When it comes to designing a small living room, our number one piece of advice normally goes something like 'don't cram in too much furniture, 'don't overcrowd the space', 'strip back' etc. etc. However, there is one piece of furniture that we think can earn its place in even the smallest of spaces and that is the humble coffee table.
And you don't need miles of surface space in order to add something functional and chic to your living room. As all these small coffee table ideas prove, they can be a must-have addition – somewhere to perch your coffee, and keep tech within easy reach but also prime real estate to add in some curated decor (just on a small scale).
To get you inspired to make the most of even the tiniest of surfaces, we've asked designers for their favorite styling suggestions – from how to choose the perfect coffee table shape, where to position it, and (perhaps most importantly) what to put on it.
1. Create more surface space with nested coffee tables
Because two small coffee tables are better than one. Nested tables are perfect for small living rooms because you can double the surface space when you need to. Guests come over, you pull them out - they leave, you tuck the furniture neatly away again. This snug, designed by Christian Bense (opens in new tab), maximizes the small space with clever furniture choices that nod to this coffee table trend – just three key pieces that fit perfectly in the space available.
'A lounge or a snug should never go without a coffee table (a room looks incomplete without) so I’d always suggest going with a cluster of smaller ones (i.e a pair) that can be shifted and positioned to suit, rather than not going with ones at all. A nesting pair are often the best call as you can simply tuck one beneath the other if needed.' explains Christian.
'If space is limited and the surface area of your tables is on the small side, I would say opt for less is more. Maybe a few books for some interest, but I would always try and find an interesting-looking table, like this with the antique mirror, that has some form of interest. That way you aren’t necessarily inclined to want to style it too much.'
Yaheetech Round Nesting End Table Set, $63, Target (opens in new tab)
We're showing no signs of moving away from gilt edges, and brass continues to be a big trend. These chic little coffee tables are ideal for moving around your space as needed, providing just a little glint of luxe fabulousness.
2. Choose a design with some height
This is something we always touch on when offering advice on decorating small living spaces – pick pieces that have a bit of height. Keeping furniture up off the ground gives the floor more of a chance and allows light to easily flow around the space, giving the allusion of a larger room.
'With a small space, consider a coffee table on a raised leg or plinth.' suggests designer, and founder of A New Day (opens in new tab) Andrew Griffiths. 'That way you still see much of the floor space under the table which will help it feel visually lighter in the room. I would also generally opt for a rounded shape table if working with a small space, as it will help give more of a sense of flow and softness to the space.'
As for how to decorate a round coffee table, especially when it's small, Andrew has some straightforward advice.
'Keep it simple,' he says. 'If it's a small table, too much styling is going to stop it being of much use and make it look cluttered. Some greenery is always good, and there's always a candle or two on mine.'
Swirling marble end table, $128, Anthropologie (opens in new tab)
Adding height to a coffee table creates a look of elegance, and the fact these are so slim mean they don't break up the space at all. The blue-stone marble top is another key design trend foe 2023 - it's very liveable, and very smart.
3. Balance aesthetic with practicality
Coffee tables are prime real estate for showing off your styling, but when space is tight it's important to ensure that surface space still has some element of practicality. You still need the space to put down a coffee cup.
Designer Kathy Kuo's approach to coffee table decor is to keep the purely aesthetic separate so you ensure you still have that clear surface space too. 'For a smaller coffee table, I love to add a small tray and style items within the tray. This keeps the decorative elements within the tray so that you can carve out space on the table for actually putting your coffee while still adding that pop of personality,' she explains.
'When styling your tray, I like the rule of pairing one vertical item (like a candle), one horizontal item (like a decorative book), and one sculptural item (like a crystal or paperweight).'
Assorted décorative objet, Jonathan Adler (opens in new tab)
When someone mentions a 'crystal or paperweight' like Kathy Kuo did above, we immediately think of Jonathan Adler. The master of tchotchkes, the maestro of objet, his pieces are fun and full of personality.
4. Think outside the box
When choosing the coffee table size for your space consider something unexpected. Not only do we love the look of old and new pieces but you might find a vintage piece works far better in your space than a classic coffee table.
'Think outside the box.' suggests designer Lisa Sherry (opens in new tab). 'A long narrow bench (as shown here) is a great coffee table alternative. Likewise, a series of small spot tables might be a brilliant solution. They can come together when needed and go their separate ways when not.'
'In this dark living room, a long narrow bench trumps the coffee table one might expect. It’s no more and no less than it should be; a perfect meeting of form and function. The bench is crafted from reclaimed wood, adding a beautiful organic component. Note the petrified wood spot table to the left of the sofa. Very often, a series of thoughtfully selected tables are more interesting and functional than a single monolithic coffee table.'
5. Don't go overboard with the styling
Because we all know when it comes to small spaces (whether that be whole rooms or just the surface of your coffee table), less is often more. This beautifully styled space by Frampton Co (opens in new tab) is the perfect example – minimalist but still with an edge of playfulness. And the colors and the bold shapes do a lot of the talking here, there's no need to add clutter to the coffee table and dilute those fabulous lines of the armchairs and the hexagonal tabletop.
As designer Irene Gunter (opens in new tab) says about small living room furniture, 'Don’t overload the surface of your small coffee table. To make a statement with your styling (and to make sure everyone appreciates the time you spent choosing a coffee table with a beautiful top) less is certainly more! What’s more – from a practical perspective – a coffee table is there to be used. So, it makes sense to leave space for things you’ll want to put on it throughout the day.'
Lisa adds, 'Keep scale and proportion in mind and be a great editor. I suggest grouping a few objects to add interest. Sometimes a single item is the perfect grace note. Remember, the small table needs to do more than look good, meaning, make room for a drink, a phone, a book, or a tablet.'
6. Get your spacing right
Often with a small living room layout, the rule tends to be the more floorspace you can see the better. However, we like to play fast and loose with the interior design rules, and as this living room proves sometimes filling your space to the max can work far better.
A small coffee table can look out of place floating in a sea of floor, and can make the coffee table, and the room, look much smaller and incohesive. So don't be afraid to slightly crowd your furniture around the table – it will make the layout feel more purposeful and the pieces of furniture more connected. Just ensure you have enough space to comfortably walk around it.
'In choosing a coffee table, it needs to be cohesive within the space – more specifically your seating arrangement. If your table is too big or too small, it will look out of place and will throw off the spacing of the room.' explains designer Natalia Miyar (opens in new tab). 'In this open plan space, the surrounding furniture is very linear so we wanted to create a coffee table that was softer and more rounded to contrast this and again offer a sense of balance to the space.'
7. Use the oldest trick in the book
Transparent furniture has been a small space design hack for decades. It's an obvious choice. You don't really have the room for a coffee table, but a coffee table is a must...so make it invisible. These see-through designs allow you to add a piece of furniture without adding any of the visual bulk. Plus, they nod to current interior design trends, and can work with any style.
'Playing with contrasting materials and colors can create delicious tension for the eyes. This small coffee table, with its clear glass top and steel legs, produces an illusion of transparency and weightless by reflecting its surrounding,' explains designer Leyden Lewis (opens in new tab). 'It can be particularly effective in a smaller space. By placing even just a few bright, bold, solid objects atop it, the eye is drawn in and centers the room.'
8. Pick designs that will add extra storage
When it comes to small living room storage, hidden is best, so consider this when choosing your coffee table. Even a small design can squeeze in a draw or two, and then you have that all-important space to hide away any unaesthetically pleasing tech or clutter.
'Coffee tables can really help bring a living room together but choosing the right coffee table is key. We always look at the space to see what would work best, round, square, a nesting set etc,' explains Tom Rutt, founder of TR Studio (opens in new tab).
'In smaller, compact rooms tables with concealed storage are an ideal choice as you can hide away all of the day-to-day junk such as newspapers and remote controls when you have guests. Then when it comes to styling, think about stacking large-format coffee table books with textured or plain covers. Large low-profile trays which you can layer beautiful marble objét, sculptural pieces, and trinkets as well as the obligatory scented candle also helps makes for an Instagram-worthy coffee table.'
9. Keep the space fluid with a round coffee table
In terms of what shape is best for a small coffee table, that will come down to your space and layout, but in general, you get far more flexibility with a round design. You will find more options in terms of positioning, and it can easily be moved around the room.
'For smaller spaces, we love using round coffee tables to help with flow. For example, this space we did was part of an open plan between the entrance and the kitchen. It's a corner space that needed to connect well between the two areas and a small round table created the perfect flow. What we love about this table is that it is also lightweight and can be easily moved around which is ideal in tight spaces.' explain Jen and Mar founders of Interior Fox (opens in new tab).
10. Think multi-functional
Multifunctional is something else you should look out for with small living room furniture. These pieces need to work hard and the more jobs they can do the better. Ottomans can be used as extra seating when needed, but add a small tray and a couple of chic coffee table books, and its function is transformed from seat to table.
'Bring a new level of flexibility to your small sitting room with an upholstered otto-man.' suggests Irene Gunter. 'This will not only be useful for extra seating but can also be used for storage or a footstool – or you could pop a stylish tray on top to create a flat surface for your cup or tea or glass of wine.'
In a smaller space, be sure to choose something with legs so you get that all-important flow of light and space.
How can you style a small coffee table?
When styling a small coffee table, the key is to remember it needs to be usable. You need to ensure some space is left for drinks, books, phones etc.
Take Irene's advice and 'don’t overload the surface of your small coffee table. To make a statement with your styling (and to make sure everyone appreciates the time you spent choosing a coffee table with a beautiful top) less is certainly more! What’s more – from a practical perspective – a coffee table is there to be used. So, it makes sense to leave space for things you’ll want to put on it throughout the day.'
'The number of items on your coffee table is very much dictated by its size. If you are unsure, one solution is to harness the power of three and pick one taller item (perhaps a plant), a slightly small object (a coaster holder for instance), and then add a small pile of books. You could even use a tray to group together a couple of the objects so that they don’t look like they are floating.' she adds.
Should you put a coffee table in a small space?
We think a coffee table is an essential in a living room, it anchors the room and acts as both a practical place to put everyday items and a nice surface to add some decor. As with any piece of furniture in a small space, what you need to get right is size, shape and positioning.
The right size will be personal to your space, but even with small coffee tables don't go too small, you want it to be useable and fill the space it's intended for. In terms of shape, in a small space round will be the easiest to add in and won't break up the room too much. Now with positioning, the main thing you want to ensure is that it can be used by the maximum amount of people seated in the room, so naturally directly in front of or next to the largest piece of seating would make the most sense.
Hebe is the Digital Editor of Livingetc; she has a background in lifestyle and interior journalism and a passion for renovating small spaces. You'll usually find her attempting DIY, whether it's spray painting her whole kitchen, don't try that at home, or ever changing the wallpaper in her hallway. Livingetc has been such a huge inspiration and has influenced Hebe's style since she moved into her first rental and finally had a small amount of control over the decor and now loves being able to help others make decisions when decorating their own homes. Last year she moved from renting to owning her first teeny tiny Edwardian flat in London with her whippet Willow (who yes she chose to match her interiors...) and is already on the lookout for her next project.
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