A coffee table display changes more often than a bookshelf, but don't put too much thought into it, says Loi Thai, owner of the Bethesda antiques shop Tone-on-Tone. "Once you get the hang of it, arranging a coffee table is a very easy kind of decorating."
Or something that's living or organic. It will soften the table's hard surface. Fresh flowers work, too, but plants last longer and aren't as fussy. You could also use a bowl of fruit, such as apples, oranges or pomegranates. But that's become a little cliched, he says.
If everything on your table is the same height, it looks boring. Orchids are a good choice because they are tall but don't visually block the room.
Stack a few art books or seasonal books. "If it's spring, I'll put out a book about gardening. If I have out-of-town guests coming, I'll put something out about Washington, D.C."
"If I've just come back from traveling, I'll fill a bowl with photos from my trip for guests to look through," says Thai. An unscented candle in a glass container works, too. One candle is enough, he says, "you don't want it to look like a stage set."
Two items would be too stiff and expected; four would be too much. Three items is a good balance, particularly if the coffee table is in front of a sofa with two side tables and two lamps. An odd number will break up the symmetry.
You want your tabletop display to be in proportion to the table itself: nothing too dinky if you have a huge, square table and nothing too towering if you have a small table in a small room.
If you confine your display to one side, it will look less staged. Use the empty side to set down a tray of food or coffee when someone stops by.
If you have a small table, place something under the table to maximize your space. A wire or woven basket, vintage milk cartons or newspaper bins could hold magazines or throws.
Whatever you set on a coffee table, people seem to pick up and admire, says Thai. Rule of thumb: If you want to draw attention to something, put it on your coffee table.