Wondering how to decorate a coffee table? You may have already learned that figuring out exactly what to put on your table is tougher than it looks. For one, it sits smack in the middle of the room, which means it’s on full view—so allowing this spot to become a repository for newspapers, junk mail, and the dog’s leash makes your whole living room look like a mess.
Style a coffee table right, though, and it can be a real statement piece. “Make it personal, because this space actually says a lot about the type of person you are,” says Anna Brockway, co-founder of furniture design site Chairish.
So what should you place on your coffee table? “I don’t believe in ‘shoulds’ here, just pick a few things for your coffee table that bring you joy and please the senses,” states Julie Coraccio, the organizing voice at Reawaken Your Brilliance.
To help, here are nine style tips that’ll help you achieve coffee table nirvana.
1. Consider your lifestyle
First off, consider your home life before attempting to declutter and then style this piece. If you have an energetic Border Collie who likes to herd your twin toddlers at top speed through the living room, an orchid and a glass bowl aren’t going to survive.
2. Think seasonally
Let the weather be your guide. “Swap decor items seasonally, with a bowl of gourds in autumn, a large shell in the summer and springtime flowers when they’re in bloom,” suggests Jamie Novak, author of “Keep This Toss That.” Holidays are another easy theme to hit on the coffee table (mini pumpkins around Halloween and a basket of shiny ornaments at Christmas). “And try to incorporate a conversation starter or a small game that can be picked up and played with,” she says.
3. Aim for balance
Look to your surroundings for style hints, contrasting heavy, dark furniture with an airy tableau or white couches with a more grounded look, explains Novak. Strive for an odd number of items (a book, a vase of flowers, a small piece of art) as this arrangement is visually interesting, without looking cluttered.
And remember to add height as part of your design—a flat look is boring. “Three levels are ideal, with 3 to 5 inches of variation between each,” notes Novak. You can stack books to reach the height you want, but know that more items can end up messy. Some designers think coffee table books are too cliche. But others feel a well-balanced, beautiful look combines something boxy (like books or a tray), something sculptural (bowl, a statuette) and an item with height, like flowers or candlesticks.
4. Add souvenirs from your travels
A souvenir brought back from an exotic locale is an ideal coffee table addition. One look at your coffee table can tell a visitor where you’ve been—and serve as an instant conversation starter.
5. Leave negative space
If you have the real estate, just decorate half of your coffee table, suggests Novak, as you’ll reduce the risk of clutter on top and you’ll gain room for function (cocktails!). And try to keep your look on the spare side. “It’s your home, not an accessories store—and the vignette will feel curated and elevated if there’s negative space around each item,” says Brockway.
6. Corral items with a tray
Jump on the tray theme and use one to keep small items in order. You can match the tray to your coffee table or add a contrasting pop of color. Lucite or acrylic are easy-care and wipe clean. Edit your look frequently, even weekly, and don’t be afraid to change things up. “You’ll be spending a lot of time looking at this area, so make it inspiring,” says Brockway.
7. Keep it fresh
No droopy plants or flowers sitting in dirty water, please. And while faux plants are fine if you’ve got kids who might topple them, the real deal is better. Keep your candles tidy, too. “Nothing is more depressing than a dusty, half-used candle or hardened wax on your tray or table,” points out Brockway. Buy a silver topper to cover the candle when not in use and take a blow dryer to the wax spots to soften and then wipe them away.
8. Make books the star
Art books are a natural coffee table solution, as they’re easy to stack and straighten. You might also open one to display an interesting page.
9. Banish paperwork (and feet!)
What shouldn’t go on this table? Anything valuable, of course, lest it break, and no magazines (they’ll slide off and can look cluttered). Nix old mail, the kids’ homework—and people’s feet, too (a coffee table isn’t a footrest). “If your family likes to prop up their feet, replace this piece with an ottoman,” says Brockway.
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