Does a living room need a coffee table? Interior designers decide if it's a must-have

Discover if a coffee table is an essential or just one option among others from interiors professionals

Living room with gallery wall and small coffee table
(Image credit: Farrow & Ball)

A coffee table has always been seen as an essential piece of living room furniture. The question of whether you need one seems like a straightforward yes, right? Well,  before it joins all the other pieces on a list of living room ideas, it’s worth considering whether your living room actually needs a coffee table, or are there other options that could prove equally good, or even suit some living rooms better. 

When space is tight is filling that only visible space with a bulky piece of furniture really the right choice? And even in larger living rooms does a coffee table work hard enough to warrant being included in the layout or should you look to bring in more end tables or foot stools or something more multifunctional and flexible? Is the coffee table becoming redundant?

We asked designers to weigh in on when a coffee table can work and when you are best forgoing one. 

Is a living room coffee table essential?

White living room with modern furniture and gallery wall

(Image credit: Farrow & Ball)

A coffee table definitely isn’t a requirement for the living room, according to design professionals.

‘You do not need a coffee table in your living room,’ says Taylor Ross, CEO and Founder of heirloom furniture designers Chronicle Home. ‘Living rooms are just the ideas of the people living there. And people are different.’

In fact, a coffee table is just one option when you’re exploring living room furniture ideas, and alternatives may suit the room and your lifestyle better. Here, we give the expert view on the coffee table, and the other furniture designs to consider instead.

Why a living room can benefit from a coffee table

living room with white walls four armchairs vintage rug and round coffee table

(Image credit: Amy Bartlam)

The professionals’ verdict is that a living room doesn’t need a coffee table. However, there’s no denying that it can be a great choice. 

‘A coffee table isn’t just functional furniture, it’s an added design element that can tie a room together,’ says Lubo Todorov, head of visual merchandising at Raft Furniture. ‘Think about it, the styling decisions that elevate and add life to a living room are fresh flowers and coffee table books. This is indication enough that a coffee table is a centerpiece that will draw the eye in.

‘When styling Raft showrooms and photoshoots, I love incorporating coffee tables into a living room to play around with shape,’ Lubo adds. ‘For example, a room with a square-armed sofa, square rug and square mirror can gain a real sense of flow and depth by adding a round coffee table.’

Choose side tables in a small room

end table with candle

(Image credit: McGee & Co.)

But while a coffee table can be a fabulous centerpiece, if your room is not generously sized, it might not need this piece of furniture. ‘If your living room is on the smaller side, a coffee table may make the space feel cramped,’ warns interior decorator Vivianne Chow of Viv and Tim Home

To replace its functionality? ‘You can consider using alternatives like nesting tables which can be stacked when not in use or side tables that are placed at the end of the couch,’ says Vivianne.

Add softness with an ottoman

Living space with painted blue built in shelving either side of a black fireplace, rounded mirror with white scalloped edge, patterned armchair with red trim facing a large, red striped ottoman, large blue rug over wooden floorboards, metallic hanging pendant with seven cream shades, cream curtains

(Image credit: Paul Massey)

There may be no necessity for a coffee table when an ottoman fits the bill: one of these can provide the functions of a table while offering other benefits you might appreciate. 

‘An ottoman provides a soft surface where a coffee table is a hard one,’ says editor of Homes & Gardens online Jennifer Ebert. ‘That makes it more forgiving when you have young kids running around but whatever age a home’s inhabitants, it adds coziness to the room, making it all the more welcoming.

‘As an upholstered piece, an ottoman can also add a hit of pattern and wonderful tactility,’ she adds.

Be mindful that if an ottoman does take the place of a coffee table, a tray can be put on top to provide a surface on which to set down drinks securely or to be used in the same way you would in coffee table styling ideas.

Try alternatives in an open-concept room

neutral open plan living and dining area

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Like a small room, an open-concept room may not need a coffee table. ‘If you’re working with an open-plan space that already has a kitchen island and dining table, you don’t want your room to feel overwhelmed by surfaces,’ explains Lubo Todorov.

Lubo suggests alternatives such as a teak armrest that slots onto the arm of a couch, or a neat sofa table with a base that slides under the furniture to bring its top surface comfortably near without taking up much floor space.

Equally, you might want to try a footstool. ‘You can get a matching footstool for your sofa that can double up as a coffee table,’ says Lubo. ‘This will also help you to maintain warmth with texture in an open-plan living room.’

Swap in a storage design

A green sofa next to a wooden trunk in a living room with a pendant light

(Image credit: Jonathan Gooch/Future PLC)

If there isn’t a lot of space to stash all you want to keep to hand in the living room, then a trunk might be what you need rather than a coffee table. It will still make an attractive feature, and if you enjoy decorating with vintage or decorating with antiques, sourcing a piece that’s had a previous life is a great way to give the living room individual style.

‘Capacious inside, a trunk is one of my favorite living room storage ideas,’ says Jennifer Ebert. ‘It can hold pillows and throws out of season to make a decor swap a quick process when the time comes.’ 

Shop our favorite coffee tables


Do you have to have a coffee table in front of a couch?

A couch is often combined with a coffee table in front. In this scenario, the coffee table is typically centered in front of a couch, or between two facing couches. If the coffee table is a focal point for a group of seating, position it in the center of the group instead to create a cohesive group. However, a couch doesn’t have to be teamed with a coffee table at all. Coffee table alternatives include side tables and upholstered designs such as an ottoman or footstool.

Coffee table decor ideas can make it the star of the show in a living room, but it may not prove to be the right piece for a room. A living room end table can be beautifully styled as part of the room’s aesthetic as well as being functional. Whichever tables you select, follow the rules on arranging living room furniture for a space that’s comfortable to occupy as well as pleasing to the eye.

Sarah Warwick
Contributing Editor

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator.