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What is the Purpose of a Coffee Table?

A coffee on a wooden table with a nature background.

Gone are the days when coffee tables were appendages in English drawing-rooms simply for gathering around and drinking coffee. Over the years, not only has the coffee table evolved from its humble beginnings as a miniature wooden table to one coming in an endless variety of shapes and designs as well as purposes. In the immortal words of the great Steve Jobs, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like.

Design is how it works.” With the variety of forms and designs, comes a variety of functions.

With those immortal words in mind, let’s take a look at some of the purposes of coffee tables.

Coffee Table-cum-Decorative Furniture

A photo of round table with cup of coffee, book. and vase.

As I earlier mentioned, the name coffee table itself suggests its purpose. Coffee tables were initially designed for the sole purpose of placing coffee utensils while drinking coffee in the drawing-room, parlor and, most recently, living room or sitting-room.

From wooden to metal to steel and now glass,  coffee tables have over the years been made from a variety of materials and in myriad designs, primarily for the convenience of placing coffee or teacups while having coffee.

Gradually, however, as “civilized society” has become more casual/informal, coffee tables have in recent years also taken on the additional purpose of being decorative furniture pieces for living spaces. For this reason, as sitting/living room furniture has evolved from wood to metal to a combination of steel, glass, leather/leatherette, and hardened plastic, so too have coffee tables.

This is to the extent that, today, it is not uncommon for you to come across coffee tables with metal, glass, acrylic, and stone finishes that blend well in a chic, cosmopolitan modern setting. More than anything these days, it has become very important to ensure that your coffee table matches the interior style.

Conversely, as I am somewhat of an interior designer myself, I have noticed that coffee tables with dark wood, marbles, or metal, work best in traditional surroundings. And don’t you just love it or have you ever noticed how different materials also transform the appearance of space?

Take, for example, how Glass coffee tables give the appearance of a much bigger space. With the right accessories of flowers, books, or antique ornaments, coffee tables can definitely accentuate your living room, giving it the added vibrancy that every living space deserves.

Added Utility as Storage Space

A wooden coffee table in home with shelves.

During the Victorian era, drawing rooms or parlors had writing/reading desks for purposes of writing letters and keeping books that were being read. In modern times, as society has become less formal, writing/reading desks have disappeared into the study and, in their place, coffee tables have added to their decorative function by becoming more useful as additional storage spaces in living rooms.

This is especially true of coffee tables with drawers and shelves. In the homes of some of my messy friends, I have noticed how coffee tables have helped declutter their living or sitting room spaces by providing extra storage. They can provide storage for items such as books, magazines, board games, and puzzles.

Coffee Table-cum-Extra Seating

A decorative living room with a simple coffee table.

Although I think it is most unhygienic, as coffee tables have become upholstered, they have tended to be given the “convenient” purpose of serving as both a coffee and extra seating. Indeed, nowadays, coffee tables come with them, and do serve the dual purpose of providing extra seating at some of my friends’ dinner parties when the situation arises.

Ottoman chairs or benches serve this purpose well and can be used as coffee tables as well.

However, should you decide to purchase such a dual-purposed coffee table, please ensure that the material is strong enough. I have found that hardwoods and metals are best. Also, stay clear of coffee tables with easily scratchable surfaces if you intend to use them as backup seating.

Coffee Table-cum-Work Bench

A minimalistic photo of a rustic coffee table with decor on top.

In these days of “side hustles” and freelancing, reminiscent of the writing/reading desks of yesteryear, it has come to my attention that coffee tables today are also designed to serve the purpose of workbenches. They provide a flat and sturdy surface for you to not only put your coffee utensils, but also to spread out your papers, do kid’s homework, and work on documents or work on your laptop.

In the same vein, an even stronger coffee table can be useful as a tooling surface in situations where you are fixing or assembling an appliance.

Coffee Table-cum-Recreational Surface

Top view of three young friends playing cards on the coffee table.

Back in the day, before the advent of television, coffee tables at times served the purpose of somewhere to put playing cards, puzzle pieces, and the like. That traditional purpose I realized just the other day, continues to this day. While at a relative’s weekly Games Night, while we relaxed playing board games, cards, and puzzles in her living room, her coffee table proved the handiest flat surface for putting our cards, game boards, and puzzle pieces.

However, if you have young children in the house, it is better to go with smooth-edged surfaces like ovals and circles to avoid getting the little ones hurt when they bump into the sharp edges.

Coffee Table-cum-Magazine Stand/ Gadgets Space

A photo of laptop on table with flower vase and coffee cup.

While the most common purpose for coffee tables is probably the original purpose: for temporarily placing your cup of coffee or tea, in some apartments I have visited, my girlfriends use them as a sort of magazine stand/gadgets space.

Reminiscent of reading desks, the top of most coffee tables today also serves as somewhere to temporarily put not only your cup of coffee while watching T.V., but also magazines and books you are currently reading, remote controls, DVDs, cellphones, keys, and just about anything else that you need to put down to temporarily free your hands.


Whatever the purpose, there are some basic rules and guidelines for you to consider when acquiring a coffee table.

The first rule of thumb is to ensure that your coffee table is at the same height or slightly lower than the seat of your couch or sofa . It aesthetically takes the focus away from the couch. Besides, the styling would be challenging as the coffee table will already be elevated.

As such, whatever you put on top of it is going to appear congested or will obstruct your view from a seated position.

The second rule to consider is where you will place your coffee table to maximize your space. The distance between your couch and coffee table should be between 12-18inches depending on the overall size of your living space. You generally want to be able to reach for whatever you put on the coffee table without stretching too much.

Also, you should be able to position your coffee table in such a way that you can move around your living space without bumping regularly into your all-important coffee table.

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