Master Class: Coffee Table Talk
Time to take your feet off the table and replace them with something worth looking at.
This story is found in the Summer 2019 edition of Park City Home.
Whether you call it a coffee table or a cocktail table, the piece of furniture in front of your sofa is a big part of a room’s personality. Interior designer Beth Ann Shepherd, who has studios in Los Angeles, Newport Beach, Aspen, and Park City, says her team pays as much attention to the coffee table as to any other major piece in a room, maybe more so. Here’s the owner of Dressed Design’s advice on finding the right table and styling it to perfection.
For most clients, Shepherd has an oversize coffee table custom-made, usually topping the base with a sizable piece of wood, marble, or glass. The exact dimensions depend on the room and on the sofa, but in general she likes a table that is 7 to 8 feet long; longer if she’s placing it in front of a 12-foot couch. The exception to her oversize rule is when she finds a small piece too special to pass up. But even then, she manages to make it larger. “I collect a lot of furnishings from the ‘70s, so I might take an Italian marble kidney-shaped table, have it replicated, and then place two of them together.” After snagging one fine Vladimir Kagan table from the 1970s, she spent four months searching for its twin.
She also likes multiple tables that fit together like a puzzle (“it looks interesting, not just like a single unit”). The point is to avoid anything dinky. “A coffee table that’s too small is like fingernails on a blackboard.”
A good interior designer thinks as much about how a room functions as how it looks, and Shepherd says that impacts coffee table height. “It has to be proportionate to the height of the sofa’s seat and back. Right now some clients prefer sofas that are quite deep and low — just 15 or 16 inches high — so you’ll need a lower table. Other clients tell us they want a sofa and chairs that allow them to easily stand up. We’ll choose 18-inch seating for them, and a 17-inch coffee table.”
The idea is to keep drinks and snacks within reach; if you have to exert yourself to retrieve a glass of wine, your table is too high, too low, or too far from the seat.
Make it pop
While she usually addresses the coffee table in a room’s early design stages, Shepherd says it can also add a wonderful jolt of “wow” later in the process. “If you’ve decided on a sofa fabric and rug that are on the plain side, go ahead and try a coffee table in a wild color or finish. After all, once you’ve arranged things on top of it you won’t see that much of the surface.” She recently used a pair of antique tables with dozens of mirrored sides in a Hollywood Hills home, and her Instagram account exploded.
Put yourself on the table
If your coffee table is a repository for the meaningless accrual of everyday life, Shepherd and her team have a few words for you: If you don’t love it, it doesn’t belong there. “The top of your coffee table is one of the things people notice first in a room, and it’s likely they’ll be staring at it for a substantial amount of time.” To that end, the objects and books you place there shouldn’t just coordinate with the room’s overall design, they should be part of your lifestyle. “A coffee table shows off your individuality.
“A lot of clients tell me, ‘decorate it your way,’ but I always leave space for them to add their own special items,” she continues.
“You want to decorate with objects that add value, personality, and interest. I have an antique camera from the 1970s, and everyone looks at it and asks, ‘What is that?’ I love the fact that people pick it up and look at it. If people aren’t noticing what’s on your coffee table, you’ve made a mistake.”
Rules of arrangement
Figuring out your coffee table’s tableau isn’t a simple exercise; it takes an eye for scale and proportion. But in general, says Shepherd, you want to vary the shape and height of objects: tall and short, wide and narrow, round and square. “It all depends on what else is in the room. If you’re adjacent to a room with a round dining room table, for example, I’ll want something round on the coffee table. Not the shape of the table itself — it will look cheap and repetitive. But something that references the dining room table’s shape.”
And then there’s the rule of white space. Shepherd advises keeping about one-third of the surface bare, and making sure you aren’t lining up your objects around the table’s perimeter. “You have to have some open space around it.”
Shepherd is mad for coffee table books, which she collects from around the world and uses liberally, even stacking them on dining room tables. “They are such an expression of who a person is. Successful men tend to love books on watches. If it’s someone who cares about fashion, we’ll find a beautiful volume on Pucci or Hermès. Eveyone loves a good Slim Aarons book. My favorite dog is a Weimaraner, so of course I have one of William Wegman’s photography books. Everybody picks it up. That’s the goal: A well-dressed coffee table has items that the owner will look at again and again with enthusiasm.”
Shepherd is also a fan of magazines, as long as they’re timely, high quality, and interesting, as well as old auction catalogs that reflect the homeowner’s passions. She says her team has spent months searching for Impressionist and Midcentury catalogs from Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Other favorite objects: flameless candles, which add worry-free warmth, eye-catching objects such as vintage Fornasetti vessels, and trays, which help corral pieces and maintain a neat arrangement.
Toddlers in the house
Tiny humans and coffee tables don’t always play well together, but Shepherd says there are smart solutions. First, avoid corner collisions by looking for something round, ideally with a shelf for stashing toys and baby gear. She also likes tables with a drawer that can be secured, since “You can quickly put stuff away when guests are over.” Even better, turn the coffee table into an ottoman. “We tuft it all around using indestructible fabric, then leave the top open so you can throw all the toys in at the last minute. We always supply a tray to put on top. Your kid can crawl on it, pour their milk on it, and it will be just fine.” The rest of your home may resemble a daycare center, but at least your coffee table will look as though the grownups are in charge.
For more stories from this edition, visit the Park City Home special section.
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