What's in a name? When it comes to coffee tables, not everything. Although the low-slung furnishings often act as landing strips for hot drinks, they can handle much more. Given that they're center stage in most rooms, the right table sets the tone for an interior. Coffee tables began to surface in the United States during the 1930s, when the Depression and Prohibition prompted people to entertain at home. Even after drinking laws relaxed and the economy rebounded, coffee tables continued to serve as focal points in living rooms across the country. To make sure your piece merits its position, choose a style that reflects the decor. An austere, modern table, for example, won't be at home amid frilly curtains and floral upholstery. Think about size as well. You'll find tables that are 13 inches tall and some 20-plus, but most are 15 to 18 inches. Ideally, the table should be level with the top of your cushions and in proportion with the room. As for material, wooden tables are common, but you might also consider ones with glass tops or metal frames. Here, the tables on display are practical, pretty, and well accessorized. They're all ready to accommodate you -- and your coffee cup, too.
A hand-carved wooden tray on an ebonized faux-bamboo stand anchors this formal furniture arrangement. The oval table is proportional to the matching settees and a linen-upholstered bench from the 1860s. A lone topiary might look lost atop the table, but a group of five in staggered heights provides an arresting tableau. The spherical forms highlight the table's shape and the soft edges of the other furnishings. Living centerpieces can be rotated to suit the season.
The top of this coffee table of Martha's was once a rack in a commercial freezer. Fitted with legs, its steel-blue patina adds interest to the tones of the decor. The unconventional table is put to conventional use, holding a tray of hot beverages. The black, white, and gray spines of large hardcover books emphasize the rectilinear form of the metal furnishing.
An unfussy plank-and-iron-base coffee table pairs well with the room's cozy sectional sofa and honey-toned woven rug. The extra-long surface is spacious enough to hold books, generous hurricane lamps, and more. A rattan tray corrals odds and ends. When additional space is needed, the tray joins a basket beneath the table.
A pair of square-shaped end tables forms the center of this furniture plan. Their black and gold accents repeat in the table lamp, armchair, and area rug. The tables' levels double the functionality. Bottom shelves serve as storage spaces, leaving the tops for decorations (in this case, two spires of porcelain hollyhocks).
A light-filled room in Martha's East Hampton home feels even airier with a glass coffee table, which does its job without over-powering the space. The wrought-iron base ties into the architecture. The piece is accessorized with antique glass collectibles, which complement the see-through tabletop and French doors.
Side-by-side Chinese benches function as a coffee table in this contemporary living room. The sturdy set can also be used for extra seating. Potted plants, including a spiky amaryllis, connect the space with the outdoors.