While some homeowners are doing away with the formal living room, others embrace it with style. See how designers can help to bring a lot of living to this often underestimated room.
Remember the days when a living room felt more like a museum than a place of comfort? The décor was formal, the furniture was covered in plastic and young children were banished from the room and told to play elsewhere.
No more. These days, many living rooms are family-oriented havens that accommodate casual but hectic lifestyles.
“People are so busy,” says Machiko Penny, merchandise manager for Walter E. Smithe, which has 11 Chicagoland locations. “They travel, they work from home, or they stay home with their kids. They want furniture that works for them through all types of situations.”
In fact, some homeowners have opted to do away with living rooms altogether, favoring family rooms or great rooms instead. “We’re finding more people decorating the family room instead of the living room,” says Mike Haas, who, with wife Susan, owns the Strawflower Shop and Rug Merchant, 210 W. State St., Geneva. “But there are people who do both. Comfort has become more important, and additional seats are important when family and friends come to visit.”
A lot of living still goes on in today’s living rooms, and homeowners who want to freshen up the décor and furniture of that space should start by asking themselves certain questions. Do they prefer contemporary, traditional or transitional styling? What will the room be used for? By how many people? What existing furniture stays and what goes? In short, how can the room best accommodate their particular needs?
“Many times, living rooms are there to impress,” says Karen Skibbe, an interior designer at Honquest Fine Furnishings, 1455 S. Barrington Road, Barrington. “I love formality, but it shouldn’t be so formal that it’s not inviting. That’s the biggest difference between your grandmother’s living room and the living room of today. It has to be livable.”
Sofas and accent chairs should be versatile, functional and stylish, as well as comfortable. Selections also depend upon the style of your home, the size of your rooms, your lifestyle and the size of your budget.
“It’s an individual’s story,” Skibbe says. “When you walk into someone’s living room, it should speak about them. Is it a welcoming story? Is it the home of an active family, or the home of an empty nester? Every room tells a different story.”
So Many Options
For many, shopping for living room furniture can be an intimidating task. For starters, there are so many styles, it’s hard to know what will work with your living space. Whether replacing furniture or purchasing for the first time, there are things to know which can make the process much smoother.
When deciding on a sofa style, first consider the overall use of the room. “The sofa will be the centerpiece and primary focal point of all the furniture in the room,” says Kim McQuiston, advertising director for Toms-Price Home Furnishings, which has five suburban locations including one at The Arboretum of South Barrington. “Since the sofa will probably be the most expensive piece in your living room, pay careful attention to the construction – the things you don’t see from the outside – to make sure you get the quality you’re paying for.”
There’s a variety of sofa styles to choose from – casual, contemporary, traditional, transitional and Old World. Casual furniture looks comfortable and cozy – covered in checks, plaids and family-friendly solids. Contemporary furniture has sleek, clean lines, bold colors and geometric prints. Traditional is classic and elegant. Transitional is a mix of contemporary and traditional elements. Old World combines French, Spanish and Italian influences – leather and heavy, rich fabrics in earthy colors and luxurious textures.
“We’re seeing a cleaner look, more streamlined, less fussy,” says Penny. “It translates into a more contemporary feel. I think more homeowners are down-to-earth people, and that’s reflected in their selections.”
Regarding color, experts say there are many approaches, and any can work well.
“The artful use of color can pep up one’s mood,” says Penny. “In our staging area, I’m seeing more color than I have in a long time. Color makes people happy – turquoise, yellow, orange, anything in the rose family.”
“People are staying with earth tones,” says Haas. “Burgundies and reds are less popular, and strong rust and copper have become stronger. Richer colors like bronze, black and charcoal fit together.”
Whatever color groups you enjoy, shades, patterns and textures should complement each other. “It’s OK to combine solids, stripes, florals or other patterns,” says McQuiston. “That will make your room interesting and stylish. If you prefer all solids or similar colors, then bring in some different textures. Interior designers know how to combine fabrics, and it’s a good idea to ask for their help if you’re unsure about what works well together.”
Sofa upholstery materials include fabrics like chenille, polyester and tweed, as well as leathers, faux leathers and newer microfibers. Most stores carry fabrics from a variety of upholstery manufacturers, and most fabric samples have tags with durability information. Fibers most often used in upholstery fabrics are acetate, cotton, flax, nylon, olefin, polyester and rayon; each has advantages and disadvantages.
If your sofa will be used a lot, choose a more durable material, like leather. If you’re worried about spills, a microfiber couch with a stain-resistant coating may be the way to go.
More expensive fabric doesn’t always mean more durable. Couches covered in 100-percent silk are beautiful, but may not withstand use by active children or pets. These fabrics may be more appropriate for pillows or accent chairs.
“If you’re going to buy a sofa, leather upholstery is a great way to go, because it’s easy to live with,” says McQuiston. “It has a durable, long life, and cleans up well, especially if you choose a leather finish with some protection. If your chairs or sofa will have heavy use, then pick a fabric with some man-made content, which will hold up longer. Quality blends today are so well made, you probably won’t be able to tell they aren’t all-natural.”
“If you want a curvy, sexy-looking sofa that adds a little bit of shape, you need to go with a company that can provide certain craftsmanship,” says Skibbe. “You want to make sure the quality is there, as well as the look and comfort.”
For a large living room, a sectional sofa may be a good choice. For a smaller one, an armless sofa may be a better option.
“Many upholstery manufacturers now have custom programs that allow you to choose the depth of your seat, the arm style and the base style,” says McQuiston. “You can customize a sofa any way you want by choosing its length, whether it has a skirt or exposed legs, the cushion type and how high or low the back is. And, of course, there are hundreds of fabrics to choose from.”
To complement your sofa and chairs, add end tables or coffee tables of different sizes and shapes. Traditional styles are made of wood; contemporary styles often feature glass or metal. Some coffee tables have drawers or a shelf below, or storage space inside, and some have tops that raise up to allow for dining or game playing.
When it comes to quality concerns, if you’re not really sure what to buy, don’t be afraid to ask the all-important question.
“It comes down to asking the retailer what materials are used in the product,” says Haas. “One of the things we’re finding is that better companies are using solid birch wood. There’s a lot of fabricated wood out there, made out of pulp and resin. It may hold up, but it’s not quality furniture.”
Remember that you don’t necessarily need to replace everything in your current living room. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” says Skibbe. “Some pieces have sentimental value. It’s important to bridge new pieces with old ones.”
Furniture isn’t everything. Accessories like lighting, art and accent pillows can make a living room warm and inviting. Lighting creates atmosphere. “You have to make the lighting work in the room with your furniture placement,” Skibbe says. “You’ll need a good balance of table lamps for task lighting and an overhead fixture for ambient lighting.”
A bookcase is a great way to display your personal collections, photos and framed artwork. Vases, candlesticks and plants may enhance the feel of the living room. Other décor may include flooring, drapery and wall hangings.
“The whole point of accessorizing is to make the room personable and cozy,” says Penny. “You want to make it homey and comfortable, without being cramped. Avoid cluttering your tables with unnecessary accessories. Choose artwork that features colors already in the room. A piece of art can be a source of inspiration. A special memento of a trip can be used as a springboard for design. Little touches like that will personalize your living room and make it livable.”
Window treatments, too, can be extremely important. There’s a big difference between the look of a ready-made drapery on a rod and a custom-designed window treatment.
“There are simple treatments to connect your fabrics to the soft elements in the room, while others are more elaborate,” Haas says. “Twenty years ago, we saw a lot more elaborate, heavy window treatments. Today, they’re cleaner and not as poufy.”
Working with an Expert
Designers understand scale and balance, and possess an intuition that others may lack. They can help people to choose furniture that works with their current décor, or plan out living spaces that work well with their lifestyles. Designers also can assist in selecting the optimal number of pieces needed to furnish a living room, so it appears neither too empty nor too cluttered. Most experts recommend between three and five pieces.
“Designing a living room is not a cookie-cutter process,” says Haas. “We don’t put the same living room in every house. For example, some people like to use antiques for décor, and others don’t. Sometimes they don’t know what they want to do. Do your homework. When shopping, make sure to touch and feel the material. And communicate with the designer. His or her job is to help you figure it out.”
Designers also can guide you in putting together a budget. A sofa, two chairs, coffee table, end tables and lamps – along with accessories – can run from $6,000 to $15,000 or more. But keep in mind that your living room project doesn’t have to be completed all at once.
“You need a benchmark when it comes to budget,” Skibbe says. “For example, it’s expensive to start out with a full-blown Oriental rug, high-end upholstery and lamps. We may have to sacrifice some items for others.”
Furniture is expensive, but if you choose reputable brands, the pieces can last up to a decade or more. If price is an issue, start by purchasing a high-quality sofa.
“A lot of times people end up buying a cheap sofa because that’s what their budget allows,” says McQuiston. “But they’ll end up spending more, in the long run, if it wears out in two years. If it’s not good construction, it won’t last. Consider stepping up and paying a little more for good construction.”
The living room might just become your favorite room in the house. “It can be a place to find peace, comfort, whatever it is,” says Penny. “It’s an emotional thing. You want to enjoy it, invite friends over and have it be a reflection of your personality. A living room can really say a lot about a person.”
Last year, Norma Fielder decided to downsize her living space, so she bought a new home in Westmont, Ill. The owner of a tool and die business, Fielder often entertains family and friends, and the living room is an important place for casual conversation. It flows into the family room, where guests are free to watch television or play games. Fielder decided to work with Helen Young, a designer at Toms-Price, to furnish her new living room.
During her move, Fielder parted with many long-time pieces of furniture, but not all of them. She blended prized older items, including an end table, coffee table and a 30-year-old floor lamp, with new pieces, including a Stickley sofa, chairs and a bookcase. She changed her color scheme, incorporating soft beige and floral patterns through the furniture, and brought in the Oriental rug she used in her previous home.
Now Fielder is selecting new window treatments. She’s always on the lookout for more accessories, such as artwork and novelty pieces, and couldn’t be happier with the results.
“I know what I like and what I don’t like,” she says. “I’m not a formal person. I don’t need a crystal chandelier. I have a living room that I call pretty, soft and comfortable. It’s worked out beautifully.”
Knowing what you like – or at least knowing who can help you to figure that out – is a good first step in putting together a living room that you’ll love.
Whether you want a quiet place to relax, an accommodating space for guests, a place to hang out with immediate family, or all of the above, there’s no reason you can’t have a living room that reflects your unique life – and makes you smile each time you come home. ❚