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From catch-all to creativity: The art of coffee table decorating

Sometimes it seems like there are two types of coffee tables - the first ready for a photo shoot and the second an exercise in controlled clutter. With a bit of imagination, you can design a table all your own.

The reason why the photo shoot variety isn't on the list of suggestions is because it tends to look as though it dwells independently in a space where no one actually lives, while the cluttered tabletop looks as if far too many people, none with much decorating sense, live there. The middle ground is a wonderful place to be.

Less is more - space, that is
Don't give in to the common tendency to cover every square inch, or even every quadrant, of your coffee table. You can adorn it with fresh flowers and lush plants, but leave room for the coffee.

At the same time, Real Simple magazine recommended remembering why it's located in the living room, that treasured spot where real living takes place and where you establish the tone for your personal decorating style. If bright and airy is your aim, try an open-weave coffee table topped with a single, show-stopping sculpture. If a reading corner is your oasis of choice, skip the table and opt for an ottoman - ever so lovely for setting magazines and resting tired feet.

Book in advance
Country Living magazine quoted designer Gena Sigala about how to turn a coffee table from frumpy to focused, and she suggested using objects that mirror the shape of the table. A rectangular table, for example, is enhanced with a rectangular tray - always a good choice - and, of course, be sure to display your most elegant coffee table books, ideally about a person, place or thing that intrigues you.

"A piece that mimics the shape of your table helps organize items neatly and acts as a pretty layering element," she explained.

That perfectly shaped piece can also be highly functional, such as a lidded box that becomes the new home for small essentials and ends the frantic cries of "Where's the remote?"

The piece de resistance: personality
Here's where you can get truly creative, like every talented designer. Think outside the box and around the coffee table by adding clever touches like switch plates and outlet covers or complementary window treatments that extend the coffee table theme to the entire living space. Then simply add what you like.

"Set out things that will spark curiosity and conversation, like a collection of glass bottles," advised Sigala.

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