Coffee tables are on my mind this summer because I just got one of the new coffee table ottomans we’re carrying at Nell Hill’s, which are upholstered with antique rugs. I’m smitten with mine because the rug covering my ottoman has tiny snags in it that I imagine came from someone’s kitty, generations ago. Dan can’t imagine why on earth I would buy a piece of furniture with cat scratches on it when we already have several in our home, thanks to our ornery kittens. Call me crazy, but the thought of some lazy cat snoozing on this vintage rug makes the piece all the more special.

Now I have to decide how to accessorize my new coffee table. These little islands perched in the middle of our living rooms can be challenging to decorate, can’t they? They need to walk the line between form and function, sporting displays that are interesting but not obtrusive. If you’d like a new look on your coffee table, here are a few ideas to inspire you.  

Stylishly Studious

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when they design their coffee table displays is to use too many small or low-profile pieces. You know what I mean – you see this look at the doctor’s office, where the coffee table is covered in a sea of outdated magazines or a few coffee table books.

For a display that really works, first determine what look you’re going for. Do you want something casual or formal? Be sure your display matches the style of your room and is functionally sound.  For instance, you don’t want an overly tall, dramatic display on the coffee table in front of your TV. Instead, save that arresting look for a little-used formal living room and go for something simple in your family room.

Next, collect some intriguing accents you can showcase that will bring in a mix of textures, sizes and shapes. Don’t be afraid to include beefier objects because accents with some heft will add width and height to your tableau.

To build your display, start with an interesting base, like a tray. I’m a big believer in putting displays on trays because trays pull the pieces together and give the grouping a unified look. Plus, when you build a display on a tray, you can easily move it if you want to clear the coffee table for another use.

Next, find a focal point for your display, like a vase of flowers, a stack of boxes or a candlestick. I like to use pieces that have sentimental value, like a china soup tureen you inherited from your grandmother or an old trophy of your granddad’s.

Finally, consider including a few items you will use on a daily basis, such as a book or a bowl of candy. Why not add a wooden box to hold your TV remotes or a silver vase to store your reading glasses?

To create this wonderful look, we used a framed mirror as our base. Next, we added layer upon layer of texture using books. Another tip for making your coffee table creations look wonderful is to replicate a few key pieces, like we did with the books. We added to these visual elements by topping our stack of books with a wooden box. It mirrors the shape of the books but adds a bit of shine.

We finished off the tableau with two porcelain figurines. I adore figurines and frequently tuck them into displays to bring in some whimsy. The pieces we selected for this example carry on the subtle earth tones reflected in the books and box.

Refined Elegance

While I love traditional coffee tables, I’m also a huge fan of coffee table ottomans and recommend them all the time to families with young kids. Not only do they remove the safety hazards of sharp corners and hard surfaces, they also look lovely without a display on top of them.

For today’s example, we decided to dress up this regal upholstered ottoman with a working centerpiece, one you could use when entertaining friends.       Our anchor for this bar service is a lovely silver tray. I couldn’t imagine decorating without silver trays – they have become a bedrock of the Nell Hill’s look. If you don’t have a silver tray yet, consider adding one (or more) to your arsenal of accents. You will be blown away by how often you use it when you entertain and in your year-round decorating. We have a wonderful selection of trays at both Nell Hill’s stores, so come check them out.

Next, we added a few party essentials, from a classic crystal decanter and glasses to appetizer plates with gold detailing. (I had this timeless set reproduced from my own china pattern for my Mary Carol Home Collection line, which is available at Nell Hill’s Online or at the stores). We filled the blue and white china bowl with fruit, but you could easily replace it with a dessert server holding canapés or tarts. To bring in some visual height, we finished off the look with a silver candlestick.

Something Old, Something New

For our last example, we used one of my favorite trays as the base. I adore these painted wooden trays because they are incredibly versatile and affordable. We sell a million of them at the stores because you just can’t go wrong with them.

We wanted a strong vertical look for this display, so we stacked a few books on top of a wooden box. We topped the tower off with a battery operated pillar candle. I’m a big fan of fake candles because you can leave them “burning” all evening without any fire risk.  Check out the selection at Nell Hill’s Online.

Next we added color, texture and more height by placing a vase filled with faux greens behind our focal-point. For balance, we used a garden statue on the other side. We purposely picked pieces that reflected an earthy color palette to create visual harmony. But we made sure our three visual elements were different enough to make the display interesting.

Next Week … Ready to brighten your life? The right accent lighting can really perk up the look of a room. Next week, our design experts will share tips on how to pick the right lamps for your home, plus share their absolute favorite styles. Come back and see us!

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23 Responses to “Brew Up a Creative Coffee Table Design”

  1. Linda Says:

    Is the garden statue available at Neil Hill’s? Would love to have one or two. Love the ideas for the coffee tables/ottomans. I just plain love your blog and your ideas ! ! Keep them coming and also items that can be purchased on line.

  2. maureen Says:

    Wondeful tips of the trade! Love all these ideas. Question: My coffee table has a center floral design, any ideas on how to decorate without obstructing that design? I have three candlesticks off to one side and a rose bowl on the other side but sometimes it looks off balance to me. Any suggestions are appreciated. Thanks for all these wondeful ideas. I find everything inspirational!

  3. Mary Stephens Says:

    I love the wooden tray in the last photo. Is it available for purchase? Are there colors available?

    Thanks so much,

  4. Diane Says:

    Love your blog and photos. Besides the focal point of your photos, it is fun to see little peeks of your store! I do have a question, on the last photo, when you have a statue with a face, like yours, when not staging for a photo shoot, would you put the face out toward the room or do you put the face toward the sofa, where people will sit? Thanks so much, Diane

  5. Linda Says:

    Got your email today & love the scissor type leg coffee table. Wish my sis & your pal Penny was here to see it, we always spent hours pouring over your books & other decorating books that also suited our taste & style & miss that, of course. Now I have no one to do that w/ me as much, unless my daughter is in town. Do you have that coffee table & if so, how much & does it ship? I don’t need it of course, but seldom find one I like as much. I have an older Baker coff. table now, but get tired of one for very long; don’t think I’d get tired of this as much. I wanted you to have her coffee table, but it went to Wichita. It was one I’d found, then she fell in love w/ it.

  6. Mary Carol Says:

    Linda—Yes, we have several concrete pieces available in the Briarcliff store–as previewed on the coffee table piece. Come see us!

  7. Maria Says:

    Where does the black and white rug under the coffee table come from? Is it available to order at Nell Hill’s?

  8. Marian Medine Says:

    One very important question – How do we get our husbands to understand that
    after we have spent hours pondering over the exact placement of objects, fluffing the pillows and scrunching them in the perfect places and making our
    sofas and tables look so inviting that we really do not want them plopping down on them with their shoes on and messing everything up??? Even my grandchildren know when something is “for decoration” !! Why not the husbands?!?!
    Marian Medine

  9. Susan Says:

    The white tray…has my name on it. :) Love it.

  10. Rebecca Gibson Says:

    Marian: Go to the garage and do some rearranging!

    I have Mary Carol’s big blue and white platter, her bird, her books, couple of clear glass containers and one of those little ferns on mine. I always serve the snacks before a dinner there and just pour all the tortillas or whatever into that platter and always gets great comments. Everyone always asks where I got that platter!

  11. Jaybird Says:

    The first words out of my mouth are “I’m OLD” and behind the times, BUT…..as much as I love the arrangements that I see on coffee tables, what do you do about skirts and animals?? One brush of a dogs tail, or a curious kitty cat, or someone walking by with a skirt on, and you have a disaster. I see people all the time with candles on their coffee tables and I just cringe! I love the crystal idea, but I would be worried all the time….
    SO, tell me what to use on MY coffee table?? I have a wooden basket with wicker orbs, two coasters and the occasional foot or two plus books or magazines…oh, and dust!!
    I ADORE your books and have all of them :^) and I am loving this newsletter! I am responding today because coffee table decos have always been a big question mark for me!!
    Thank you for listening!

  12. Sally Williams Says:

    To Maureen –

    I read your comment about the coffee table with center pattern. Here’s what I did. I have offset the displays on my family room coffee table, not because it has a center pattern but because I like space in the middle so I can easily place a tray of snacks while we’re watching TV. Following Mary Carol’s “tray” design, on one side I used a small brass tray to one side. On it I’ve arranged 3 china obelisks of differing height and design — they give the height. On the other side I stacked books with a small soapstone box on top. Check Nell Hill for small trays — I got 3 small silver trays there that I use in my bedroom and living room.

    Hope this is helpful,

  13. Jean Bowers Says:

    I simply love Nell Hill Design and Mary Carol’s creative style! I look forward to each blog.
    I have most of the books and just wish there were a Nell Hills close by. Meanwhile, I’ll have to shop online. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to travel to Kansas to experience this
    marvelous place for myself!
    The coffeetable ideas are very attractive and I agree with Mary Carol re: trays in decorating functionally as well as bringing beauty to each space.
    Each idea presented inspires me to reevaluate and redecorate! Thanks so much for your creative ideas Mary Carol! Jean B

  14. Mary Carol Says:

    Mary–Our wood trays have flown out the door–however, we do have a few green ones left at our Atchison store. Call 877-367-1086.

  15. Mary Carol Says:

    Linda—We would love to ship that beautiful coffee table to you. It sells for $495.00. We would need a shipping address so we could get you a quote. Call Janet with your information–877-746-4320.

  16. Mary Carol Says:

    Maria–The navy and cream rug comes from right here at Nell Hills. Call for all the details–877-746-4320.

  17. Mary Carol Says:

    Jaybird–I so understand your dilemma–especially with a home full of dogs and kids. I say—just go with it, decorating with things that don’t break. Love placing books, baskets. faux ferns and my fav—faux candles—the very best for look and safety.

  18. Jane Eyestone Says:

    Hi Mary Carol, Writing off subject here – In your Christmas book, there is a picture from your friends house that had the beverage station over the washer/dryer and so cleverly concealed. However, there was a darling cows head hanging on the wall! I’m not Bovine crazy (as you know I raise Buffalo), but this was just a perfect piece. Any information you would be able to provide on that fab piece? It was wonderful!
    Here in JC and loving Rob at Gatherings and all your wonderful pieces he features. Thanks so much! Janie

  19. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Janie—Great to hear from you, unfortunately, I can not get that cow head anymore–so sorry. By the way, had a great breakfast with Rick and Rob at market. Have a great weekend!

  20. Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild Says:

    Dear Mary-Would love to see a pix of the rug table in your next blog. Keep up the great blogs-they are an inspiration.

  21. David from buywoodencoffeetables.co.uk Says:

    Very impressive tips you mentioned there! Thanks! This is very informative. I find it funny when you’ve mentioned “outdated magazines”! Well indeed, you’re absolutely right because other people love to collect magazines and then they just place it near the coffee table.

  22. maureen Says:

    Thanks, Sally for giving me some ideas! Worth a try and I’ll see how it works out!

  23. maggie mistilis Says:

    I enjoy the blogs so much! You have helped me decorate my home! I am anxiously awaiting some tips on what to do with the tops of my staggered kitchen cabinets and armoires. Love olive jars, but am on a budget!

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