The Defining Coffee Table
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
Imagine a completely empty room. A blank canvas. Imagine this is your living room and the first piece of furniture you add is a coffee table. You choose one that defines the style you want the room to be. What does it look like? Stained wood with simple legs or stone with elaborate carvings? Glass with curvy iron? Is it hefty and rectangular or graceful and oval? Is it a table or is it a trunk, an ottoman, a rain drum, or a wine crate? Is it modern, rustic, quirky, retro, or Victorian?
For those who already have a coffee table or even a completely furnished room, keep reading. You might want to do some tweaking by the time you finish.
Think of your coffee table as a necklace on the “little black dress”. A string of pearls conveys a formal and classic look. A silver chain is more casual and turquoise beads are artsy. Or think of a tie on a white shirt. Pink silk exudes confidence and elegance. Blue and gold stripes reflect a traditional man (or a CAL Bears alum). A coffee table can set the stage of a whole room or be the final accessory that gives it personality.
If you chose a table made of acrylic, chrome, glass, or natural maple, you may be an Art Deco or Mid-Century (aka the 1950s) fan. Or, you may have an urban, edgy, rock ‘n roll sense of style. If you chose the polar opposite such as a slab of slate or planks of wood, you may be an Arts and Crafts or mountain lodge enthusiast.
Somewhere between these retro and rustic styles lies a myriad of other tables. A Mediterranean table might be carved wood, stone, or forged iron. A tropical table might be bamboo. Period tables such as Queen Anne, Victorian, and all the French Louises have distinct shapes and crafted with materials that were popular during those periods. If you’re interested in authentically traditional styles, peruse architectural interior design books to see illustrations of their characteristics.
Whether you’re starting from scratch or missing some pizzazz in your current furnishings, here are a few pointers when shopping for a new coffee table:
1) Analyze the visual weight of your space. Does it consist mainly of pastel colors and need some “oomph” or grounding? A dark or heavy table may be the solution. Or is the opposite true? In that case, the airiness of glass, cane, or acrylic will lighten the space.
2) The scale and relationship of furniture to one another is commonly overlooked. Some tables pale by comparison and look like postage stamps. Others overwhelm a room like a giant elephant. Proportion matters!
3) Consider the pattern of any rug that a table may sit on. Is there a center medallion you want to feature or cover?
4) When in doubt, an Asian style table works in almost all décors and adds a lot of personality. Some are lacquered black or red and have short, concave curved legs. Others are simple and made of exotic wood, cane or bamboo. The right Asian table suits styles from Country French to ultra mod.
Leather ottomans and tribal rug-covered benches add interesting twists to an otherwise traditional design.
Hidden treasures eager to become novelty tables can be discovered in Parisian flea markets, Middle Eastern bazaars, and east coast tag sales. Or Pier 1 Imports. Whether browsing near or far, look with eyes opened wider and with a broader scope of possibilities.
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