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round marble coffee table with black metal legs and book stack

How to Choose a Coffee Table in 8 Easy Steps: Our Expert Guide with Ideas to Inspire

I’m so glad you’re here to figure out how to choose a coffee table for your living room. Because, honestly, I know it can seem daunting. Actually, to be fair, you often don’t realise it’s daunting until you panic-buy the wrong table and then get it home and hate your life choices.

Let’s avoid that entire buyers-remorse situation and think through a few important factors before we hit the stores. These are the important questions I ask myself about my interior design clients when I’m specifying coffee tables for them. So in the interest of sharing, I want to delve into my process with you.

By the end of this post you’ll be so clued up on how to choose a coffee table that no retail staff member will be able to talk you into buying the wrong one. Drop me a comment at the end of the post if you have any questions for me or want to clarify anything that doesn’t make sense for you.

formal living room styling with dark green walls fireplace with round mirror above and velvet green sofa

1. Function First

When going through the process of how to choose a coffee table, function always comes first.

How are you going to use this coffee table? Actually, are you going to use it at all? That sounds like a strange question, I know. But what I mean is whether or not the table is going to be used in a real way (sitting drinks on, holding remotes), or whether it’s more decorative (sitting further away from the sofa with a stylish vignette on top).

The image above via Metricon is a perfect example of what I mean. We need the coffee table in the room to resolve it spatially, but nobody is going to actually use it for anything. So a table in a room like this can be big and heavy because it’s just for decoration.  

boconcet black rectangle coffee table in living room with tan leather sofa

Functional vs Decorative, and Other Questions to Ponder

If your coffee table is more decorative that functional, you can go for a heavier table because it’s never going to move positions. If it’s more functional, you want to go for a lightweight option you can pull close to the sofa when you’re sitting on it, and push back when not needed. Nobody wants to drag a large marble coffee table toward them every time they’re knocking back a wine.

Storage is worth thinking about as well. Do you need to store things like books, magazines or toys underneath? If so a shelf or drawers becomes crucial.

Also take some time to think about who lives in the home (you and your partner, or kids, or pets etc), because this will impact some of the other considerations below.

Image above features the super-chic Los Angeles Coffee Table from BoConcept. Notice now it has storage without feeling bulky? It’s a nice blend of form and function.

chic living room with molmic sofa globewest round marble coffee table and coco republic rug

2. Colour & Style

The coffee table should make sense in the room stylistically. Even if you want it to be a focal point, wow-moment kind of show-stopper, it still has to reflect the style of the space.

For example, you can’t put a marble coffee table with shiny brass legs in a dark industrial living room and expect it to look right at home. You want it to stand out for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

So many experts (I use that term loosely) will advise you to just buy what you love. If you love it, it’ll always work, they say. That, my dear friends, is the worst advice ever. That’s like me loving skinny leg jeans. Cute on the model, but never going to work on this dad bod (PS I have a dad bod and I’m not even a dad. That’s what Covid lockdown has done to me).

So instead of buying what you love, ensure it’s going to work from a colour and style perspective and then fall in love with it.

rectangle oak coffee table with curved edges

Don’t Get Too Stuck on a Theme

You definitely want it to work with the other pieces in the room, but don’t get too pedantic about the style.

For example, if you have a Hamptons vibe at home, you don’t have to Google “Hamptons coffee tables” and shop for the first thing you see in the list. It’s more about the colour working with the rest of the tones in the space.

The same goes for any other interior design style you have going on at home. Don’t feel like the coffee table has to be so on-message, or a cookie cutter in its approach. 

The image above via The Spruce showcases this perfectly. The table is soft and soothing, which is how I would describe the vibe of the room overall. But the table doesn’t feel overly Provincial in its design, it’s more a subtle nod to the style.

ikea stockholm leather sofa in moody urban living room
via ikea

3. Material is Everything

When figuring out how to choose a coffee table, material is everything. It’s going to make or break the room for you day to day. And the material you choose comes down to a few key factors.

Firstly, think about who uses the room. Kids and pets… not so good with glass. Kids who want to draw at the table (or on it!)… not boding well for a marble top. Glass can also show up paw prints and dust quite easily. So maintenance comes into play too.

Have a really good think about what type of person you are and where you sit on the clean-freakiness scale. Do you want to dust every day? Do you mind seeing the occasional scratch in a glass top? Are you happy to keep on top of the kids and the table? It all comes down to an honest assessment of where you’re at in life.

Timber tables are a great option but just be careful with the colour you go for. Black-top coffee tables are very unforgiving when it comes to dust and dirt. You’ll see literally everything, like people’s pores on a HDTV.

sitchu square marble block coffee table in luxe living room

Vary Materials Between Tables in the Room

It’s also wise to vary up the material between coffee tables and side tables. This is a golden rule I abide by in rooms when I’m furnishing them for clients. Not everything has to be so matchy-matchy. A variety of materials/finishes in a room is important.

The same goes for coffee tables and dining tables in open plan living-dining rooms. I like to have all three tables in this space of a similar vibe but definitely not all from the same collection. Think of the tables as sisters, not twins. Maybe even cousins with a strong family resemblance. 

Image above is of the divine Marble Floating Coffee Table from Coco Republic. Notice there’s a lot of white stone in the coffee table, but the side table features a little stone and some black metal legs. This is a winning strategy. 

plush grey recliner sofa marble coffee table from fantastic furniture and diamond rug from the rug collection

4. Choosing a Shape

Shape comes into play as well when it comes to how to choose a coffee table. And to find the right one for you, it again comes down to thinking about how you use the space, and also how large the space is.

If you’re moving in and out of the space a lot, and it’s not a big area, a round or oval table without sharp corners is a wise idea. Bonus points for these shapes if you have kids. Your little one will be far safer with smooth edges.

If your living room is larger and/or you want a more formal, structured look, then a square or rectangle table is going to work well. Although you do need to think about furniture placement around it. An armchair across from your sofa that’s facing the sharp corner of the table is never an ideal option.

If you have a living room setup where there’s a sectional sofa (L-shape) that has an armchair sitting diagonally across from it, then a square table can look odd. A round or oval shape will work better. The image below is a good example of what I mean.

coastal living room with white sofa and round oak coffee table freedom

5. The Right Width

There’s nothing worse than a coffee table that takes up way too much space in the room. You don’t want to feel you have to turn sideways to shuffle past it. But at the same time, you never want to feel the coffee table is miles away from the edge of the sofa (unless it’s decorative, in a formal living room perhaps).

Small coffee tables that float in the middle of the room are one of my top 10 Biggest Living Room Style Mistakes. Hopefully it’s one you can avoid, because you really want the scale of the sofa, coffee table and rug underneath to work in perfect harmony.

As a general rule, I like to give 50cm of space from the front of the sofa to the edge of the coffee table. If the room is quite small, you’d also want 50cm of space from the coffee table edge to the TV unit or adjacent armchair.

The image above via Freedom illustrates the 50cm rule perfectly. You can move around the space nicely and the coffee table doesn’t feel too close or too far away.

andre coffee table from castlery

6. Coffee Tables for Big Rooms

I’ve show you how to style a small living room before, but you might have the rather lucky conundrum of having a really large living room you need to fill. Sometimes, even a large coffee table still feels dwarfed in the space with a tonne of rug still showing on one side of it. So what do you do to correct this?

Consider placing two rectangle coffee tables side-by-side to form one large square. If the tables in question are fairly thin in the leg and don’t feel too dominant, this will create a really chic solution. Glass works well here and it isn’t visually heavy.

Alternatively, two round ottomans sitting neatly beside a rectangle coffee table can help fill the space a bit. This can also feel rather high-end and formal if they’re interesting pouffes that deliver a point of difference.

Last but not least, nest coffee tables are your friend. Two large tables, one tucked slightly under the other, are a godsend for large living rooms. A coffee table with an ottoman nested underneath it is just as good.

Or you could always opt for an interesting option like the Andre Coffee Table from Castlery above.

winter living room decorating with faux fur rug and round black coffee table

7. Avoiding Height Blunders

Last but not least, coffee table height is crucial to get right. The biggest blunder you can ever make with your coffee table is having it sit higher than the seat cushion of your sofa. You always want the coffee table to be at the same height or lower.

In fact, some low coffee tables can look amazing in a room, so don’t be afraid to embrace this as an option. A low, wide coffee table (I’m talking 25cm or less) can look really successful in a large room, especially if there’s a number of books stacked on it, or other decor taking up some visual height on top.

If you’re looking around and struggling to find a low coffee table, consider creating something of your own. Thinking outside the box when it comes to a piece of furniture like this can result in a real talking point for the room. Here’s our list of unique and alternative coffee table ideas.

formal living room styled with provincial furniture and fireplace with round mirror above

8. The Ottoman as a Coffee Table Idea

I want to end this coffee table buying guide with a few words about the ottoman-as-a-coffee-table idea. It’s not a terrible idea at all in the right space. And for those of you who want the versatility to use it as a table at times, and a footstool at other times, it’s genius.

The key to getting this right though, is that the ottoman needs to be in exactly the same material colour as your sofa, or worlds apart. There’s no in-between here. If it’s close but not exact, it’ll look like you made a huge mistake. So either buy the ottoman at the same time as your sofa, or choose a completely different colour. 

The image above via Metricon is a good one to use as an example. Notice how the ottoman colour is exactly the same as the sofas either side of it? They’re not the same style (ottoman is provincial, sofas are more coastal/Hamptons), but they work together seamlessly. 

Has this made how to choose a coffee table any easier? I’m crossing my fingers you feel like a coffee table pro now. But do let me know if anything above didn’t make sense. Drop me a comment below if you need any help.


Chris Carroll

Outside of writing this blog, Chris is an interior designer, presenter and author. He’s also spent time on TV, on Channel 10’s Changing Rooms, as well presenting segments on Channel 7’s Sunrise and The Morning Show. If you’d like to book a design consult with Chris, you can find out more here

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13 Responses

  1. Hi Chris, I recently found your websites and love your articles so much. I have a question that should our coffee table length be 2/3 of our sofa to achieve balance? If my table length is only 1/2 of a sofa, should I add a side table to balance? Thank you for all the tips. I It’s so helpful to make a more beautiful home:)

    1. Hi Kerwin, I would generally want the coffee table more than half the length of the sofa. If you can add a stacking table or foot stool or something that sits under and next to it that might help.

  2. Great post! Lots of useful ideas. I’m struggling with a chocolate brown U shaped sofa. The fabric is heavy, it’s called teddy bear lol. I love round or oblong and have a wood and black metal as other aspects, but for the life of me can’t figure out what will look good for the coffee table. I’m trying to lighten things up a bit.

  3. Hi Chris! I’m struggling in choosing a new coffee table. Can I send a photo of my space for a couple ideas?

  4. Hi i was wondering if you are to please advise where the marble coffee table in the very 1st post was purchased from.

  5. Chris hi very helpful tips as always. I love the coffee table in the last photo and was wondering if you would be happy to share where you purchased it. Thanks Cathy

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I’m interior designer Chris Carroll, and at TLC Interiors we’re all about helping you create an amazing home without breaking the bank. It’s affordable designer style at its best, and we make the whole process easy and fun for clients & readers alike!

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