How to Style a Coffee Table Tray

Last updated Jul 31, 2018 | Published on Nov 22, 2017 | Decorating, Tutorial

Did you ever wonder how to put a few items on a tray and make it look like they all belong together?

I did. So, I figured out how.

The Project

The area I describe in this article was a trunk that I’m using in my living room as a coffee table. By itself, the trunk looked a tad bare, it needed a little something more.

I happen to have a number of decorative wooden trays, so that was a logical alternative.

Off to Pinterest for some decorating advice.

And, sure enough, there I found a number of design rules for styling a decorative tray.

There are rules behind any good design, which you can always choose not to follow. But, in the immortal words of Picasso:

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.

My interpretation of ‘the rules’

Here’s my tray and the list of what I did to create it is below (note that none of the links below are affiliate links).

how to style a decorative tray

Here’s what I did:

1. Add a couple of candlesticks, each of varying height. I purchased the whimsical bird tea light holders from Wayfair.

2. Add a plant or flowers, alive or faux, something with a little color and life. I love this faux hydrangea and the French pot, from  Joss & Main.

3. Add a stack of books, it will give your tray height and dimension. And it will create an interesting perch for another decorative item. I used a vintage stack from an Etsy shop.

4. Add a personal touch or two. I added the letter M (first letter of my last name) on top of the books and the iron spool of thread with the bird beside it. I found both at my local Hobby Lobby.

The Design Rule of Three

There’s another rule at play here, and you’ll find this rule in almost every artistic medium.

It’s quite rampant in the photography world, if you listen closely you’ll hear it in public speaking quite often, and it’s a mainstay in website design (see what I did there?).

A few (three!) examples:

  1. It’s not a coincidence that a play usually has 3 acts.
  2. “Blood, Sweat and Tears”
  3. How about Shakespeare: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”

Grouping items in multiples of three is appealing to the eye and ear, and it creates harmony and symmetry. It’s based on the principle that we humans prefer to see and hear balance in design.

The rule also gives artists and designers an easy guideline, which is kind of neat.

Here’s the tray again below, with my interpretation of the rule of three circled.

  • The two birds count as 1 because they’re a pair (that’s 1).
  • The books and the M on top are a single stack so they count as 1 (that’s 2).
  • The flower and the spindle are ‘together’ (sort of ) so they count as 1, so that makes 3 (the spindle IS a bit of a hanger-on but I like it so it I bent the rule a bit – see there, what does that make me according to Picasso? 🙂 ).

how to style a decorative tray

The Simplest Trick

If this is all too confusing, think of it this way:

Include items of varying heights, textures and colors, and add in your own personality.

My Completed Tray (in real life)

how to style a decorative tray

This particular tray may not check ALL the design rule boxes but I love it.

And it coordinates really well with the room.

In the future, I’ll occasionally update this piece (as I do most of my decor), which will keep the design alive and interesting.

For more information

About the rest of our living room projects, visit our Tour My Living Room page.

How about you?

Designed any decorative trays lately? I’d love to see and hear about your design adventures in the comments below!

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