The Truth about Coffee Tables and Why You Need One

coffee table in living roomWe’re always getting questions about home decorating, but one of the most common goes like this: do you need a coffee table?

Ask any interior designer and they’ll tell you, function trumps form in every case. Why create a beautiful room if you’ll never use it? That’s why it’s so important to establish how you’ll use a space before you start shopping. For your living room, you’ll likely be watching television, hosting friends, and relaxing with family. It’s a room meant to be comfortable.

Enter the coffee table. After your seating, it’s the most important piece in your living room because it holds drinks, your remote, reading material, and is a place to put up your feet. Every living room needs a coffee table, and we’re here to walk you through what you should consider before selecting one.

coffee table sizing1. Coffee Table Size

We always use our Room Planner tool to layout a space before shopping, and if you’re furnishing your living room, you should start here. Your coffee table should be between 14-18 inches from any seating clustered around it, and definitely no more than 24 inches. So if you’ve laid out your floorplan, you should be able to see how large a coffee table you’ll need.

For very large living rooms, consider using two coffee tables next to each other. Or if your living room isn’t a pass through, you can go even larger.

2. Consider the Shape

Different spaces and layouts call for different shapes, but here’s something to think about. For a layout that’s more closed off, square or rectangular works perfectly.

If your living room is a pass through, and you’ll frequently be walking around the coffee table, round works well.

Aesthetically, we like to balance round and square shapes in a space, so if most of your furniture pieces are square (think a sofa with tuxedo arms, square fireplace, and square side tables), a round table adds balance. Alternatively, if you have curvy arms on your furniture, a big round mirror, and round side tables, a square or rectangular side table works beautifully. It’s all about balance.

coffee table room completion3. Finish the Room

No room should use the same finish on every surface, so just like with shape, a coffee table can be a way to bring something new into your space. If you have a nubby fabric on your couch or more rustic elements, a glossy or shiny table will contrast that rough texture. Or if you’ll be using your living room for TV watching, choose a finish that you won’t mind putting your feet on, like a slightly weathered wood or an upholstered ottoman.

coffee table styling4. Styling Your Coffee Table

Once you’ve picked out your coffee table, consider accessories. For a family room where you’re watching TV, you’ll probably want to leave plenty of space for propping up feet and placing drinks. A table with a lower shelf works great in these spaces because you can place books and trays underneath, leaving plenty of room on top.

coffee table styling
Keep all accessories low, since you want to be able to see over the top of them. Anything too tall will block your line of vision.

Add essentials: reading material, a tissue box, coasters, a box for remotes, a candle, matchbooks, or anything else you’ll use frequently can be displayed.

Our Complete Styling Guide to Coffee Tables, Consoles, and Bookshelves

coffee table ottoman

5. Ottomans and Clusters

Now, not every living room has to have a “coffee table” — in other words, you can use an ottoman, pouf, or a cluster of smaller side tables in certain instances. Here are 10 rooms that don’t have coffee tables. The important thing is that you have something in this space for function — an ottoman, two or three side tables grouped together, or a taller cocktail height table can all work depending on how you’ll use your seating area.

coffee table with sectional6. Coffee Tables and Sectionals

If you have a sectional, you may approach your coffee table a bit differently. Many sectionals have a chaise on one or both ends, so you probably won’t be putting your feet on the table. This gives you more opportunity to use glass or metal tables. You can also go a bit smaller here because they’ll be less foot traffic and less entertaining.

We talked shape above, and here’s an occasion when a round coffee table really works. The square edge of the sectional can make a living room feel boxy, so we like adding in a round piece here.

How to Match a Coffee Table to Your Sectional

coffee table in living room
We’re always getting questions about coffee tables, so hopefully we’ve answered them all here. To shop coffee and accent tables at Ballard Designs, go here, or find more coffee table inspiration below:

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Caroline McDonald

Caroline lives for pairing together patterns, mixing furniture styles, and oogling over our newest furniture pieces. As you can imagine, her little 1920's craftsman is in a constant state of flux. Here on How to Decorate, it's her goal to help you turn your home into your own little slice of paradise.


  1. Reply

    Olivia Smart

    July 15, 2022

    Thank you for explaining how round coffee tables can add balance. I’ve been wondering what kind of table to get to best suit our new living room space. I’ll be sure to look into round tables and see how they might work with what we have going on in the room.

  2. Reply


    May 20, 2021

    I have a sectional with a cuddler. I need to find a coffee table that is no more than 30″ round. What is the Olivia like? Do you have any other suggestions.

    • Reply

      Abbey Nolte

      June 10, 2021

      Hi Joyce,
      The Olivia Cocktail Table is 35 1/2″ wide so it sounds like it will be too big for your space. I would suggest the Maxwell Small Coffee Table since it’s only 31″ wide.
      Hope that helps!

  3. Reply

    Linda Logsdon

    December 30, 2020

    I am hoping to find the round, wood and metal coffee table and matching stackable end tables that are in the article “The Truth about Coffee Tables and Why You Need One”. Do you know if they are available to be purchased? Any help would be welcome.
    Linda Logsdon

    • Reply

      Caroline McDonald

      January 4, 2021

      Hi Linda,
      So glad you enjoyed this post. Most of the coffee tables can be found here.

  4. Reply

    Arabella Davies

    December 8, 2019

    Thanks for the article Caroline. I’ve been wondering how to style my upgraded living room, very useful to know about textures. I like the idea of the ottoman style coffee table. I hadn’t seen those before.

  5. Reply

    Alyce Byrne

    May 15, 2019

    I have a small living room and my two chairs have ottomans. I don’t think a coffee table will work.

    • Reply

      Caroline McDonald

      May 17, 2019

      Small living rooms are always a problem, but I have a few options for you! One way to squeeze something into the center of the living area would be to use two small side tables in the center like a coffee table. Two garden seats could work or a trio of tables like Suzanne Kasler’s <a href=""accent table. Another idea is to try and find a coffee table that one of your ottomans can nest under when you aren’t using it. That way it can tuck away when you’re entertaining!
      The main thing to remember is just that you serve the purpose of a coffee table, even if you use smaller surfaces like garden seats!
      Best of luck,