Design Solutions: Furnishing The Modest Living Room

After almost two decades in design, I have become an expert at intelligent space planning, but as the owner of a modest home, the tricks I've learned for making the most of tight spaces are particularly close to my heart. 

There are a number of ways to furnish a small living room, but let's start with the most important thing not to do. There is a temptation to look for modestly scaled furniture so that one can fill the room with as many pieces as they might in a larger room.  Why this doesn't work is that it creates what designer's call The Dollhouse Effect.  The tables tend to look spindly and fragile, the seating upright and narrow.  Overall the space has an appearance of clutter and often feels more unsettling than comforting.

Below is an image of a client's modest living room before we designed it. In a small space it is often hard to capture the whole room without a wide angle lens, and this photo is from a series we took in the the discovery stage that was meant only for our reference. Nonetheless, the image shows about half the space, so it isn't hard to see that the room is modest in scale.

Flood Living Room Before.jpg

What I immediately responded to were the pleasing proportions of the mantle and the generous number of windows.  Sightlines through windows can open up a room and add depth.  Although not visible in our photographs, the room also features a handsome set of slender fluted columns in the wide center hall entry that force a perception of height and airiness. 

At little more than two hundred square feet, both the furnished and unfurnished layouts of the room are shown below.  The hearth is the central element and an essential rule of space planning is not to block a reasonable sightline to the focal point.  Placing one of the sofas across from the hearth would have blocked egress from the center hall and further closed in the space.  Early on the process I determined that a pair of sofas would be the best way to comfortably seat six people.  The dominant spatial challenge was a diagonal traffic pattern that cuts from the center hall and crosses to the dining room.   While I would normally give this lane a wide berth, providing adequate seating for family and guests was a high priority, so I pushed the envelope just a little. 

  Left , the unfurnished layout and,  right , the version I proposed.

Left, the unfurnished layout and, right, the version I proposed.

There were a number of professional tactics I used to add volume to the space.

To keep the eye moving, I opted to treat the windows with crisp, classic venetian blinds.  Drapery would have required needed floor space and drawn vertical lines that break the visual flow.  Another tactic that maximizes the apparent scale of the room is the rug, which adds warm texture without introducing a graphic pattern that might have been too dominant. The woven interest of the rug is echoed in grasscloth-textured wallpaper which contrasts very subtly with the trim color.  

The strongest furniture elements in the room in both scale and impact are the matching sofas. Here I wrapped the outside of the frame in a wipeable white recycled leather, while choosing a durable dark blue for the rest of the piece.  Not only does this combination of fabrics create a bold and unexpected contrast, it provides a livable solution for a living room that doubles up as a second family room.

 Photo: Matthew Lofton

Photo: Matthew Lofton

On the wall entering into the sunny dining room, a pair of open and airy etageres provide display without weighting the corners the way solid wood shelves may have done.  With minimal metal framing and glass shelves, these furnishings make the most of the space they occupy and add a much needed layer to the sightline of the adjacent area. 

 One enters into the dining room through a doorway flanked by a visually unassuming pair of etageres. Photo: Matthew Lofton

One enters into the dining room through a doorway flanked by a visually unassuming pair of etageres. Photo: Matthew Lofton

There are many creative ways to make the small room a charming oasis without compromising functionality or style.  In my next blog in the Design Solutions series, I'll tackle the opposite problem: a space so large it needed to be thoughtfully organized into zones for comfort and functionality.

Paul Miller