Fanciful, Functional Coffee Tables
by Meridith Ingram
“This is a story that must be told,” implored Cosmo Kramer to his friends on “Seinfeld,” the hit television show that embodied the zeitgeist of the 1990s. Kramer, known for his wild hair, goofy entrances and myriad quirks, was referring to one of his most memorable and brilliant schemes: a coffee table book about coffee tables. The “story that must be told” was about celebrities and their coffee tables, the makings of the ultimate coffee table book—a book with actual legs, even, and a coaster on the cover. It was genius, he insisted to dubious friends and eventual publishers. A coffee table book about coffee tables!
Indeed, this oft-neglected, sometimes abused piece of furniture deserves the limelight that the beloved Kramer hoped to bestow upon it. Part workhorse, part pièce-de-résistance, this humble furnishing is asked to do so much in our busy households. Originally designed in the Middle East to…yep, you guessed it… serve coffee, the coffee table has evolved into a spot to place your drink, rest your feet after a long day, display your favorite coffee table books and collectibles, and sometimes even store items out of sight. Talk about multitasking: This piece should fit right in your busy home— literally and figuratively!
In today’s abundant design market, savvy homeowners are able to use this humble piece of furniture to jazz up their living spaces.
“Talk about being ‘eclectic’ or diverse!” remarks Cindi Walton of Lynchburg’s Complements Interiors about the selection of coffee tables available to consumers. “Present-day coffee tables offer a huge variety of styles, materials, shapes and price points,” she says, explaining that the biggest change in coffee tables in the past few seasons is the vast variety of materials from which coffee tables are made. “There is truly something for everyone,” she says—including mirrored and Lucite tables in addition to the more traditional wood, or wood combined with other materials like glass and iron. She and the Complements staff agree that the coffee table has become quite the accessory for any room—and can even be the star of the show.
“The cocktail ottoman still remains popular and doubles as an ottoman or a table when a pretty tray is added,” says Walton. “These are best for a living room, library or sitting room, and fabric, especially leather, or a combination of fabrics adds a lot of interest to your space,” she says.
Linda Edwards, of Interiors by Decorating Den, also sings the praises of the ottoman-as-coffee table: She points out that this versatile piece can provide extra seating, and can easily be moved around the room. She also says cocktail ottomans work well when they are upholstered in family- and pet-friendly fabrics like microfiber.
Heather Kinder, owner of “a little french” agrees that ottomans are still hot, but cautions that while attractive and comfortable, “they may not be as functional as you think if you have children.” A place to prop your feet and place your drink may be a genius notion, but is not practical in all households.
Another popular trend that Edwards noticed at the High Point Furniture Market—where designers scope out the latest in furniture and home decorating trends—is the use of stiletto legs on coffee tables. She points out that interior design often follows current fashion trends, and using this type of leg lends a whole new level of chic to home decorating. “The look is more and more transitional, blending traditional with contemporary,” says Edwards. Another popular trend to embrace a more modern, current look to a traditional setting is the use of silver finish.
Experts agree that using smaller tables in pairs is also a hot trend in decorating your living space. “In some homes, rather than have one big table, we’ll suggest using two smaller tables, such as upholstered cubes,” says Kinder. This offers homeowners the versatility of using the cubes as side tables or extra seating while entertaining, she notes
Incorporating a New Look
Michael Pace, owner of Steger Creek, with locations in Lynchburg and Roanoke, says that many of his customers visit Steger Creek looking for something to update their living space without having to splurge on a new, big-ticket sofa or other high-dollar piece of furniture. Coffee tables are the perfect solution to add something new and fresh to a space. “We help our customers find that unique, one-of-a-kind piece,” he says, noting that Steger Creek can also help customers commission custom pieces for a coffee table that is truly unlike any other. When choosing a new coffee table, homeowners should think outside the box, for gone are the days where everything in a room is supposed to match. “It used to be that we never mixed wood finishes,” says Edwards, “but in today’s interiors, mixing wood finishes creates beautiful contrasts and adds to the professionally decorated look.” She cautions, however, that you need to be careful that the pieces you choose complement, rather than compete with, other elements in the room. An example she offers: “A painted piece, or some iron and glass can make a beautiful statement in contrast to wood.”
Kinder says that if a room is already full of big upholstered pieces and heavy wood, she and her colleagues might suggest lightening the space up with a unique coffee table, maybe introducing something a little more open or rustic. Her shop, “a little french” carries a line of tables fabricated out of iron gates from South America and topped with glass. The iron comes in many finishes like verdigris, copper, bronze, off-white and more—adding a pop of interest and a conversation piece to boot.
Choosing the Right Size
When choosing a coffee table for your living space, you obviously have to consider the other pieces of furniture around it. There are no hard-and-fast standard heights for coffee tables, though most run between 18 and 22 inches. Modern looks, however, that often go for the extreme, can feature coffee tables as low as 11 inches. Generally speaking, says Edwards, the table should be no higher than the seat height of the piece it will sit in front of. But, as Edwards notes, “every ‘design rule of thumb’ is made to be broken” so the choice is really individual. When in doubt, consult a professional. “Furniture showrooms are huge spaces. A piece that looks good there will likely overwhelm a room in a residence,” explains Edwards. “Working with a professional who will do scaled drawings of the space can assure that furniture pieces will fit and will accommodate traffic patterns.”
When distancing the table from the couch, Edwards suggests leaving between 12 and 18 inches between sofas or chairs—but even this can be tricky. Kinder suggests that using a rustic, skinny farmhouse bench as a coffee table when space is tight can be a good look for some spaces.
Bedecking Your Table
If your coffee table has the luxury of bearing treasures, not toddlers, you can really have some fun accessorizing it. “Accessorizing is the most fun part, the jewelry of design!” says Edwards. She calls this tablescaping, and likes to incorporate beautiful boxes, old books, or accessories that accent the style and colors of the room in her designs. She explains that when adorning your coffee table, the same principles apply as those for floral design: incorporating objects on three levels. She suggests using one dominant object, with others in supporting roles. “Either use one single, very special piece, or use odd numbers, which are more visually appealing,” she says. She also notes that a pair of candlesticks, often used on coffee tables, count as one object in this equation. With all the design market has to offer, perhaps it’s time to dust off that scuffed wooden coffee table and consider freshening up your space without the price tag of a complete room makeover. Put out your favorite coffee table books, neatly stack those magazines (including this copy of Central Virginia HOME), rest your cup of coffee and give this sturdy piece of furniture the attention it deserves!