How to Style a Room with Coffee Table Books

A complete guide to interior decoration with coffee table books

How to Style a Room with Coffee Table Books

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What is a coffee table book?

A coffee table book is a large format, usually hardcover, presentation volume, lavishly embellished with high-quality photographs or illustrations, placed artfully on a coffee table — or other furniture — to set a mood and enhance an interior. These beautiful books are also used to communicate the tastes, style, and values of the homeowner while providing a pleasant, leisurely reading experience for guests, or serving as ‘conversation pieces’ at parties and other gatherings. Coffee table books are visually attractive, complementing the interior decoration and styling of a room, make a statement about you, and engage guests and visitors to your home.


Where do you place coffee table books?

Despite the name, coffee table books needn’t be displayed only on the coffee table. You can position them anywhere in the home, so long as they are in keeping with the theme of the room, look good where they’re placed, and can be picked up, browsed, and enjoyed. Consider placing them in the following locations other than the coffee table:

  • Occasional tables
  • Couches, easy chairs, and divans
  • Nightstands and bedside cabinets
  • Bathrooms and vanity tables
  • Entrance hall and telephone tables
  • Buffets and credenzas
  • Guest room dressers
  • Conservatory tables 

You can also place coffee table books outside in the spring and summer during fair weather, especially if you are hosting a garden party, a cookout, or a sports and games event.


Experiment and have fun with coffee table books

While several accepted norms and standards exist — and we’ll discuss them all as we go along — don’t feel constrained always to follow the crowd. It’s your home, your statement, and your chance to add a dash of personal flair and expression to your living space. One of the wonderful advantages of coffee table books compared to other interior accessories is their remarkable versatility.

You can place them in several locations, swap them out to follow the seasons, a celebratory theme, or with a special thought for house guests and their interests. Because they are portable and easy to arrange — compared with, say, wall hangings, lamps, decorative ceramics, plants, and other objects — you can really experiment, move them around, and use them to shift the mood of a room in a matter of minutes.


Styling a room with coffee table books

How to choose coffee table books

When you choose your coffee table books, you must take several factors into account. The interplay between these elements, and getting the balance right, is one of the most interesting and enjoyable features of coffee table books, not only as accessories for your home but as expressions of your personality. So, here’s a list of the aspects to consider when making your choice of books:

  • The current color scheme of the room in which the books will go. People tend to play safe here, choosing books with complementary colors. That may be wise. Still, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t break the mold and try contrast instead. But if you’re going to take a risk like that, be sure it will work as a statement and not just look garish or in poor taste.
  • The themes and subjects of the books. You can choose your coffee table books to reflect your own interests, tastes, and values; or you can choose them to express respect for your guests’ interests, especially if you have people to stay for a few days or more, or you’re hosting a wedding party, a graduation celebration, a bar mitzvah, or a networking event.
  • The size of the books. Despite the well-known adage, when it comes to coffee table books, size matters! Most coffee table books are ‘oversized’ — so, at least 11 inches by 14 inches — and may have anything between a couple of dozen pages up to several hundred. But a large format book will only impress in a suitable environment. So, the huge photo essay book on the five-foot living room coffee table may look great, but it would seem clumsy on the telephone stand or the night cabinet.

It’s also good to select a few different sizes for stacking, but we’ll look at that in a moment. It’s an interesting and often overlooked aspect of styling with coffee table books. But it’s also one of the most important.

Should coffee table books be the same size?

Short answer, no. If you get only one, make it as big as your table and room can support without it seeming unwieldy or intrusive. The smallest size for the more intimate environments such as the bathroom or the night table could be down to an 8-inch square, but anything smaller than that will cease to be a coffee table book and just be…any old book. How big a book can go is a judgement call and is always a compromise between the space the book need occupy and the fact that it still needs to be usable as a book, so that you, your family, friends, and guests can enjoy browsing its pages. A good average size range for most modern homes would be between 8.5 inches by 11 inches and up to 11.5 inches by 14.5 inches. Larger books can be used to ‘anchor’ a stack of smaller books or act as ‘trays’ to carry and display other ornamental objects.

Do you take the cover off coffee table books?

This is a moot point. If the dust cover is beautiful, striking, and appropriate to the room, you can leave it on. Likewise, it’s common to remove jackets to expose the underlying hardcover which may be more appropriate. It depends on what lies beneath the dust cover. 

Is it a plain cloth binding? Well, if your room is ‘shabby chic’ or ‘shaker’ style, that might be better than a full gloss finish. Maybe it’s a cozy corner of your library and a leather binding or embossed board case could be more impressive than a glossy photo cover. With this one, it’s very much up to you, the situation, and the book.

But if you need a rule-of-thumb, in most contemporary-styled homes, keep the cover on; if it’s a mansion, castle, cottage, or has an historical styling — like the shaker style mentioned before — you might want to remove the cover.


Spacing, placing, and stacking

Now let’s get down to the details. You’ve chosen your coffee table books. They complement your interior decoration perfectly, express your interests and tastes, and are neither too large nor too small for the table on which you’ll place them. So, what now? You can’t just throw them down in a pile. Lining them up would look weird. So, how do you artfully place coffee table books? The key is in the word ‘artfully’ and there are three factors to balance:

  • Spacing — this refers to how much real estate the books should occupy on the table’s surface. Too much and it could look crowded, not enough and they won’t stand out. It’s also about the distance and relationship between the books and any other ornaments and objects on the same surface.
  • Placing — this refers to where on the coffee table the books sit, how many they are, and how many are grouped together.
  • Stacking — this is a popular way of organizing and presenting books on your coffee table by putting several books in a ‘stack’, one on top of the other. It can also mean using one, large book as a tray or pedestal on which to display other objects.

The key with successful spacing is to avoid overcrowding the coffee table’s surface. So, really, it’s determined by a loose equation between the surface area, the shape of the table, and the number of other objects which occupy the space. 

When it comes to placing your books in the chosen space, the shape of the table is key. If the coffee table is square or rectangular, consider spacing the books or stacks in alignment with the edges or corners. If circular or oval, imagine a triangle with points equidistant from the center and place the books at the points.

The fundamental principle of a stack is the pyramid. So, start with the largest book in the group and top off with the smallest. If the books are all the same size, stack them in alignment — never in a fan — and finish off with a vase, candlestick, or other item which gives an artistic feel to the stack but is easy to remove for handling and browsing the books.


How many coffee table books should you stack?

Not so many that they could be described as a pile or a heap! Certainly not enough to make a tottering tower that could fall down at any moment. Just two well-chosen books work as a stack, three look great, four may be too symmetrical as we tend to find odd numbers more artistically pleasing, and five is probably the maximum.

The exception is if you want to follow the current trend of piling up several oversized books to top with a tray and use as a coffee table. But whether that’s either sensible or in good taste is a matter of heated debate. It may just look as if you’ve got too many books and can’t afford proper shelving!

In any case, however decorative a coffee table book may be — and it should be very decorative — it’s important that it can still be read and enjoyed inside as well as looking pretty outside. Probably the best bet is to keep the coffee table and settle for a few well-placed, intelligently-curated book stacks on top.


Where’s the best place to buy coffee table books?

You can get your coffee table books from a number of sources. A brand-new book just published might be in the higher price range. But if it’s the right look for you, second hand coffee table books are perfectly acceptable — especially if your space has a vintage look and feel. 

The major publishing houses who specialize in coffee table books in the US are Signature Books, Rizzoli New York, and Vivant. But there are many others, too, such as Hatje Cantz in Germany, Thames & Hudson in London, and Damiani in Italy, to name only a few.

You can browse your local independent bookstores, check out thrift stores and used book stands, or even ask at your library as most sell off old stock from time to time and you may pick up a perfect coffee table book bargain. Online, aside from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, take a look at eBay and Etsy. You could also organize a book swap party from time to time if you’re looking to shake things up a bit.

And then there’s another very classy option: a unique, custom-made coffee table book. A book that you’ve designed yourself — or had designed for you — and is the only one in world. Never considered that before? It may be easier — and less expensive — than you think.

Here at Qin Printing, unlike many printers, we have our own in-house designers along with decades of experience and the very latest technology. We’ve lost count of the number of satisfied clients we’ve helped to realize their dream of a truly unique and beautifully crafted coffee table book — one that’s like no other, is a truly personal statement, and that’s bound to elicit attention and seriously impress.

Interested? There’s no harm in chatting through the possibilities. Get in touch today and one of our small, friendly team of experts will be happy to listen to your ideas and guide you through the options — with no obligation on your part. A well-chosen coffee table book is always a good thing. But a custom-made book is in a class of its own.


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