KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Coffee tables with two levels have been popular for a while. Because people want places to set their laptops, tablet computers and smartphones, you're starting to see coffee tables designed with three levels.
So much is happening with this key piece of furniture that Cosmo Kramer needs to update his coffee table book on coffee tables.
During the 1990s Seinfeld era, the coffee table was mainly a place to set drinks and remote controls -- and maybe rest your feet when mom wasn't looking. The ubiquitous clunky wooden table was a far cry from the 1950s cocktail table, limbo-low at 16 inches tall with a sculptural wooden or chrome base and a discreetly elegant round glass top.
Home furnishings design forecaster Michelle Lamb is seeing a return to artistry in coffee tables, and more function than ever.
"Not only is it a place to set your drinks and the remote, it's a place for laptops, tablet computers and smartphones," says Lamb of the Trend Curve in Eden Prairie, Minn. She regularly travels to trade shows to study how furniture makers are responding to changing lifestyles. "It's a place to play and work."
Wireless devices have influenced coffee table design. Some tables have built-in charging stations and, because we're working more from home, file cabinets. Furniture maker Aspen Home pioneered that design trend, Lamb says.
Technology also is playing a role in the number of coffee tables we're using. Furniture makers are introducing the concept of grouping three small tables. Global Views, a Dallas-based furniture maker, offers a trio of varying height marble-top tables with gold-finished iron bases. An iPad could be placed on one, a drink on another and reading materials on the third.
"It's combining sculptural art pieces with multiple functions," says Rick Janecek, creative director and lead product designer of Global Views.
Space planning also is a reason for having more than one coffee table. Two small coffee tables rather than a single large one prevent the person sitting in the middle of a sofa from becoming trapped, says Bobanne Kalkofen, interior design professor at Johnson County Community College.
"One coffee table can act as a blockade," Kalkofen says.
Measurements can determine coffee table choice and placement. To reach drinks easily, the table edge should be 18 inches from the sofa. But to allow a person to comfortably get up and walk is 24 inches. In her living room, Kalkofen uses a side table for drinks because her coffee table is cube-shaped. The space underneath a legged table gives feet clearance, so it's a more practical choice if you want to use it for drinks.
Kalkofen is a fan of small ottomans with flip tops: One side is a tray, the other upholstered. They function as tables, storage and extra seating. But she has no qualms about putting her feet up on her rustic wooden coffee table in the family room. A carpet runner provides a bit of cushioning.
Lamb is seeing furniture makers such as Norwalk make an ottoman/coffee table hybrid. The top is similar to an upholstered bench, but a lower wooden shelf serves as storage.
Because more of us are downsizing, smaller coffee tables are growing more popular, says Cameron Cook of Four Hands, an Austin-based manufacturer.
1. Stack -- rather than fan -- books and magazines. It feels less contrived.
2. A candy dish can be sweet and stylish.
3. Leave room for drinks. Have coasters and cocktail napkins on the surface so guests don't feel reluctant to put their drinks down.