When I compare our home to our daughter’s London flat, one thought often pops into my mind: I guess you either have a knack for interior design, or you don’t.
I won’t try to prop my ego up and claim that I do, but I can certainly say our daughter doesn’t (for storyline’s sake, let’s call her Cully). She’d completely agree with me, so don’t for a second think I am badmouthing her in any way.
Cully simply buys any piece of furniture or décor that she likes. She doesn’t care if they go together (or if they even fit).
This (lack of) talent of hers has led to some charming successes over the years – she once managed to make my great-grandmother’s dining table look actually chick with some very modern tablescapes. But it has also led to complete disaster – their living room looked like something out of a freak show at one time.
In case you are just like my Cully and can’t seem to figure out what goes with what and where, but do want to add some décor to your space, I’ve tried to put together a basic-yet-useful guide on decorating coffee tables, to go with my list of the best coffee tables on Amazon.
And yes, if you are a fellow Seinfeld fan, you will also appreciate the fact that a coffee table book about coffee table books has made it onto the list.
A flower arrangement: faux or flourishing
Let’s start with the obvious choice, shall we? One of the simplest yet most effective items you can place on your coffee table is a vase full of fresh flowers.
If you have a garden, you should have no trouble sourcing them regularly. If you don’t, you can pick them up at the local market, or even subscribe to one of those flower delivery boxes I keep seeing on Instagram (yes, I do use Instagram. I am not a dinosaur.)
If you on the other hand don’t like fresh flowers, you can get some fake stems and arrange them neatly with some faux greenery as well. Make sure you get the slightly more expensive kind (or shop them in person), as some can look absolutely horrendous and you can spot they are plastic from a mile off.
Dried flowers are another neat option, whether you dry them out yourself, or buy them ready to rumble.
If flowers are however not your thing, you can substitute them for a little bit of greenery, yet again borrowed from your garden, or sourced from a garden centre. Succulents work really well in smaller planters, and you can create your own little landscapes with them.
If you like to collect rocks or sand from your holidays, you can even do a miniature garden in a bowl – an idea I borrowed from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, believe it or not.
Whichever form of plant you choose, the splash of green will certainly elevate the space, and add that natural touch to it that is so often hailed by interior designers.
A light fixture
Depending on the living room at large, you may want to also add a bit of light to your coffee table. However, a full-blown corded lamp might not be the best choice, unless your coffee table is wall- and socket-adjacent. Or unless you have those amazing floor sockets I keep pestering Tom about.
Candles on the other hand can work wherever your coffee table is placed (unless your curtains or other flammable implements are placed right above). Ideally, you want to select scents that make you feel a certain kind of emotion: cosy, homey, relaxed.
I personally love a Neom Happiness candle in the living room. I prefer their lavender and jasmine overall, but we burn that in the bedrooms. Of course, as soon as the clocks change in the winter, I start burning the White Company Winter candle, without fail.
A family album
If you have a coffee table you can house something in (i.e. one that has a glass surface and shelving underneath), try storing your photo albums or scrapbooks there. I’ve found we look at ours much more often since I’ve placed them in the coffee table in the snug, and I am also much more likely to keep creating new ones as the years go by.
After all, we’re all so used to scrolling through our phones, we never look at old photos anymore. Sometimes it’s nice to reach for your photo albums when the kids come to visit, or when you have guests over – after all, reminiscing is such a pleasant pastime we simply don’t engage in enough.
A conversation starter
Depending on your personality and personal preferences, and the kind of crowds you usually entertain, anything can be a conversation starter.
Perhaps you’ve picked up an unusual ornament at a boot sale? Or abroad? Maybe you keep a little guest book on your coffee table?
We were given a Couples Conversation Starters set of cards for Christmas, and I do have to admit we have enjoyed them. There’s a generations and a kids version too which I think would be a lot of fun, even though it seems a bit lame at first – like you have nothing to talk about with your spouse or your guests without them, but if you think of it like a group game, they quickly catch on.
A distraction for the kids
Speaking of entertainment, I used to keep a set of blocks on our old coffee table that were a firm favourite among our friend’s grandkids. Before the pandemic, when we used to have a couple (or a dozen) grandmothers over with a couple of grandkids, they used to come in very handy.
Honestly, I loved the box they came in most of all, which is part of the reason I kept them out at all times, but they provided a bit of a distraction when needed as well.
Any similar item will do, especially if you have regular child visitors. The kids usually like to look forward to a special game they only get to play when visiting someone, so if you manage to track down a decorative one, it can add that element of fun and free spiritedness to the room.
When I was a child, I was fascinated by the crystal bottles my granddad used to keep on the sideboard. There were four of them, I suppose filled with his favourite whiskey and brandy, laid out with the set of crystal glasses I am the proud owner of today. In the evening, a bucket of ice augmented the display.
If you are the cocktail drinking kind of person or family, a regular display of your preferred selection can elevate your coffee table nicely. Of course, you will need to wipe and wash the glasses regularly, and you may prefer your liquor chilled, in which case this entire idea probably sounds absolutely appalling.
And something to munch on
Another entertainment element you may want to house on the coffee table are your nibble dishes. You know, the bowls you serve snacks in, chips, dips, and the like.
The main reason ours are kept out on the coffee table in the den is that I forget to put any snacky bits out if they aren’t there to remind me, and Tom and I love to munch on popcorn while watching TV in the evening.
Invest in a lovely set that goes well with the general décor of the room, and you can fill them with other items as well, if you’d like.
Knick knack trays
For example, you can use these trays to house some of your knick-knacks.
Our couple friends (meaning they are a couple and are both our friends) have a glass dish on their coffee table that collects champagne corks. They open a bottle of the same champagne for each of their birthdays and on their wedding anniversary, and always keep the cork with the date engraved, which is a very personal and touching memento I find.
I’ve also seen people collect beer caps, rocks, buttons, badges, marbles and keys, and any of these items will look nice in a decorative bowl on your coffee table. Maybe a bit of a pain to dust though.
(Coffee table) books
Elementary, my dear reader, you can also place a coffee table book on your coffee table. They are available on practically any subject, so you will certainly be able to find one that matches your interests (and the general décor and atmosphere of your room) rather easily.
Of course, you can do the outrageous thing and place actual books with lots of words in them on your coffee table as well. Personally, I’ve loved swapping some of my Wordsworth Editions Complete Works out over the years. They also just happen to make great conversation starters, and I get to discover how many of my friends have actually read Pride and Prejudice.
A coffee table book about coffee tables
While I couldn’t get my hands on Cosmo Kramer’s work, I did manage to find this Coffee Table Coffee Table Book – not the real thing, I know, but it is reminiscent of the original.
Stick to a monochrome design
When it comes to actual coffee table design tips, and learning how to combine different decorative pieces or knick-knacks, the simplest solution is to stick to a monochrome palette. That way you won’t have to keep asking yourself “does this go with that”, and you’ll be able to shop in a certain hue.
You should of course introduce some variety, and not try to perfectly colour match every single item, you’d go quite mad.
As for choosing your monochrome colour, you can either match the walls, perhaps match the rug, or go for a contrasting colour altogether. You can of course go for a specific material, as opposed to a colour: wood, metal, ceramics, et cetera.
Contrast your décor with the coffee table
I’m adapting Cully’s (lack of) ideas for this one, I do have to admit.
If your table is a modern chrome and metal affair, why not use old fashioned decorative items on it, and vice versa? There is no guarantee this will look incredible, but you can manage to contrast two periods on a coffee table rather well.
Perhaps the simpler option is to source an antique table and decorate it with a more modern twist? In short, don’t be afraid to experiment, but do try to stick to a specific theme.
Have a theme across all (coffee) tables
If you have more than one table in the room, you can very easily create a running theme of similar items. Or, you can continue the theme throughout the entire home, and lay out a similar pattern, colour story or collection of personal memorabilia.
On the other hand, you may want to designate a specific role to each table: snack table, book table, photo frame table, etc.
As I keep repeating, the important thing is to have an idea, a guiding thought and the effect you want to achieve in mind – it will be much easier to find the items you need once you have that down. It will also make for a much more pleasant effect than a random series of shopping sprees where you simply purchased any item you liked.
Try a tray
If you are not actually a fan of coffee tables, or if you don’t have room to fit one in your living room, try the tray on a poufs or ottoman trend.
If you like to have an extra bit of seating in the middle of your sofa and armchair layout, or use an ottoman to put your feet up at the end of a long day, you can simply find yourself a tray that is slightly smaller than your seating element. It can hold your dishes and glasses when you need it to, and you can pop some flowers or candles on it too.
When you need to sit down, simply move the tray, and place all of the decorative items from it on a shelf or into another room.
Make seasonal swaps
The one thing I’ve found has made the most difference in my interior design attempts over the years is swapping items out as the seasons change. This does mean I have boxes upon boxes in the attic, but it helps me keep our home feeling fresh and new.
The colours we so like in the summer will certainly not be as attractive in the wintertime, and the materials won’t work as well either. Imagine a bright blue ceramic bowl on your table, right next to the Christmas tree.
When you get tired of an item, sell it, rehome it or donate it. You don’t have to keep holding on to it if you no longer like it, or feel it no longer matches your home’s aesthetic.
Leave some empty space
My final piece of advice is first and foremost a practical one – don’t overcrowd your coffee table. Remember, you need to dust it quite regularly, so the less stuff you have to move around, the easier it will be.
Plus, clutter is not good for your mental health either, and having too many items on a coffee table will mean none of them are able to stand out.
There is also no rule saying you have to have something on your coffee table – you can just as easily keep it completely bare, if that is more to your taste.
Don’t forget the coffee
If you’re a perfectionist like me, you’ll also want to make sure the mugs you drink your coffee from match the design of the coffee table.
Even if you’re not, I hope these ideas have inspired you to redecorate your coffee table, or at least give it a bit of a tidy.