Choosing a Coffee Table for Your Living Room

The living room coffee table provides form and function, tying the room together while serving as a resting place for drinks, laptops and tired feet.

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Lately, my husband and I have been having some heated discussions — about coffee tables. We need a new one, and we can’t agree on the size, style or even the material. Who knew coffee tables could be so complicated?

Coffee tables likely made their way into British and American homes in the late 1800s, although their origins may stretch back much further. Even the ancient Etruscans, who lived in central Italy in the 1st millennium BCE, used low, rectangular tables for their lavish banquets.

When the term “coffee table” emerged in the early 1900s, it was less about coffee and more about being an object around which people relaxed and chatted. By the time televisions became a mainstay of American living rooms, the coffee table was practically a prerequisite, right along with couches and easy chairs.

As I like to tell my husband, a coffee table is a big decision! You’ll probably only buy a new coffee table every 10 years or so, so you want to make sure you buy the right one. Here’s what to consider when choosing a coffee table for your living room.

Why Your Living Room Needs a Coffee Table

Think about it: A coffee table serves multiple purposes in your living room. It’s a place to rest cups or glasses when you’re entertaining friends. It’s a place for books, photo albums, laptops or anything you like having within easy reach. It may be the place to spread out a board game on family game night, or for kids to do their homework.

When there’s something good on TV, it might double as the dining room table. And of course, in some households, it’s a place to prop up your feet at the end of a long day!

Visually, a coffee table pulls together the other furniture in the living room. It creates a unifying effect among the couch, easy chairs or recliners, end tables and usually the TV.

Shapes of Coffee Tables

Coffee tables come in various shapes, some more practical than others. Here are the basics:

Rectangular. The classic coffee table shape is the most practical with a long (three-seater or longer) couch, as it’s theoretically within reach of everyone seated.

Oval. This is a good alternative to a rectangular table. There’s a little less surface area, but also no sharp corners for banging shins!

Square. A square table may be the best solution for smaller couches or more compact living rooms. But it’s typically wider than a rectangular table, so it may not save that much space in the long run.

Round. A round coffee table is also a good solution for a compact living room, or one where couches and chairs are arranged in a U pattern around the table.

Coffee Table Materials

Coffee tables are available in different materials, which vary in functionality and longevity.

Wood. The classic material for tables, wood is durable and versatile. But low-quality wood or wood veneer will show every dent and scratch. And even high-quality wood can show stain marks from drinks, nail polish or whatever else gets spilled on it.

Laminate. Usually cheaper than wood and popular for their durability, laminate coffee tables are available in virtually any color and shape. They can stand up to getting banged up by kids’ toys, but they can also chip — and those corners are sharp!

Glass-top. Usually supported by a metal frame, glass-top tables create a lighter look in a living room, but probably aren’t ideal for homes with small children. Stephanie Engel, an interior decorator and home stager with Minnesota’s Real Estate Bees, says glass coffee tables tend to have a more elegant look, better suited for a formal sitting room than a casual family living room.

Marble or stone. While not as common, marble or natural stone can be used to make coffee tables. The stone tops are usually on a metal or wood base, and they look impressive, but weigh a lot. And watch out for your shins!

Alternative Coffee Table Solutions

If you’re not thrilled with the idea of a traditional coffee table or you don’t have much space, Engel says there are plenty of alternatives. “We frequently recommend tufted ottomans, a group of two or three nesting tables, a vintage trunk, a pair of smaller matching end/side tables, or even garden stools and storage benches,” she says.

How to Choose the Best Coffee Table

When it’s time to choose your next coffee table, Engel recommends taking the following points into consideration:

Size of the space. “Scale and proportion in a space is key,” says Engel. If the table is too big for the room, it’s going to dwarf the other furniture and make the room look crowded. Too small, and it will look like you goofed and ordered the wrong size! Small rooms may also benefit from a coffee table with storage.

Function of the room. How will the room be used? If this is the main family gathering space in the house, Engel says to choose a sturdier, durable material, like wood. For a formal living room that’s only used a few times a year, you can opt for something more decorative.

Size of existing furniture. “Just like the size of the room, the size of existing furnishings should be considered,” says Engel. A coffee table should be ideally one-half to two-thirds the length of the couch, and either the same height or an inch or two shorter.

Furniture shape. Shape of the furniture should be taken into consideration too, especially if you’re not dealing with a “normal” couch. “If a sofa is an L-sectional or a sectional with a chaise, for instance, certain shapes and sizes of table work better than others,” Engel says. With curved sofas, she says a round or oval table might be better suited than one with hard corners.

Price. Most of us have a budget in mind when furniture shopping. If your coffee table is in the social hub of your home, it needs to withstand a lot of wear and tear. “We suggest investing in quality furnishings that will last over time and be less likely to need replacement,” Engel says.

Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, lifestyle and home improvement writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, Reader's Digest, TripSavvy and many other publications, and she is the author of several guidebooks. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together, they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, their tween daughter and their dogs. She covers a variety of topics for Family Handyman and is always ready to test out a new pizza oven or fire pit.