I was recently browsing through the pages of Vern Yip’s Design Wise—an excellent reference book that I highly recommend. I enjoyed Vern's tips on selecting the right coffee table size for any space, and I thought it would be a great topic to explore further.
So how do you choose the right-sized table? Is there a rule about what size coffee tables go in a room? And what about coffee table placement?
Let’s dive into coffee table dimensions, so you can be sure you get the right table to fit your space.
Photography: Jennifer Lavelle
Why Placement and Coffee Table Size Matter
We've all seen it, whether it was in a friend or relative's home, a magazine, or somewhere on Instagram. The wrong-sized coffee table can wreck a room. I would say that the right coffee table dimensions can be even more critical than most other furniture in a living room (okay, maybe not the sofa).
If the coffee table is too small, it looks almost comical and certainly dysfunctional compared to the room or the surrounding furniture. After all, a coffee table should be a spot where you can spread out magazines, sip your coffee, or even open your laptop should you choose. Depending on the “rules” of your house, maybe the coffee table even doubles as an ottoman, occasionally.
If the table is too large, it can quickly overwhelm a room and make it tough to navigate. No one wants to hit their shins on a coffee table every time they move about the space. Too close to seating and the coffee table becomes a blockade. Too far away from the couch and it becomes purely a decoration instead of a useful furnishing.
It’s the heart of your living space. It’s a spot where you can rotate décor and add personality—change a stack of books, add an interesting objet d’art, or a beautiful bouquet. A coffee table can act as a game table, a work surface, an extra spot for a meal, and serves many other purposes as well.
Moreover, a coffee table provides a focal point and an anchor for the room. Without a coffee table, a room can feel cold, empty, and incomplete. It's an essential piece of functional furniture, and it's crucial that you get the coffee table dimensions right.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
Choosing the Right Coffee Table Size and Shape
If you’re on the hunt for a coffee table, you’ll be amazed at the abundance of options. Should you go round? Rectangular? Square? Should you have two? What size is appropriate for the room? What about style?
First, a note on choosing the right style coffee table—this part is pretty subjective and really depends on your personal taste, the style of your room, and your budget. If you're working with a designer, they will likely suggest the appropriate coffee table size, style, and shape for your situation. If you’re working on your own, there are a few guidelines that can help.
While coffee tables come in all different styles—modern, bohemian, traditional, etc.—there are generally two categories of coffee tables. One style is the more casual coffee table that sits in front of your couch, doubling as a footrest, a place for books, or an occasional work surface. These tables should generally hit no more than two inches below the surrounding seating—meaning, they can be level with the couch cushions or slightly lower. Choosing a coffee table at this height will feel appropriate for the room and will be functional. Coffee tables usually fall in the 15-18-inch-tall range to meet this height.
A more formal coffee table for actual coffee or tea should be taller. If you lean toward more traditional décor, a taller table could be more fitting. These classic coffee tables sit 3-6 inches above the other seating in the room for easier beverage service. Look for coffee tables in the 20-24-inch range if you plan to use them for serving food or drink.
If you plan to use your coffee table for eating and drinking, you’ll want to keep that in mind when you decide on the style. Look for something with a surface that can hold up to heat, moisture, and use. A coffee table is functional, not only decorative, so you'll want to look for a solid piece that will work for regular use. A fabric-covered coffee table functions more as an ottoman (unless of course you use a tray to create a hard surface).
As for shape? You can decide what fits best with your personal style and your room. A narrow room will work better with oval or rectangular shapes. A square room will work best with square or circular tables. You want to look for a table with at least an 18-inch depth; otherwise, the table will feel too narrow and won't be useful. A rectangular or oval table should typically be no more than 28-inches deep, whereas a round coffee table might be up to 48-inches in diameter (most fall between 36-42 inches).
A round or oval coffee table will often be a little more playful and less formal. If you have kids, it's also good to consider the lack of sharp corners. There are interesting organic shapes that can also add an eye-catching, sculptural look to a room.
On the other hand, a square or rectangular coffee table can sometimes feel a bit more formal. I like the look of paring two square tables together, provided they fit the dimensions of your sofa. It can give you a little more room and feel particularly appropriate in a larger space.
Selecting the Right Placement for Your Coffee Table
Now that you've got the height, style, and shape of your ideal coffee table in mind, the big question is placement. Of course, the placement of your coffee table will determine how large you want to go. The main question is always the size of the coffee table to couch, although the size of the room is also essential.
Coming back to Vern's reference book, the distance between the coffee table and surrounding seating needs to be comfortable enough for people to move around, but close enough that people can still reach the table easily (especially for food or drink). The clearance between your coffee table and surrounding seating should be between 2-3 feet. Too much space and people will feel awkward reaching the table. Too little space and it will feel crowded.
Ideally, a coffee table should be about two-thirds the length of your sofa. It should never be larger than the sofa, or the room may appear unbalanced. You also don't want to go smaller than half the sofa's length, or the table will feel out-of-place. For a sectional, a round or oval coffee table can work well, provided it fits the dimensions of both sides (sitting about 1/3 of the length in from the edge of the sofa).
Use the following guidelines for determining the coffee table size relative to couch dimensions.
· 9–10-foot sofa: 72–80-inch coffee table
· 8-foot sofa: 64-inch coffee table
· 7-foot sofa: 56-inch coffee table
· 6-foot sofa: 48-inch coffee table or 36–48-inch diameter round
A Note on Side and Accent Tables
When you’ve decided on a coffee table, you may be wondering if you should go with matching accessory tables, look for complementary pieces, or if they’re even necessary at all. Once again, it’s very dependent upon the size and layout of your room. You want to choose tables and other decorative items that look appropriate for the space and complement the other furniture pieces.
If you go with matching accessory tables, your room will appear more traditional. Complementary but different tables can feel a little lighter and more whimsical. Don't feel like you need to match all the wood tones or select a perfectly matching living room "set." In the majority of cases, it's FAR more interesting to choose pieces that blend together rather than look exactly the same.
As a guideline, you'll want side tables to hit at the arm of a couch or chair. They shouldn't be more than four inches above or two inches below the arm. Your furniture should also have a little "breathing room." Leave a few inches between the edge of an accent table and the seating next to it.
If you’re struggling to figure out what plays well together in a room, you can use a number of different computer programs or apps to place furniture and experiment. Still need extra help in creating a well-balanced living space? Reach out to see if our WxD design services are a good fit for you.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
Finding the Perfect Coffee Table
Once you've done the math to select the right size coffee table for your room, the fun part begins. Look for interesting coffee tables; you may want to explore antique stores and estate sales, in addition to design houses. One nice aspect of shopping for a coffee table is that it's not such a large piece that it's difficult to ship.
When you know the right parameters, you'll be able to find a beautiful coffee table that complements the flow of your living room, fits the dimensions, and functions for your needs. A coffee table can really be a fantastic investment and a great functional anchor to your space.
Are you partial to one coffee table shape over another? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!