Is It Time to Bid Adieu to the Coffee Table?

Kitty on couch
Your cat won't judge you if you get rid of your coffee table. (Photo: lily_nymph/flickr)

In my living room, there are six surfaces within arm’s reach of the sofa: a ring-based brass c-table that's perfectly sized for a dinner plate; a tiered glass end table where a lamp, a curated stack of collectible art books and a box of Kleenex live; a blue-and-white chinoiserie footstool in the shape of an elephant that’s usually topped with mugs, magazines or a combination of the two; one wooden folding tray table that’s folded up next to the couch when not in use; an ikat print pouf mostly used to support elevated feet and resting mobile devices; and a round, wobbly-legged midcentury coffee table that may or may not need to go.

Cluttered coffee table
Familiar scene? Many folks are rejecting the coffee table, a humble and hardworking living room staple that often doubles as a clutter trap. (Photo: Beth Punches/flickr)

Normally, ubiquitous household items that fall out of fashion tend to be small appliances and electronics made obsolete by new technology: answering machines, cathode ray televisions, alarm clocks, DVD players, drip coffee makers. Phasing out extraneous and outmoded furniture is a whole different beast. In this less-is-more era, many standard household furnishings are being scrutinized with a more critical, space-conscious eye.

Smaller Living Spaces Make Coffee Tables Obsolete

This includes the coffee table, a relatively new furniture concept that found a prominent place in the formal front parlors of 19th century Europe and the bustling family rooms of 20th century America but today is struggling to fit into living spaces that are increasingly smaller, more versatile and less bound to conventionality.

MH's living room table situation
Just a handful of the flat surfaces, coffee table included, that flank this author's sofa and chaise lounge. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

This might come as a surprise if you figured this low-slung living room staple to be a compulsory item across the boards. It's not like owning a coffee table is the same as having a china hutch in a 500-square-foot apartment, a hotel room-style TV armoire that's been all but emptied out, a tattered recliner that takes up half the room or a file cabinet that claims valuable real estate even though all of your paperwork has gone digital. It's not a waterbed or a decorative CD rack or anything like that. It’s a coffee table! You put it in front of the sofa and put stuff on it! Sometimes that stuff includes coffee! And fancy books! They're great for entertaining! Why wouldn’t you own one?

A quick search yields a multitude of blog posts and online forums that offer plenty of reasons.

The Case Against Coffee Tables

Many arguments against coffee tables revolve around their sheer size in relation to the amount of stuff — more often than not clutter — that’s regularly placed on them. My coffee table, which I bang into and curse at on an almost daily basis, is topped with a smattering of vinyl Chilewich coasters and a catch-all tray that holds a couple of remotes and a small stack of TV Guides from the late 1980s. Mugs, glasses, candles, laptops, candy dishes, nail clippers, tubes of hand cream, paperbacks, cold remedies, crumpled up wads of this-and-that and remote controls, when not buried between couch cushions, all make regular appearances on the coffee table but never for long. All of these things can be put away, thrown away, or easily placed on one of the other five surfaces in the immediate area. I could make it work.

Photos of stylish, coffee table-less living spaces have traditionally not done much for me. I look at them and immediately notice that something is conspicuously absent. What is that hole in the middle of the room? And how can I fill it? I find it jarring, not inspiring. But at the very least, the occasional anti-coffee table trend piece, like this one published earlier this year by Lifehacker, have prompted me to change my way of thinking: for many folks, these livings spaces aren’t missing something, they’ve been freed of something.

In the post, Michelle Woo refers to the coffee table as a “furniture relic” and notes that anti-coffee table sentiment is growing strong, particularly among adherents to Marie Kondo’s KonMari decluttering method. Also doing away with coffee tables are parents who worry that the tables, in addition to taking up valuable space, act as yet another large — and sometimes sharp-cornered — area of concern for young children prone to minor calamities involving furniture.

Writes Woo of her experience giving her coffee table the old heave-ho along with the clunky tufted ottoman brought in to replace it:

Then, for a long while, we had nothing. Just a wide open space. It felt a little off, like a glaring abyss. But soon, something kind of magical happened. We started actually using that area. It became the place where my daughter would do kids’ yoga, the place where we’d all spread out on the rug and play board games, the place where I’d wrap Christmas gifts while watching Netflix, the place where we’d live.

Of course, my living scenario is different than Woo’s. My household doesn’t include yoga-practicing children. I also wrap Christmas gifts in a dedicated gift-wrapping suite (aka the office/spare bedroom). But I can see the appeal of making way for additional floor space.

Coffee Table Substitutes

Large leather ottoman
One potential coffee table substitute: a very large ottoman that doesn't free up much space but is a touch more versatile. (Photo: angi231700/flickr)

Woo goes on to suggest a variety of flat surfaces that can serve as coffee table substitutes: svelte c-tables (Room & Board's model is an enduring classic), nesting end tables or a long console table positioned behind the sofa. She also mentions this thing, which appears to be one step away from the unfortunate phenomenon known as the over-arm couch caddy. Commenters go on to suggest other options including feet-friendly reversible storage ottomans and individual accent tables placed side-by-side. (Other Lifehacker commenters take a strong pro-coffee table stance.)

Still, I’m not entirely convinced.

Despite my coffee table’s bulky size, shaky legs and questionable functionality, I’m not certain how I would use the space freed up by its absence. Yes, my coffee table is partially a clutter magnet and my living area certainly isn’t lacking in additional flat surface areas. But it’s also an anchor and I’d feel unmoored without it. Also, I'm fairly certain that the clutter that finds its way to my coffee table wouldn't disappear along with the coffee table ... it would just wind up cluttering another smaller surface.

This all said, if I were to pack up and move into a new apartment tomorrow, there's no doubt that my current coffee table is one piece of furniture that might not make it into the van. The question is: would I replace it with another one or try gong without?

Have you parted or considered parting ways with your coffee table? And if so, how did you replace it, if at all?