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Coffee tables, also known as cocktail tables, are pieces of furniture intended to be placed in front of a sofa or couch. Since the living room or family room is typically a place to relax and entertain family and friends, you want to make the room as comfortable and welcoming as possible. A well-chosen coffee table not only warms up the décor, it also makes the room more functional. After all, what would movie night be like if you had no place to put the remote or a bowl of chips? Because they are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, materials and styles, picking the right coffee table can be overwhelming. A few basic guidelines will help you to decide which one will best suit your home.

Before You Begin

  • Decide where the coffee table will go, then take measurements and write them down. It will give you an idea of how much space you have to work with.

  • The coffee table should be purchased with the sofa in mind. To give the room a balanced look, the table should be two-thirds the length of the couch's actual seating area (arms not included).

  • Make a budget. Setting limits can be a useful tool to keep you on track, especially when furnishing an entire room.

  • Who will be predominately using the room, children or adults? If you have young ones, consider purchasing a coffee table with rounded corners or a round coffee table.

  • When decorating a smaller room, select a coffee table in a lighter finish. Lighter colors tend to make the space appear larger. Choosing a coffee table with a glass or mirror top will also make the room seem bigger.

Choose a Style

Even if you don't know how to put it into words, you will have a general idea of the style of furnishings that you like. It's a matter of personal taste and choice and there's no right or wrong. If you want your living room to have a casual, relaxed feel, choose contemporary, modern, country or eclectic style furniture. Select furnishings in a transitional or traditional style, if you want your home to have a more formal appearance.

Traditional style is a reflection of historical periods and past trends. It possesses a formal and stately air, characterized by elaborate decorative and architectural detail such as moldings, turned spindles, cabriole legs and intricate brass drawer pulls. A traditional coffee table will have a sense of classic grandeur, with a rich, lustrous finish and beautifully flowing lines.

Transitional furniture blends elements of traditional and contemporary styles together for a slightly relaxed appearance while retaining the more formal feel of classic furnishings. Lines and forms tend to be simple yet sophisticated; wood finishes are lustrous, in medium to dark finishes. Transitional pieces are typically of a moderate scale, ideal for more urban environments like lofts, condos and apartments. Transitional style uses contrast to create designs that are both functional and comfortable.

Contemporary style focuses on function and form rather than ornamentation so pieces have clean lines, geometric shapes softened by rounded corners and decorative detail is kept simple. Contemporary furniture is commonly constructed of lighter woods with light wood finishes and medium wood finishes. A sub style of contemporary and designed specifically for apartment living, urban furniture is minimalist in feel and smaller in scale.

Reflecting new technologies, materials and philosophies of the Machine Age, modern design emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Modern furniture is geometric or asymmetrical. Like contemporary style, modern emphasizes form and function, but unlike contemporary, modern tends to have no ornamentation or if there is decorative detail, it is lean and spare. Surfaces are sleek and polished; chrome and glass are common construction materials. Contemporary and modern are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinctive styles. While both contemporary and modern emphasize geometric form and minimal detail, contemporary furnishings reflect current, ongoing trends, whereas modern furniture is an expression of a particular time and architectural movement.

Country furniture grew out of traditional conventions and depicts the social customs and philosophies of its region of origin. As colonists adapted old world cabinetry techniques to their new surroundings, Colonial furniture used lighter finishes, while decorative detail became less formal and more relaxed. A country style coffee table is usually constructed of wood and can have milk-painted finishes, stenciled decorative detail and hand-carved insets.

Eclectic style is just what it sounds like, and is as individual as the person doing the decorating. It utilizes a variety of different design and style elements. Since eclectic style is a mix of historical periods and trends, you can pair a contemporary coffee table with a traditional couch or armchair. When decorating eclectically, the room takes on a layered look, because textures and patterns are blended into one unique look that varies from one area of the house to another.

Choose a Material

When choosing a material for your coffee table, don't forget the tabletop. Many manufacturers offer stylish coffee tables with distinctive tops made from a variety of materials including stone, glass and leather. Putting a coffee table in a living room or family room that has a stone or glass top adds texture to the room, while creating visual interest.

Wood coffee tables are the most popular choice for both modern and traditional interiors. Take your pick from real woods or durable wood veneers. Wood finishes range from maple to oak to deep espresso making it easy to find the right shade for your living room design.

Metal coffee tables can be fashioned out of iron, steel aluminum or other alloys. Most coffee tables made of metal typically have glass tops or a combination of wood and glass. Coffee tables made from metal and glass are a popular choice because they have a contemporary appeal, while being durable and easy to clean.

Glass is a popular material for the tops of many types of coffee tables. To make the table safer, especially if you have children, choose a coffee table with tempered glass rather than regular glass. Tempered glass is made by either treating it with heat or with a chemical solution, which makes it stronger than regular or annealed glass. It is designed to break into small fragments rather than large shards, like untreated glass.

Stone, including marble and slate, can be used as the top of a coffee table or as decorative accents. When stone is used in coffee table construction, it can be made from one continuous piece or from veneers. A marble or slate veneer is produced by adhering thin slices of real stone to the surface of the furniture piece, usually made from an engineered wood like plywood or MDF.

As a material choice for coffee table tops, leather is gaining in popularity, because of its chic look and contemporary feel. Leather is made from animal hides and skins that have been tanned, and it comes in a variety of types and grades. A coffee table with a leather top can be button-tufted or have contrast stitching.

Choose a Type

To get the most out of your coffee table, purchase one that will match both your décor and your lifestyle. First, identify the living room's primary focus: do you entertain frequently or do you kick back with your favorite program? Since there are so many different types and styles to choose from, select a coffee table that will make your room more functional, while giving your décor a fresh new look at the same time.

Tray Top Coffee Tables

Especially if you are in the habit of entertaining, a tray top coffee table would be an ideal addition to your living room or family room. A tray top coffee table, as its name implies, consists of a top made of one or more removable trays. This type of table is extremely versatile and makes bringing food and beverages to and from the kitchen easy and convenient. And it really makes hosting a cocktail party a  breeze if you can just pick up the tray and pass around the hors d'oeuvres.

Lift Top Coffee Tables

A lift top coffee table looks like a regular coffee table, but typically has a mechanism that raises the top of the table from cocktail to dining table height. This makes eating in front of the TV or snacking when entertaining guests much easier, eliminating the need to lean over. When it's no longer needed, it can be lowered to its coffee table height. A lift top coffee table also comes in handy when you want to catch up on work you brought home from the office or play games with the kids.

Storage Coffee Tables

If you do seem to be constantly tidying things away especially when people drop over, perhaps a coffee table that provides hidden storage would be the best choice. Storage coffee tables lend a living room or family room organization. Choosing a storage coffee table for a smaller-sized space is a smart way to increase the room's functionality. Storage coffee tables can include a number of storage options including drawers, baskets, cubbies and racks for newspapers or magazines. A storage coffee table can really help to keep your living space tidy and clutter-free.

Ottoman Coffee Tables

Ottoman coffee tables are great when furnishing a room that will be used by both children and adults, since they typically have a round shape or rounded corners that make them child-friendly. Using an ottoman as a coffee or cocktail table has become more and more popular because of their flat table-like top, making it a great place to put a tray, a pile of magazines or the remote. Some manufacturers produce round or square coffee tables that incorporate individual ottoman seating, which can be used around the table or moved around the room wherever needed. This biggest advantage of using an ottoman as a coffee table is it's flexibility; it can be used as extra seating when it isn't being used as a coffee table.