Knowing what coffee table to get for a given space isn’t an exact science. According to interior designer Ellie Christopher, it’s more of an art. There’s no equation to lead you to a perfectly perfect coffee table, she says, and there could be many right answers to your coffee table hunt. However, there is certainly a wrong answer: A too-small coffee table is a major home decorating woe. 

If your coffee table isn’t big enough to suit your room, guests are sure to notice the lack of space to support everyone’s drinks in addition to decor, and in some homes, the feet of those lounging on the adjacent sofa. In addition to underwhelming functionality, Christopher says that a tiny table will look out of place and throw the seating area out of balance. 

“The standard sofa is about eight feet long. If you had a coffee table, that’s 24×24 inches, that’s going to look silly,” she says. “It’s like being overdressed. You’d rather be overdressed to a party than underdressed. For a coffee table, you’d rather be a little bit too big than too small.”

When in doubt, an oversized coffee table is preferable over an undersized one, Christopher adds. Be careful not to go too big or your coffee table may become an off-scale island anchoring your room.

To avoid doubt in the first place, we’ve rounded up expert answers to common coffee table questions. Here’s what to know when shopping for a Goldilocks-approved coffee table: One that’s not too small or too big, but just right.

What size should my coffee table be?

To determine the ideal size coffee table your room requires, Christopher recommends going by a rule of two-thirds. This means that in many cases, the ideal coffee table will be two-thirds the length of the adjacent sofa. And, if you’ve got chairs flanking the sides of the coffee table, the width of the table should also be about two thirds the width of the chairs.

How tall should my coffee table be?

“I would never want the coffee table to be higher than the seat height of your sofa,” Christopher says. “As Americans, we like to kick back and put our feet up on the coffee table to relax, so ergonomically you don’t want it higher than your seat because that’s just not a comfortable position to be in.” 

Typically, sofas and seats will be about 17- to 18-inches tall, so your coffee table should be about the same or slightly shorter. There is, however, an exception to this rule. Christopher points to formal and antique coffee tables that don’t share the same function as the kind someone will be putting their feet or drinks on.

“Some older coffee tables that are French and frilly have those tall, pretty legs. In a formal space, you’re definitely not going to be putting your feet on those. They are just there to look nice,” Christopher explains. “If you’re going to have a taller coffee table, I would recommend also having side chairs or a sofa with a taller back to help balance out the height.”

Ellie Christopher


What shape coffee table should I get?

“I love to switch things up when it comes to a coffee table because most of the time, upholstery is some form of a square or rectangle,” says Christopher. “I would highly recommend using something that’s not a rectangle, just to give your eyes something different to look at.”

To pleasantly contrast with rectangular furniture, Christopher will use a circle or oval coffee table, but for rounded or ornate furniture, she suggests choosing a more angular, geometric one.

Where should I put my coffee table?

Now that you’ve unlocked your perfect coffee table, there’s the matter of where to put it. Arranging a coffee table correctly is important as having it too far or too close to seating can defeat the purpose. 

Christopher advises that the standard distance is 18- to 24-inches away from the sofa or chair. However, there’s some wiggle room to this guidance depending on the needs of your space. 

“It really depends on the scale of the room. For example, if you have a larger space, then you can have several drink tables closer to the upholstery and have the coffee table placed farther away,” says Christopher. “Then, you can also have more decorative objects on the coffee table. Instead of using it as the surface for drinks, your feet, or stuff like that, it can just be more of a surface for vases and coffee table books.”

How can I decorate my coffee table?

If your coffee table is an ottoman, start with a tray to stabilize decor and drinks. From there, coffee table books, vases, and decorative bowls and boxes are all Christopher’s go-to adornments for coffee tables. She also recommends incorporating flowers, a sweet-smelling candle or two, and personal trinkets and souvenirs. When entertaining, a bowl for cheese straws or candy can be cleverly placed on the coffee table, too. 

When arranging tabletop decor, follow the rule of three. Christopher lets us in on a trade secret that arranging in odd numbers is many designers’ trick to artful design.

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