To find a coffee table that's your cup of tea consider both its function and its form

December 27, 1992|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Contributing Writer

In the market for a coffee table? Then do yourself a favor and start with the premise that there is no such thing as perfection. No one coffee table can do it all -- function, fit well and look absolutely right.

A coffee table is, almost by definition, a compromise piece of furniture. In existence for only about 60 or 70 years, it evolved from the higher tea table. In many ways the tea table worked better than its antecedent. It was lighter in weight, more portable (often with wheels) and kept the tea service up where corsetted women and starched-collar men sitting on high-seated settees and chairs could get at it. When foundation garments relaxed and lower, squishier sofas and chairs came into fashion, the tea table was replaced by its shorter, wider, longer and often stouter cousin, the coffee table.

But, as we all know, a coffee table is more than a table for coffee. It is also a cocktail table and often a magazine rack, bookcase, plant stand and part-time ottoman. All too often, it fulfills none of its many obligations perfectly -- particularly when it has been selected on the basis of looks rather than function.

Virtually all coffee tables have their individual shortcomings. But collectively, they are living-room road hazards. Who hasn't stubbed a toe or dented a shin on one? Who hasn't stepped on tTC someone else's toe while trying to negotiate a path around one? They also gobble up space. Legless types, those with boxlike bases, force the sitter to keep his or her feet tucked uncomfortably close to the base of the sofa or chair. Even coffee tables with legs are often too low to allow for the placement of feet underneath.

Often the problem is not with the coffee table itself, but with us. We demand too much of it. We choose one big enough to serve a sofa along one side and an easy chair at each end and then complain because the room looks overstuffed and because only narrow paths remain around the table. In addition, we discover that, no matter where we sit, we still have to scoot to the edge of our seats just to retrieve a drink.

What to do? The best rule of thumb is simply to assess your living room circumstances and then settle on a coffee table that has the fewest flaws. Among the factors that you'll want to consider are the following:

Height: For convenience and comfort, try to get a table that is at least as high as the platform of the sofa (that's the surface the seat cushions rest on).

Length: What seems to work best is a coffee table that is about two-thirds the length of the sofa. Longer types can make getting to the sofa an extended trip. Shorter ones are difficult to reach for those sitting at either end of the sofa.

Width: Generally speaking, narrow is better than wide. In most cases, all you're really looking for is a surface that can accommodate drinks, a couple of magazines and maybe an ashtray, candy dish or a bowl of flowers. Big, square, island-size coffee tables tend to overwhelm and dominate the look of a room, to increase the distance between sofas and chairs (jeopardizing conversation), and to collect clutter.

Material: Wood, glass, metal, marble, granite or a combination of two or more? This is purely a matter of taste, of course, but keep in mind that glass and stone require more upkeep. Highly polished woods require the constant use of coasters and napkins.

Options: Yes, there are alternatives to the conventional coffee table. A worthy one that is increasing in popularity is the upholstered coffee table, one that looks like an upholstered bench or an ottoman (and often in fact is). This is especially sensible for those who think of a coffee table as a footstool anyway. It also works well as auxiliary seating and for those who want to get close to the fireplace for a few minutes. A lacquered tray on top can be used for drinks and a flower-filled vase. A good variation on this theme is two small ottomans that can work as tables when they're needed.

Another option is multiple coffee tables. Instead of one big one, use two or three of the same size (not necessarily the same

style), preferably on wheels. They can be bunched together or dispersed as the occasion and the size of the crowd demand.

Old wooden dining tables, particularly farmhouse kitchen tables, harvest tables and trestle tables, also make good alternatives if the legs can be shortened. They're sturdy, rugged, and rustically elegant.

Finally, two caveats. One, don't fall for the trend of using 28- or 29-inch high traditional tea tables in front of the sofa, even though these are showing up with increasing frequency in decorating magazines. True, big-name decorators are using ,X them again, but more to be unconventional than anything else. A table that high puts a coffee cup or a bowl of flowers at about nose level, so you end up reaching up and out instead of down and out.

And two, don't force a coffee table to carry the burden of serving the sofa and the chairs all by itself. Instead, put a little side table next to each chair and at one or both sides of the sofa. It's much easier to reach to the side for a drink or for your reading glasses than to have to bend from the waist and reach out. Chances are you'll still want a coffee table, but you won't have to rely on it as much.

Universal Press Syndicate

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