personal preference, and in some cases, a matter of time, on how you choose to purchase your coffee table. Some people prefer to see furniture in person so they can visualize it, touch it, and look closely at how it is made before opting to buy it. While others feel comfortable going directly online to select one. Whichever way you decide, take the time to compare prices at multiple locations, and if in-person, talk to a salesperson, and if online read the reviews, and use the retailers' chat feature if you have questions.

FAQ
  • What is the purpose of a coffee table?

    A coffee table usually resides in front of the sofa and offers a convenient place to put everything from drinks, books, decorations, remote controls, etc.

  • Is there another name for a coffee table?

    Coffee tables are also called cocktail tables, tea tables, or refectory tables. The name "cocktail table" is the other label that most people are familiar with.

  • Do you really need a coffee table?

    Coffee tables are a handy piece of furniture, but nowadays, a large ottoman has become an alternative used in contemporary living rooms. Some people prefer to have nothing in front of the furniture and use only side tables, while others use coffee tables. It's all a matter of personal preference.