August 12, 2022

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The Effortless Way to Style a Coffee Table

6 min read
The Effortless Way to Style a Coffee Table

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A coffee table isn’t just a place for your guests to set down their drinks.

“The coffee table is often the centerpiece of the room,” said Dan Mazzarini, a partner at the New York-based interior design and styling firm BHDM. It will attract attention whether you want it to or not. So don’t overlook its decorative potential.

“In the same way that walls feel empty without art, coffee tables feel empty without anything on them,” said Anna Baraness, a founder of Studio AK, an interior design firm in New York. “When you walk into a home with a nicely styled coffee table, it feels complete and really works as part of the bigger picture.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that cluttered is better than bare. Your coffee table shouldn’t be a dumping ground for remote controls, mail and anything else that doesn’t have a home. Interior designers and home stagers manage to strike a balance between decoration and function, styling coffee tables in a way that feels almost effortless. How exactly do they do it? We asked for some advice.

When you’re adding accessories to a coffee table, “it’s important to have different heights,” said Leia T. Ward, the founder of LTW Design, an interior design and staging firm in Ridgefield, Conn. “That brings the eye in and creates interest.”

To ensure some variation is present, “we always start with the tallest item,” Ms. Ward said, “which, if not a big sculpture, tends to be a tall vase or a medium-size vase with oversized branches.”

Mr. Mazzarini considers how a viewer’s eye will move among the various objects. “Some people think of it as a still life, but I think of it more as typography,” he said. “I think about things undulating up and down, and creating islands of objets where the eye can rest.”

They’re called coffee-table books for a reason: Large, lavishly illustrated books are designed to be left on display, where they encourage casual reading.

All the designers interviewed for this article agreed that books shouldn’t be chosen solely for their cover art. Instead, they should reflect your personal interests — favorite places, activities, artists, designers — both for your own enjoyment and to share your passions with guests.

If your table is small or you’re aiming for a minimalist look, you might put out one or two books. On a larger table or in a room with a maximalist design, many designers will create a few low stacks, “with the biggest on the bottom and smallest on top, like a pyramid,” Mr. Mazzarini said.

For each stack, “two books are great, and three books are fine,” he said, but he advised against going much higher. Frequently, he uses those stacks as pedestals to elevate bowls, vases or other sculptural objects. And he often removes the dust jackets to expose the more textured covers underneath.

Don’t ignore the photos on the inside pages of books, either, said Meridith Baer, a home stager and interior designer in Los Angeles. “I usually put whatever books I’m enjoying the most on the table,” she said. “Sometimes, there’ll be a particular image I love so much I’ll leave the book open to that page, so every time I walk by I get to see it again. It’s almost like I have another painting in the room.”

The coffee table is a good place to display sculptural objects — whether fine art or utilitarian bowls, vases, bottles or candleholders with unusual shapes and appealing textures.

Studio AK has adorned coffee tables with organically shaped bowls and faceted vases. BHDM has deployed wooden eggs and woven baskets. LTW Design has laid out chunky, beaded necklaces and carved wooden chains.

The best choices, however, are pieces that mean something to you personally.

“A coffee table represents who you are as a host and a homeowner,” said Jonathan Rachman, an interior designer based in San Francisco, whose book, “Currently Classic,” will be published in September. “Your style, your spirit, your story.”

It’s a chance to display a tasteful travel souvenir, like a paperweight or small dish, a ceramic vessel made by an artisan, seashells collected on the beach or a prized find from a tag sale — almost anything that could serve as a conversation starter.

You want decorative accessories on a coffee table to visually pop, so choose objects with colors and materials that won’t blend in.

“If my coffee table is, say, made out of glass and metal, I’d bring in the opposite to complement it, like wood or porcelain, for contrast,” Mr. Rachman said. “Or if my coffee table is, say, a tufted oval ottoman, I’d bring in a metal like brass.”

Studio AK uses darker accessories, like black trays and candleholders, on light tabletops, and vice versa. “Having high contrast is very important to us,” said Kristin Tarsi, a founder of the firm. “We want to see variation, interesting textures, and the light and the dark.”

Coffee table accessories also offer a low-risk way to experiment with color, Mr. Mazzarini said, similar to throw pillows. Try putting out a large book with a bright red cover, and if the look isn’t what you hoped for, you can pick it up and put it away.

“No coffee table is complete without flowers,” Mr. Rachman said. “You always want something organic, something natural.”

Formal rooms might call for a traditional arrangement, he said, but in casual spaces he often uses an approach he calls “chop and drop” — a bunch of one type of flower, perhaps hydrangeas or calla lilies, plunked in a vase.

But flowers aren’t the only organic option. A potted plant, a bowl of succulents, a large-scale tropical leaf or branches snipped from a tree can all bring nature indoors and warm up a table. Ms. Ward sometimes fills bowls with hunks of moss-laden earth for a burst of green.

Beyond looking beautiful, your coffee table has several jobs to perform: It’s a surface that needs to catch hot coffee, icy cocktails, snack platters, remote controls, laptops and maybe even bare feet. That’s why it’s important to leave at least some of the space open for things to come and go.

“Our rule of thumb is to have about 40 percent of the tabletop covered” with accessories, Ms. Tarsi said, leaving the rest unoccupied.

She also likes to include an impervious tray on a coffee table to contain smaller objects like remote controls and coasters, and to serve as a surface for water-filled vases, which can leave marks on wooden tables.

A decorative box or a broad bowl could serve the same purpose, Mr. Mazzarini said, by providing an easy, attractive place to stow smaller things at the end of the day.

Unlike big pieces of furniture that you move into a room and leave in the same place, coffee table accessories can change with the seasons or when you discover new books and tabletop objects.

“It can be fluid,” said Ms. Baer, who routinely changes the accessories on her coffee table to display the things she finds most captivating at any given moment. “I inherited an art-glass collection from my mother, and for a while I had the whole collection on the table, organized by height and color. I really enjoyed that for a while, and then I thought: OK, been there, done that.”

Ideally, she said, you’ll find pleasure in composing different coffee table vignettes. “If you love design,” she said, “you can just keep things moving all the time, and enjoy it.”

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