Designer 101: How to Lay Out Your Living Room

Designer 101: How to Lay Out Your Living Room

Use designer Kenneth Wingard’s expert advice to make the most out of your living room.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

The living room is perhaps one of the most important rooms of the house and also one that can have the most challenges with layout.

If you take all of the activities that happen in this room (conversations, TV watching, game night and let’s not forget naps) and some common challenges you’ll face while decorating (fireplaces, built-in bookcases, multiple doors, bay windows), it’s not always easy to find a layout that works for both the room and your family’s needs.

So, to tackle this, you need to do it in two stages: First, look at the big picture and how the room works with no furniture. Second, determine how to arrange your furniture to make the room work for you.

Step 1: Understand the Room
Unless you’ve got two movers who are happy to slide your furniture around all day, it’s best to start with a piece of graph paper and draw out your room. You don’t need a drafting degree for this — it’s easy.

Have each square on the graph paper represent 6 inches and draw the shape of your living room. If it’s 10 feet by 8 feet, draw a rectangle that’s 20 squares by 16 squares. Draw in all of your doors and windows, fireplaces and built-ins — anything that can’t be moved. Now make a few copies of these and use them as your sketchpad.

You can draw a number of sofa and chair placement configurations before you have the aforementioned movers rearrange any real furniture. Looking at the room in this sort of abstract way helps you envision new options that may not have occurred to you when standing in a room that has had a sofa in the same place for 20 years.

Now to figure out what the best layout is, you need know your three F’s: flow, function focal point.

Look at the traffic pattern of the room and how the room functions as a space. How do people travel through the room? Is the room a destination with only one entrance? Do people cut through this room to get to the hallway or to the bedrooms? Is there a path that people take through the room to get to the dining room?

Draw lines on your sketchpad indicating how this flow works.

What do you use the room for? Does this room need to function as a formal living room and TV room? Do you entertain? Does the family play games here?

List the functions that happen in the room and understand how many people, how many seats and how often these functions happen. If four people watch TV every night in the room and you entertain twice a year, you need to design the room towards your nightly TV viewing while keeping in mind what changes you’ll need to make when you entertain.

Focal Point
Most living rooms come with a focal point — often a fireplace or picture window but sometimes a TV. You can’t ignore these and should work with them, not against them.

The focal point is what people are going to see when they initially walk into the room, and your furniture needs to be arranged around it. Some rooms have two competing focal points, most commonly a fireplace and a TV. If that same room also has a picture window, you’ve got three focal points, and you’re in a real pickle!

This should now give you a good understanding of your room, what your needs are and what restrictions you need to work around.

Step 2: Place Your Furniture
Now you can start laying out the space on your graph paper, drawing in things to scale. When placing furniture, there are a few basic guidelines to remember:


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  • Having furniture lines parallel with the walls creates a calmer more orderly space
  • Furniture at angles will create a more dynamic space (but is frankly much harder to pull off!)
  • Leave a pathway at least 36 inches wide for traffic thoroughfares
  • Smaller groupings of furniture should have at least 18 inches of space in front of them for access
  • Seating should be no more than 18 inches away from coffee or side tables
  • Anchor single pieces of furniture with at least two other pieces: a table and a floor lamp, a painting and a rug, an ottoman and a side table

Start with your focal point and your largest piece of furniture (usually your sofa). A sofa with its back toward a fireplace or a TV cabinet and blocking a bay window will instantly break a room.

Your focal point anchors your room, and your large pieces of furniture need to work with it to make a larger statement in the room. If you have a fireplace, the sofa can either face it or go perpendicular to it. If you have a picture window, the sofa can face it, go perpendicular, or go in front of it if (and only if) the sofa-back is lower than the windowsill.

Dual Focal Points in One Room
The bigger challenges come when you have two focal points. If that’s the case, you need to pick the main one (the one with the most visual weight) and arrange your main furniture toward it.

Address the second one with smaller furniture. If your TV and fireplace are on different walls, you can try to combine the focal points (move the TV over the fireplace) or have the sofa perpendicular to the fireplace, but facing the TV.

Once you’ve got the placement of the large pieces, think about the room’s functions again and start to place the smaller furniture. Using your graph paper, draw in options. You want to create zones in a room — even a small one — where your functions can happen.

Perhaps create a conversation area by having two chairs face the sofa, but this could also be achieved with a settee or love seat. Make sure each seat has easy access to a table surface (a side table or coffee table) to put down drinks and books, but also to visually anchor it.

If you need a place for quiet reading, perhaps create a second zone in a corner with a chaise, a reading lamp and a small table. If you need a place for the chess players in your house, perhaps two chairs with a small table between them nestled into the bay window. Creating different zones will help the room feel more intimate and function more effectively, but be aware of over filling a room — it’s a careful balance.

Once you’ve come up with a plan that works for you, call in the movers and rearrange that furniture! Hopefully, they’ll only have to do it once now.

Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tune in Saturdays at 9/8ct on OWN to see his projects come to life and get to know Kenneth here.

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