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How to choose a coffee table: Advice from pro designers

Expert interior designers share their best tips and advice on finding the perfect coffee table.

Round coffee table in a living room
  • Round coffee table in a living room
  • Ottoman coffee table in front of a sofa
  • Living room with a coffee table
  • Round coffee table in a living room

Choosing the perfect coffee table takes time and consideration. Coffee tables are one of the most important furniture pieces in your living room — only behind your sofa — so there's a lot to think about when picking one!

Coffee tables come in so many different sizes, shapes, and materials it can be overwhelming for some to decide. To help, we've spoken to some expert interior designers to help you make the right choice for your home.

So, here is how to choose a coffee table.

What You Should Consider When Choosing a Coffee Table

The Space You Have

First, you need to consider your room size and available space, as your coffee table has to play nicely with the rest of the furniture pieces in the room.

According to Julia Dempster, the founder of Julia Dempster Design, "When it comes to strategically working with the scale of a coffee table, always ensure that you're not overcrowding the space. Go for a larger table rather than filling the space with various small items of furniture."

Dempster adds, "Smaller does not always equal better. Give pieces of furniture breathing room, you need to allow ample negative space between the seating and the coffee table."

If you need to create the illusion of more space, Becc Burgmann, founder of Becc Burgmann Interiors advises, "A round coffee table, or even nesting coffee tables, are a terrific option, they allow more room to move around pieces. Having a nesting table also means you don’t have to have side tables, instead, one of these can be pulled out and used when needed. No side tables also mean more room to move.”

Coffee Table Height and Size

When it comes to coffee tables, there is no one-size-fits-all. You want the room to flow, and the wrong-sized coffee table can easily throw things off balance.

Dempster explains, "There is nothing more awkward than a coffee table that's too high or too low, instead opt for a coffee table the same height as the cushions on your sofa or one to two inches lower. Any more, and you risk the space feeling out of proportion."

Lindley Arthur, Lead Designer at Lindley Arthur Interior also recommends thinking about the space around your coffee table: "Size is one of the most important things to consider - we like for there to be 18-24 inches of space between the coffee table and the sofa or chairs." 

Round coffee table in a living room
Photo: Julia DempsterThis living room features a round coffee table in front of a sectional sofa — framed by a large area rug.

How You'll Use the Coffee Table

Coffee tables aren't just a place to rest your drinks! Some may use them as a statement piece or as a display for coffee table books or pieces of decor.

You also need to consider the use of your coffee table. Do you want it to be focal point it itself or more functional? The intended use of the table is going to have a big impact on what table you end up choosing.

"Think about how you're going to use the space. If it's a space for sitting and reading, a coffee table with a second shelf below could be a great option," says Becc Burgmann.

According to Olma Fuentes from Deni + Dove Interiors, "You need to determine how you plan on using it [your coffee table], as this will also impact the size and material you choose. Is the table mostly for decorative purposes? Or is it meant to serve as a gathering place for food and drinks?"

"Marble and other stone tables will certainly add beauty and a luxe vibe to any room, but are porous and scratch easily and may not be the best option if you plan on using the coffee table to place red wine," adds Fuentes.

Your Budget

Coffee tables also vary in price. Knowing your budget can save you a lot of time hunting, as you'll know exactly where to look from the get-go. It can also save you some disappointment. There's nothing worse than finding the perfect coffee table, and seeing that it's four times your budget.

You can definitely find the right coffee table for the right price. It just takes a bit of hunting! 

How to Choose the Right Coffee Table for Your Living Space

These are a few of the other points you need to think about when looking at coffee tables. Such as the following:

Think About Style and Material 

There are so many different types of coffee tables on the market. Some great advice: think of the style of your home before choosing a coffee table.

  • Traditional, rectangular coffee tables: A traditional coffee table is usually made of rich wood and have ornate details, like carvings, curved legs, or inlaid tops.

  • Storage coffee tables: These coffee tables are great if you have extra things that you want to store away.

  • Lift-top coffee tables: These coffee tables are great if you want to hide the clutter. It's a functional table that offers "hidden" storage compartments.

  • Nesting coffee tables: These coffee tables are designed to be grouped with one or two other coffee tables. They are different sizes and are usually stacked or layered together.

  • Ottoman coffee tables: These coffee tables are plush pieces of furniture, much like an upholstered coffee table. These look casual and comforting. Plus, they can double up as extra seating in your family room if needed.

  • Round coffee tables: A shaped table can always look very funky. You can get different styles of round-shaped coffee tables, traditional ones, industrial ones, and just about anything. Round coffee tables can also work nicely with a large, sectional sofa.

  • Freeform coffee tables: These coffee tables are unconventional and wild. They are often abstract and have no defined shape. It may be the stump of a tree or even a sculpture of some sort.

Ottoman coffee table in front of a sofa
Photo: Julia DempsterAn ottoman coffee table is used in this living room space.

Every living room is different and different types of coffee tables fit better in certain spaces. "Round coffee tables tend to be the most versatile. They are stylish and work with all seating arrangements," says Olma Fuentes. So if you like to experiment and change up your room layout often, a round coffee table could be a good option.

"Two smaller tables alongside one another next to a larger table can add a lot of visual interest to a room. A rectangular table is also great for displaying many coffee books and other decorative items," adds Fuentes.

Lindley Arthur also believes that "the finish of the coffee table is very important and should complement, but not compete, with other finishes in the space." Common coffee table materials and finishes include:

  • Wood: A wooden frame or table is great for a country or rustic feel. These coffee tables are more natural.

  • Marble: These are expensive and heavy but can add a very elegant, sleek, and clean look to the home.

  • Glass: Glass-top coffee tables are great as a focal point. They're also minimalistic and don't require much to stand out.

Think About the Surrounding Furniture

The coffee table needs to work with the other furniture in your living room or family room.

"What does the surrounding furniture look like?" asks Becc Burgmann. "If the surrounding furniture is circular, choose a round or oval coffee table. Different style furniture won't work in terms of feel. You'll be able to feel 'something is off."

If the furniture in your living room does not match or flow, it can cause visual chaos. "Choose a coffee table that is consistent with the rest of the style of pieces in your space," adds Burgmann.

You should also consider your seating area and the arrangement of other furniture. "The seating arrangement really dictates what shape coffee table is best," says Lindley Arthur. "In a sitting area with four chairs, use a round coffee table. But in a traditional seating arrangement with a sofa and chairs, a rectangular coffee table is best."

Living room with a coffee table
Photo: Julia DempsterThe style of the coffee table fits perfectly with the overall aesthetic of this living room.

Think About Who Will Use the Space

You also need to consider who is going to be using your new coffee table. Becc Burgmann says, "If you have small children, a glass coffee table may not be ideal. It means cracking, breakage, as well as many obvious fingerprints."

You want your space to be practical as well, advises Julia Dempster, "If you have a small space, use a coffee table with a dual purpose [like a lift top coffee table], or a table or trunk that can provide storage."

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Picking a Coffee Table

The following are what you need to avoid when shopping for your ideal coffee table:

Falling in Love in the Store

Love at first sight is real, even when it comes to a coffee table. But Becc Burgmann warns, "Choosing just any coffee table because you love it in the shop" is people's most significant mistake when buying a new table.

"When pieces are standing alone, they can look both wonderful, but also hideous and you’d never consider them, however put them in the space and they can suddenly go either way," adds Burgmann.

Try to picture the coffee table in your space and how it may look with the rest of your furniture. Just because you love it doesn't mean your home aesthetic will. And sometimes, it may look stunning in the store, but the rest of your home may take away its spark.

Ignoring Measurements

Ignoring measurements is possibly the biggest mistake you could make. Don't buy a rectangular or square table simply because you like it — it also needs to fit into your space.

"People will sometimes purchase 'any' [coffee table] without thinking about the size of the space," says Burgmann. As a result, the table can sometimes be too big or even too small. It doesn't look right." 

A coffee table that is too big or too small can ruin the whole room's look, so always take down the right measurements and choose an appropriately sized table. No matter how beautiful the coffee table is, it will look terrible if it does not fit perfectly into its space.

Opting for the Wrong Material 

Stick to materials that work well with the rest of your family room. If your home has mostly wood or rustic accents, a marble coffee table may not be the best choice. The wrong material will clash with the rest of your home and throw the whole place off balance.

Round coffee table in a living room
Photo: Julia DempsterWhen choosing a coffee table you should ensure the materials fit with the rest of your living room.

Becc Burgmann explains, "Purchasing a rustic wooden coffee table in a modern style home with predominately 'shiny' pieces doesn't work. Look for the common materials or finishes, i.e., matt, glass, leather, etc., and work with the pieces in the space."

Choose a material that suits your home and the rest of your living room furniture.

Coffee Table FAQs

Does every living room need a coffee table?

It all comes down to personal preference. A coffee table is not a crucial piece of furniture, but some rooms can look incomplete without them. Some people prefer using ottomans or side tables. It all depends on your tastes and styles.

How long should a coffee table be compared to a couch?

As a rule of thumb, the coffee table should be about two-thirds of the length of your couch.

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