Trunk Coffee TablesWalk into any furniture store and you'll find coffee tables aplenty — black coffee tables, glass coffee tables, cherry coffee tables — many of them undeniably lovely. But to create rooms that are not just "nice" but noteworthy, interior designers often forgo the furniture stores' offerings and use creative coffee table alternatives instead. Here are a few of the experts' favorite ways to add life to your living room.
Originally designed as luggage for long cruises, the Louis Vuitton trunks that clothes designer Tommy Hilfiger collects have now docked in his home in Greenwich, Conn. — in the bedroom, the living room and here in the library.
"These trunks are a classic element," says Cindy Rinfret, interior designer of Hilfiger's home and author of Classic Greenwich Style. "The trunks make the room feel well-traveled, as if things had been collected over time."
And while the Louis Vuitton logo does add an extra dose of cachet, you could certainly use other trunks for the same purpose. Look for wooden Chinese trunks or steamer trunks in different materials or finishes, or even a stack of vintage suitcases or photographer's cases. Rinfret also has made coffee tables out of a lobster trap with a wooden board on top; from a stone garden planter flipped on its head; and from a slice of the tree that fell on a client's property. "The coffee table is really the ideal place to get creative," she says.
Coffee Table SetsWith pillows from Venice, an Indonesian armoire and a mirror from her own company, designer Sherri Donghia turned the den of her Tribeca apartment into a comfortable, eclectic spot for working and relaxing. To complete the look and increase the room's flexibility, she stacked three vintage Korean tables in front of the sofa for a look as pretty as it is practical.
Because the tables are light and small, Donghia moves them around frequently, stacking two for books and photo albums and leaving the third on its own to hold a cup of coffee. Or the trio can be spread throughout the room as mood and needs dictate.
"Everything in a room has to be flexible," says the designer and author of Donghia: The Artistry of Luxury and Style. "With small tables like this that are stackable, you can create something that works with the low seating that is becoming more and more popular now — or something higher, to work with a traditional sofa or banquette."
Although these Korean tables can be difficult to find in the United States, the concept could also be adapted to small Chinese or Indian tables, which are more widely available in major cities and online. Whatever the origin of the tables you see, look for shapes and colors that intrigue you, and don't be put off by a little wear and tear.
"The wood of these three tables is starting to crack a little bit over time, but that's fine," says Donghia. "It's all part of the patina."
Photo by Michael Mundy
Wood and Metal Coffee TablesThe base of this coffee table is machine-made and industrial looking, while the top is hand-hewn and all natural. The overall effect? Striking, sophisticated and absolutely one of a kind.
"What really inspires me is the idea of marrying something that is rustic with something manmade," says interior designer Alan Tanksley who created the table for a New York City apartment.
The table's base is from a classic Warren Platner table, an iconic 20th-century piece that is usually sold with a round stone or glass top. To replace the standard surface, Tanksley worked with noted New York furniture source Tucker Robbins, who had an oval top custom made of hand-hewn mountain pine.
"You can see the maker's hand in the pine top," says Tanksley. "It's grooved, and has a very organic feel and look to it."
In addition to creating a unique look for Tanksley's clients, the table serves a practical function in the space. "I liked putting the ellipse on the round base in that particular situation," the designer says, "because it nestles into the L-shaped banquette perfectly."
Coffee Table TripletsAlthough the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams' "Searlate" furniture group actually includes a coffee table, designer Bob Williams chose instead to place three identical Searlate end tables in front of this long sofa.
"It's a fun look and also a practical one," says Mitchell Gold, Williams' business partner and co-author of Let's Get Comfortable: How to Furnish and Decorate a Welcoming Home. " The tables here are on casters and move particularly easily, but most tables of this size would be easy to lift out of the way and rearrange as needed next to other chairs in the room."
Whether you choose three end tables, one coffee table or something entirely unexpected in front of the sofa, Williams recommends that you make sure a piece you're going to use is near standard coffee table height.
"A good height for a table is close to that of your sofa cushions, about 19 to 22 inches," he says. "Also make sure your table doesn't stick out too far into the room, and that you have at least 18 inches between the sofa and the table to be able to maneuver in and out."
Photo by Sally Fanjoy and James Labrenz
Custom Coffee TableDesigner Martha Angus wasn't thinking "coffee table" at all when she purchased this white rectangular sculpture at an auction.
"I just liked it," she recalls of the anonymous piece that reminded her of work by noted artist Sol Lewitt. "It was only later that it occurred to me that it might make a great coffee table."
And make a great coffee table it does in Angus's own home in St. Helena, Calif. The open, hollow piece in white-painted wood suits the airy feel of the living room and adds a strong contrast to the antique Georgian settee next to it. "It's completely unexpected," says Angus, a creative thinker who also has stacked piles of antique sock boxes (a French dry goods shop find) as tables in her library. "And it's that sort of contrast that really makes a room."
To create similar drama in your own home, look past the label on a piece of furniture or art and focus on finding something that really speaks to you. The result, says Angus, will be a home that looks and feels as unique as you are — and will never be mistaken for a furniture showroom's selling floor.
Photo by Matthew Millman