Here's an example of a well-styled coffee table by the talented McGee and Co. that I find exceptional. I've looked at this image countless time for inspiration, and hopefully after reading through all five steps outlined below, you'll be able to spot the things that make this arrangement of objects so visually pleasing.
Before I launch into my tips, I'd like to offer up a serious disclaimer: While I AM a professionally trained interior designer, everything that I know about home decorating I've learned by osmosis, via hours spent leafing through magazines and pinning inspirational pics on Pinterest. There is a difference between those two professions, and believe it or not, someone can be a great designer, but only So-So in the realm of decorating, and visa versa. I feel that my personal strengths lie in the realm of home design rather than in decorating, but little by little I have gained enough confidence to feel I like I have some decent decorating chops to offer up. So here we go!
STEP ONE: Starting Fresh
The first thing to do is to clear everything off of your table and start fresh. Trying to work with what's already there can sometimes freeze your brain and make it hard to imagine anything new. So clear the table and get ready to play a little!
STEP TWO: Assessing the Shape
Next look at the shape of your coffee table. Is it round, square, rectangular or oval? Is the design simple or dramatic? The shape of your table is going to influence the shape of what you place on it. For example, if you have a round coffee table, then round objects in the middle will nicely echo the outer edges of the table. Thinking about complimentary shapes or the repetition of shapes will help you to achieve a more successful finished project. (Side note: You may also find that with a round table, things generally look better when clustered a little more tightly in the center.) In this example below from one of my own projects, you can see a relatively small round coffee table, where I've kept items neatly gathered in the center by the use of a decorative tray. I like that you can still see a lot of the pretty glass and that the overall feeling is clean and uncluttered. Usually, "less is more" is a good mantra to follow. Also note that the cylindrical vase and candle, and the round bowl, help to echo the shape of the table. Even the little, curved-corner detail on the tray is a nod to the circular theme. Little details DO matter!
|(image by WE Studio Photography)|
STEP THREE: Form and Function
As you are assembling items to display on the coffee table, assess each one by asking the question, "Is this beautiful or is it functional?" Hopefully sometimes the answer is both! You'll want to keep things on hand that you reach for regularly when relaxing in your living room--books, magazines, a deck of cards, or a scented candle and something to light it with. It's also perfectly fine to mix in a few indulgent items. Things that make you smile just because they're pretty, or have happy memories attached--fresh flowers, little art objects, trinkets, or things your kids have proudly brought you with a grin and exclaimed "This is for you Mommy!" (Side note: if keeping fresh flowers on the table seems a little too high-maintenance, consider a potted plant. It's much easier to maintain but can look just as good!)
As any designer decorator will tell you, things always look better in groups of three. If ever in doubt about how much to incorporate, follow this golden rule and you'll be, well, golden! Go for three groupings on a table, or as shown in the first "round table" example, cluster three things within one decorative tray. It will always look like just enough and feel more balanced that way. Also aim to collect three piles or things that are different in shape and scale. Here's another example from one of my projects:
|(Image by Christian J Anderson Photography)|
STEP FIVE: Height matters
After the rule of 3's, the second most helpful tip (in my opinion), is to pay attention to heights. Aim to have one tall thing on the table, to really stand out and catch the eye. Usually this piece will be your greenery or floral arrangement. When choosing just HOW tall to make this item, think about whether you need guests to be able to see other's faces across the room so that they can properly converse, or if the room calls for something really bold and big, to fill up some volume and add pure drama. See example below: This is about as high as I have gone in my projects. Here I thought I could get away with it because the space had a soaring ceiling and the wispy branches didn't really block your view of the other seating pieces, or the view of the linear fireplace. It's big, but I think it works. Something small and diminutive would feel lost in this space.
|Funny Note: Although you can't really see it from this angle, there IS a group of three going on here. Hidden behind the clear vase is the third thing--a little, white wooden vase. (Image by Kristen Buchmann Photography)|
|(Image taken from Pinterest. Designer not known.)|
When you figure out an arrangement that "works," enjoy it and show it off, but don't be afraid to change it up once in a while. Tables should evolve with the season, your whims, and your lifestyle needs. Also, I don't think the table needs to always look like "something in a magazine" to be attractive. Sometimes life's little messes can be what bring visual comfort and a sense of livability. To prove the point, I'm attaching a photo of what my coffee table looks like today, completely unedited.
This is exactly how I found it when I walked in the room, and fairly representative of what it looks like most of the time. Notice the live plant (something green and something tall), a group of three, varied heights, stacked books and mix of functional and frivolous. The kids added the two boxed games, the decor magazines and books are mine for late-night reading, and the oval tray (variety of shape) holds everything from coasters, a game of UNO, math flashcards, and some quirky things the kids brought me. It's not perfect and it's definitely not on par with the McGee-styled table in image one, but to me, it says "Home" and it looks somewhat tidy and organized, should a friend or a neighbor pop in unannounced. And for those of you that are curious, the tiny footstools underneath DO come in handy. We use them for impromptu board game or puzzle sessions with the kids. I love that nothing here is too precious that it can't be moved aside, to make way for some good, family time. This is real life, with a few design tricks thrown in for good measure.