How to Style Your Coffee Table So You Can Actually Still Use It

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Styling a coffee table is an opportunity to show your personality to anyone who walks through your doors, either by displaying your prized photos and objects, your favorite books and magazines, or even some fresh flowers and plants. And, of course, you’re going to want a place for things like your TV and speaker remotes here too. Oh, and maybe some space for refreshments? So, it’s easy to go overboard with stuff on this surface. But it’s not inevitable. If you exercise just a little restraint, there are still a number of chic ideas for decorating your coffee table while leaving plenty of room to keep things practical. Here are a few tried-and-true tips for nice tableaux that won’t get in your life’s way.

(Image credit: Sarah Crowley)

The easiest way to deck out your table is with some simple greenery—just a plant or two. Houseplants always infuse a room with life and texture, but it’s important to know your limits. Think: succulents or cacti for super low-maintenance options or a trailing fern, spider plant, or golden pothos if you’re able to provide a little more attention to your plant babies. Just be sure whatever you pick is not something that’s going to be a problem if you have pets. And you don’t have to turn your table into a jungle if you don’t want to. All these homeowners have going on here is a single potted plant, and it’s pretty darn chic. Plus, all of that blank tabletop will come in handy the next time you want to serve a cheese and charcuterie board. You won’t even have to clear the space!

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)

You can see my one plant bet and raise it by a little flower arrangement if you like. Fresh blooms have long been a go-to coffee table styling option, and they certainly will add a pop of color and gentle fragrance whatever you put them. This combo packs a lot of punch, but the thing you have to remember when dealing with flowers and plants alike is to go tight and compact as much as you can with your choices. You don’t want some huge bouquet cutting off your guests’ conversations. Or worse—having flowers actually eclipse your view of the latest Netflix show you’re binging.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

A tray is a great way to organize items on your coffee table, whether they’re decorative, functional or a mix of both. It can also introduce another color and texture to your set up. Pick one in a pop-y hue or a dynamic shape to get the most bang for your buck, but make sure it isn’t so large that it’s taking up a good chunk of your surface, effectively rendering the rest of your coffee table useless. You also don’t want something so small it looks tiny either. As a rule of thumb, find something that’s no bigger than about half of your tabletop. And instead of centering it, move it off to one side a bit so you have a nice clear area for setting down drinks and such.

(Image credit: I Spy DIY)

Sometimes all you need is a stack of books. Art, fashion, interior, or photography books tend to be best here, as they’re typically substantially-sized and the perfect thing for guests to casually flip through when they come over. But you can use a stack of regular hardcover books too. I love how tightly edited this little stack’s palette is and how the spines echo the shades in the built-in bookcases. Some people go crazy with stacks on stacks on stacks, and while maximalism certainly is back in, so to speak, you don’t want your coffee table to look like an episode of “Hoarders” either. Less is more here, especially if you want this spot to be functional. Stick to a palette, and aim for no more than two stacks. One is probably enough, especially if you want to top it with flowers.

(Image credit: Soffia Gardarsdottir )

And of course, you can go the decorative object route and display a whole collection of interesting items, from tchotchkes to travel souvenirs. It’s not totally clear what’s in this Icelandic homeowner’s coffee table mix—are those decorative balls and two types of candles? But nonetheless, the arrangement looks curated, and more importantly, it’s well-placed. The homeowner has used the principle of thirds here, creating her tableau on the far end of the table, leaving the rest open for business or whatever else she’d like to do with it. There is even room for kicking up your feet—which is polarizing for sure. But you could if you wanted to.

(Image credit: Carolyn Purnell)

Another visual trick is to use clear vessels to style out your table. They’re visually light. So they recede into space a bit, even if they’re taking up actual room. If you’re the type that likes to go a little big, literally and metaphorically speaking, with your styling, then a clear tray or vase might be a good way to tone things down a bit. There’s a lot of stuff on this coffee table for sure, but the restraint in color palette—blues, pinks, greens (and clear!) for the most part—reigns things in so the mix works.

(Image credit: Katie Currid)

And don’t forget. Candles can be a source of light, ambiance, and soft fragrance. So you should probably consider these for your coffee table too. This homeowner used a cluster of turned wood candle sticks, but sometimes a trio of pretty hurricanes will do the trick. Like hurricanes, lanterns are also often sculptural enough to be set out on their own, if you’re cool with a more minimal look. And if you want a candle here primarily for scent, just make sure it’s a three-wick for the best, cleanest burn.

So there you have it. If you edit what you’re putting on display, use strategic materials and deliberately place your items, your coffee table will be fun and functional.