The Anatomy of the Coffee Table Top

Happy Friday! Today we are talking about all things coffee tables.

Coffee table styling is one of the easiest places to start as a stylist because its a little microcosm of styling! You can easily illustrate the principles of all styling in one little patch. There are a bunch of little rules (I hate that word) to illustrate in this post but all of them are so stinking simple!

First there is the rule of 3s. The eye likes to see objects in groups of 3 or more in an odd number, it creates balance and feels the most complete. It seems counter intuitive but even numbers and shapes don’t fit into design nearly as well as odd. For example, in a table scape, a stylist might fill a jar of orange juice 2/3rds of the way full instead of halfway or all the way. This is to make sure that the scene doesn’t look TOO perfect. You want to give the impression of being thrown together or “real life”.

Second, you want to have one horizontal object to ground the vignette, one vertical object to add height, and one sculptural object to tie the other two together. Like so:

Rule of 3'sNotice this also satisfies the rule of 3’s

Now we have to figure out what exactly those horizontal, vertical, and sculptural objects are. Although theoretically there are an endless number of things you could potentially display on a coffee table, there are a few go-to’s we will be dealing with today. When in doubt, stick with these – they make up the basics of coffee table styling:

  • Trays (horizontal)
  • Bowls (keep necklaces, stones, or nick knacks in here) (horizontal)
  • Books (in stacks, or singular) (horizontal)
  • Plants (vertical/sculptural)
  • Candles (vertical, sculptural)
  • Sculptural objects
  • Vases/pottery (vertical/sculptural)

Sculptural objects are a little harder to define. In the loosest terms, it is something that has an organic shape. It could be:

  • a bust
  • a figurine
  • a plant
  • an African mask
  • an abstract sculpture
  • a rock or coral
  • a quirky candle holder
  • a hand sculpture
  • etc, etc.

So now that we know the shape of the objects, the number, and what kinds of objects to look for, lets take a peek at possible configuration. We will be using the two most common coffee table shapes to illustrate. The circle, and the rectangle. First up the circle:

Round Coffee Table Styling #1 (1)


There are three main areas in this example. The tray (a coffee table’s best friend), a plant/bowl/pottery and another plant, bowl, or pottery. Inside the tray is another grouping of 3. Next example:

Round Coffee Table Styling #2

This time everything is inside the tray in a grouping of 3 main ‘islands’ with a sculptural object on top of the books. (books are a great place to put a sculptural object) Next we have the rectangular options:


Again, we have three main ‘islands’ inside a tray.


This one is different from the others because it doesn’t have a tray, and the objects are more spread out. This modular configuration feels very full and layered.

Here are a few combos:

Coffee Table Styling

1: Tray, Bust, Vase 2: Book, Tray, Plant 3: Figurine, Candle, Books 4:Tray, Hand, Candle, Book

If you don’t know where to go for these types of items, H&M Home, Chairish, and World Market are all really great sources for coffee table nick knacks.

I should note that in really minimalistic design, these “rules” for coffee tables change a lot! You still want a variation in height, but its okay to have it be more spread out and simple. If you are going for a minimal look in your room, you could stick to one type of object on the coffee table. For example, you could put a few potted plants, a vase collection, or an assortment of stacked bowls.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Enough with the diagrams, give me pretty pictures!” Well, finally here are some examples of coffee table styling that make me swoon:

CTS4   CTS3CTS2   CTSinspo1

Source: 1|2|3|4|5|6

A few miscellaneous guidelines:

  • Don’t match materials unless separated by something. For example: You can’t use your wooden bowl, on your wooden coffee table, unless you put the bowl on top of something that isn’t wooden, like some books or a marble tray.
  • In a similar strain, make sure there is enough variation in light-dark. For example if you have a darkly stained coffee table, find a lighter toned book or tray to style with so that it doesn’t get bogged down with too much dark color. Let there be a separation in-between your dark and light tones.
  • Vary the shapes. Unless you are going for an all-round room, make sure that you mix some squarish shapes with some roundish shapes so that they eye doesn’t get bored, and everything flows.
  • If you are using a tray, make sure that the tray is proportional to the coffee table. If you have a massive surface and an ity-bity tray, things could look a little…off. Big table – Big tray.
  • Make sure when you style your coffee table that there is enough room between your styling for a guest to set down a drink or plate.
  • And finally, DON’T OVER STYLE! Know when to quit. Err on the side of less is more. What you really don’t want to do is make things look cluttered!

So thats coffee table styling! When you break it down into principles, it all makes sense! If you have any questions or if you want to show me your slammin’ coffee table I would be absolutely thrilled! Please drop me an email =)


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