A coffee table, a.k.a. cocktail table, is a low table usually placed in front of a sofa or group of chairs in a living room or family room. Beyond that, coffee tables come in many shapes, sizes and styles and can be made of many different materials.
The shape: Most coffee tables are oblong in shape, with either square or rounded sides. Since they generally flank a sofa, which is oblong, the table usually follows suit. A smaller square or round coffee table will work well in front of a small love seat or two smaller chairs. A larger square coffee table may work well with a large sectional sofa where the two sides are equal in length. When selecting a table, the decision to go with square versus rounded sides can be simply a matter of design preference. Rounded tables are softer to look at and allow for easier access around them in smaller spaces.
The size: It's best to select a coffee table that generally mimics the proportions of the sofa that it's paired with. In other words, the longer the sofa, the longer the coffee table. Since the coffee table is a functional piece of furniture, it should be in comfortable reach of those sitting on the sofa. There should be about 18" of space between the edge of the sofa and the table. This allows for comfortable leg room as well as room for people to walk between the two pieces.
The style: beyond the size and shape of a coffee table, the style is the big factor. As with all furniture selections, you want to take the use of the piece into account. A formal living room that is used for entertaining purposes requires a more formal and traditional style coffee table. Glossy cherry woods or lacquered metals are classic choices for formal spaces. Glass tops are often employed to avoid moisture rings. In less formal settings such as family rooms or dens, tables are usually made from more durable materials since they are more likely to get a lot of wear and tear. Pine or walnut make great choices. Glass tops are excellent for moisture issues, but are prone to breaking and chipping easily. Coffee tables can also be theme oriented. For instance, they can be made with eclectic tabletops, like surfboards, or made from lobster traps with a tempered glass top. So, while they are functional, they can also be fun.
Details make the difference: There are many functional options available that help coffee tables multi-task as storage units, such as a lower shelf for storage of magazines or books, or drawers for storage of remote controls or drinks coasters. Some tables come with a "lift-top" feature where the tabletop can be lifted to a height suitable to work or eat at while sitting comfortably on the sofa. Custom tables might come with multiple pull-out shelves to extend the length or width of the piece, depending on specific needs.
When buying a coffee table, if you take all the above options into consideration, you will be sure to find the right table for you.
Linda Merrill is a Hometalk - http://www.hometalk.com - writer. Read more articles like this one - http://www.networx.com/article/design-tips-choosing-a-coffee-table - or get help with your home projects on Hometalk.com.