Why the Coffee Table is the second most important piece of furniture in your house

I have written before (if not on these pages then in the first book) about how it is not the kitchen that is the heart of the home but the kitchen table. By which I mean that this table, which symbolises where a family comes together to eat, to work, to meet – perchance to row – and, at the very least,  least to talk of many things (but probably not, these days quite so much of cabbages and kings) is the beating heart of the home. It matters not what the table looks like but more that it exists. The kitchen table is where it all comes together and is perhaps, after a mattress and a sofa, the most important piece of furniture you will buy.

For us, in this period of lockdown, we may not see the teenage boys during the day – they rise late, we rise earlier, they breakfast at lunch, we work all morning but, we have all tacitly agreed, we will meet every evening at the supper table and even if our news of the day is scant we will be together at that point and share the same food (well not the 16yo, obviously, who has never knowingly eaten a green vegetable apart from broccoli and who hates sauce but you get the idea).

marble coffee table by norm architects for menu £1,920
marble coffee table by norm architects for menu £1,920 available from nest – this is my dream

However, there is another, often overlooked, piece of furniture on which I place equal importance. And yet, it’s a piece that can be an afterthought, bought for looks rather than practicality. A piece that is time and again the wrong size for the room, the wrong shape and it sits sadly marooned in the middle of the rug like a desert island in a remote sea. There to be gazed at and filled with beautiful books that no-one will bother to read and out of reach to all but the longest of arm. It is, of course, the coffee table.

stacking round glass coffee table set from rose and grey
stacking round glass coffee table set from rose and grey – a round table can be a good contrast to the rectangle sofa

Now while I think the kitchen table doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing – yes, of course, it’s nice if it is – but it’s mostly about being big enough for everyone to gather round comfortably. Often the older and more battered the better – it tells more stories that way.  But the coffee table has a harder role to play.

It must look good. It is, after all a receptacle for all those beautiful coffee tables books. It is often, literally, the centre of the room and, as such, will draw the eye. But so often coffee tables are bought purely for their looks with no thought given to their function. And, for me, the function of that table is as important as its form.

tokki marble round coffee table from habitat
tokki marble round coffee table from habitat 

I have no truck with spindly legged occasional tables that wobble as soon as you look at them. I have no time for fussy shapes and fussy woods that mark as soon as a hot drink or a cold aperitif comes near them. I want a coffee table that works for its place in my space.

So, yes it needs to look good. But, above all it must be sturdy. My own is an antique table made from wide planks it was, quite possibly a kitchen table that was cut down to size. Or it might have been made from old, wide floorboards. Yes it fills the space but, now there is not need for train sets and lego, what else is going to happen there?

hesta coffee table by
hesta coffee table by

And that, for me is the key question, why put a tiny table in the middle of a big space? You should be able to reach the coffee table from the sofa and preferably from the other chairs. It should be close enough to the sofa that you can stretch your legs and rest your feet on it when watching a film. Of course there should be books on it but also space for a bowl of pasta for those days when supper on the sofa is the prescribed option. Flowers are nice too. And when my children were young they would sit on it to watch tv. Nowadays it does for puzzles and boardgames and the cat quite likes to lounge there as well to watch the fire.

My coffee table has many functions, all of which are based around the idea of relaxing and lounging and informal sharing of food. As I say, if it wasn’t there we would all be staring at an empty rug and waiting for something to happen.

large antique vintage rustic coffee table at
my antique large coffee table

While mine is rectangular, a round one can be a good counterpoint to the long lines of a sofa and the square of an armchair. Personally I don’t want an upholstered one as a) you can’t rest your drink on it and b) the room is already full of soft furnishings so a bit of wood (or metal or glass) will bring the contrast. I like wood as it’s sturdy, although I would love that marble oblong from the top and, while I’m nervous of glass, it does allow the light to pass through and will therefore make the room lighter and less cluttered. As ever, ask yourself what you need from your coffee table and buy for your reality not mine or someone else’s.

arc coffee table at heals via woud
arc coffee table at heals via woud

So tuck your spindly tables beside your chairs, move your table closer to the sofa so that you can reach it and if, as is so often the case, it’s too small then buy a couple more and group them together to create a centrepiece in the room. You can buy a nest of tables or three that are joined by material or colour. A low wooden rectangle with a round glass table that is slots slightly over one end. Three round tables of different heights but toning colours. Two matching tables next to each other if the space permits.

And remember that in many languages the word for furniture is derived from mobile – meaning movement – meuble (French) möbel (German) mobile (Italian) and mueble (Spanish) so you can always move it around to suit the occasion for that was probably the intent. Which means that, for now, if you need to move it to make space for PE with Joe Wickes or a random game of Twister then you can do so.



Tags : coffee tableglass coffee table setmarble coffee tableoccasional tables
Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Furniture is “möbler” in Swedish too. We have a Noguchi coffee table – I am aware that you do not like this table but it works well for us.

  2. Hi Kate. I’m currently searching for a coffee table for our new house. ( I moved to Wales recently) and it’s actually the toughest decision to make! I want one that has a white marble look like my current one as I often use it as background for my photos, but I need storage and I don’t want it to be too big or too small and need to have the right height. It’s actually crazy, how I spend now 2 weeks and it’s always something not cool. So weird.

  3. Interesting article. I haven’t had a coffee table for a good 15 years! I used to have a rattan bench from Habitat which served as a coffee table for a few years but I got fed up with the piles of stuff my husband used to leave on it permanently. He now has a small rickety side table hidden next to the sofa for these and I am still sort of looking for a coffee table. I think I’d like one of those big rectangular footstools you see in English country houses but I can’t commit to a fabric and I worry that the size I like would just be too big for my narrow Victorian terraced living room.

  4. Our days of the sawn down kitchen table with useful flap sides, being used as a coffee table are over…passed it to our young. This type of robust coffee table is a great solution for families. We now have side tables which suit a small sitting space far better.
    The kitchen table is truly indispensable and it makes me desperately sad when I see “real life” TV programmes where the families do not have one at all. Possibly a tiny table for one child to do home work, that’s it!

  5. Perfect timing and topic. I’ve been looking for THE coffee table for the office/library/me time area of the house – Functional and aesthetic. I hadn’t thought about cutting a table down to size! As A keen thrift store enthusiast this will help post lockdown searches.
    Any tips on tv units? Most units are quite low, my husband would like something that would raise the tv higher than the average. I guess adapting a sideboard or book shelf might do the job. Thanks

  6. I love this post and just shared it with my other half who chuckled too. We have our own totally unsuitable coffee table story that all the family never let me forget. I had been in hospitable for a week, 8 and a half months pregnant, spending far to much time ordering online and unable to nest at home. I ordered a huge 1960s style coffee table that I was convinced would be perfect for the lounge. Said Lounge in our old house was tiny, a Victorian postage stamp of a room. Table got delivered while I was giving birth, and sat in the corner of the room for 2 years in its box until we moved house.. It’s now being used as a tv table so even though we have more space it’s still not being used for its intended purpose!
    I shall save this post a refer to carefully when we decorate again – thank you Kate 😊

  7. Many a game of Scrabble played on mine these days. I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to space, so my coffee table could double as a small boat. But with a previous time that meant we had 3 teenage boys and a girl in college, big was the order of the day. Thank you for keeping it interesting.

  8. Interesting point about the etymology of the word furniture. As I get older I find myself wanting all of my furniture to be able to move easily. My next couch will be on casters.

  9. I love this post and absolutely agree with all of it (including “I’m nervous of glass”). I had the Eames elliptical for many years until I had to move countries and leave it behind. I can’t wait to get another one just the same. I used to throw big parties around that table, everybody sitting on the floor. It’s quite big, sturdy, won’t stain, and it’s beautiful. I also love your coffee table, Kate. It’s quite a piece.

  10. Fantastic advice. I love your coffee table and it gave me the confidence, after nearly 2 decades of indecision and disagreements between me and my partner to buy my own version last year. Big, bit battered and full of character, it works brilliantly in our sitting room, finally filling the empty space at the centre and bringing the room together.
    And in the lockdown, I can easily push it back to do Pilates, kids classes and it’s an excellent resting place for the laptop for all these classes and zoom calls.
    Thanks for the great advice.

  11. Kate, I think the Mad Husband is going to spot that you’ve shot yourself in the foot. You say “if you need to move it [the coffee table] to make space for PE with Joe Wicks or a random game of Twister then you can do so”. But, if you had your dream table, that big marble one, wouldn’t it be too heavy to move easily? Stick to your ace wooden one & Joe Wicks.

    1. HA! I am used to the ways of The Mad Husband… I didn’t say I would be doing the Joe Wicks PE merely that you/one could! Actually I have done it a couple of times but in my office with him (Joe) shouting via my phone!

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