How to Design Your Living Room

Avoid living room traps — overly formal or comfy-but-ugly — with these design tips from local experts.



For Renee Carman of Mandeville Canyon Designs,  living room design is about “recapturing that sense of an adult sanctuary.”

Living rooms often fall into one of two categories: Stuffy, overly formal spaces filled with imposing furniture and antiques that often go unused; or cluttered dens stuffed with technology and comfy-but-ugly furniture. Neither scenario exactly inspires design envy, but they’re hard traps to avoid when it comes to living spaces. Nonetheless, with a little work and a little realigning of priorities, your living room can once again become the centerpiece of your home.

Making your living room truly livable begins with determining where you went wrong in the past. So if the cold, formal parlor description sounds like your home, Renee Carman of Mandeville Canyon Designs in Exeter says it’s time to make a transition. “If it’s just a room filled with furniture you don’t really want to use, that’s how it will stay,” Carman says of parlor-style living rooms. “[The idea] really is recapturing that sense of an adult sanctuary for reading, writing or a game room.”

First, she says, a homeowner needs to establish a purpose for her under-utilized living room. From there, she should fill it with furniture that matches her taste and lifestyle — and that furniture doesn’t always have to revert back to the traditional couch-and-end-table formula. “I really like individual seating,” Carman says. “When you’re having a group of people over, it’s a lot to ask them to snuggle up on a couch together.” Instead, she recommends a chaise lounge or wingback chairs.

And, Carman says, giving the room personality keeps it fresh. She says homeowners can maintain individuality by highlighting “something a little out of the ordinary,” such as artwork or a statement piece of furniture like a glass coffee table.

Mary Wright of M&W Homes advises homeowners to hide the TV set. For this room, Wright distracts the eye from the screen by placing it between pretty shelves and above the fireplace. 
Courtesy of M&W Homes

If making your living room seem less formal isn’t your issue — hello, cluttered den dwellers — Mary Wright of M&W Homes in Plymouth says the key is to combine design with function. “Make it accommodating and comfortable and something for the entire family,” she says. “I think you have to start with who’s going to be using the space.”

One thing Wright says nearly every homeowner, but especially those with overly relaxed living rooms, should think about is disguising the inevitable living room television set. “Everyone has a TV, everyone watches TV,” Wright says. “But nobody really wants it to be the single focus of the living room.” She suggests distracting the eye with a fireplace beneath the TV and pretty shelving or cabinets on either side, or hiding the screen in a built-in cabinet.

Wright says today’s packed-to-the-brim living rooms also call for a degree of practicality. She recommends built-in units and ottomans that open up for extra storage space, and stresses the need for low-maintenance furniture. “I personally suggest, no matter what you do for furniture, get something that can take a slipcover,” she says. “And consider the number of people and guests when buying furniture.”

Alice Williams of Alice Williams Interiors stresses the need for storage. Vertical storage, such as tall bookcases (stand-alone or built-in), are a great way to create storage and to save precious floor space.

When it comes down to it, though, it doesn’t really matter whether your space is formal or relaxed — all that matters is that it’s doing its purpose. Alice Williams of Alice Williams Interiors in Hanover says the most important thing to keep in mind is functionality, regardless of the vibe of your living room. “If it’s a formal living room, it functions as a formal living room, and if it’s a living room where [the homeowner] wants to watch TV and sit in front of the fire and play on the floor with their children, it allows for that,” she says of her ideal living room. “There’s such a broad spectrum of uses.”

Williams suggests tailoring your room to your lifestyle and tastes as much as possible, picking unique pieces to set the tone and breaking up the space, if possible, into sections that accommodate different uses. “I often try to put a table in the room off to the side where they can play games so the room can have two functions,” she says. “This is where you sit and watch television or read a book, but we have this corner over here where a puzzle can be set up all the time or a game can be played.”

And, of course, no modern homeowner can forget storage. Williams recommends investing in tables with drawers, utilizing space beneath tables, finding vertical storage (like a tall bookcase) to save floor space, and creating ways to store clutter-inducing things like DVDs and games alongside the TV or stereo. In the end, she says, it’s all about balancing that practicality with a good aesthetic. “Think of those pieces of furniture,” she says, “and how they can be decorative but also functional.”

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