There’s only one room to do it, so do it up right.
Not that long ago, people actually lived in their living rooms.
It was the space where families watched TV, listened to music and engaged in conversation.
Then homes grew larger. Dad retreated to the den. Mom read in the library and the kids headed off to the playroom. Eventually, everybody got together in the family room.
Though we continued to call it a living room, the space reverted to a parlor, a room the Victorians reserved for formal social calls.
At our house, Mom decorated the living room with a Chippendale sofa upholstered in blue-and-white silk stripes, cherry Queen Anne tables and a rose-colored velvet chair. No one was allowed to walk on the powder blue rug with its floral center medallion unless they were decorating the Christmas tree. Occasionally, the family dog would sneak into the room, looking over her shoulder.
But, hey, it’s a living room. We should live there, right?
Design experts agree: Homeowners will spend more time in the living room if they incorporate a reason for being there into the floor plan.
“If you want to get more use out of your living room, put in a game table, a place where you can play cards or chess,” says Amanda Rafail of Interior Concepts in Hockessin. “Or you can designate the living room as a reading room, almost like a library.”
People who own pianos frequently place them in the living room. That makes it the natural place to congregate and listen to music, live or recorded.
Rafail also recommends incorporating your living room into plans for entertaining. “The living room is a wonderful place to serve after-dinner drinks,” she says.
A small, classically styled bar on raised legs manufactured by Kindel is a good choice for the living room. But you also can transform a chest into a liquor cabinet or repurpose an antique buffet as a bar.
“Now that TVs are flat, people don’t need those big armoires for entertainment centers,” Rafail says. “You can move that armoire out of the bedroom or family room, put it in the living room and turn it into a beautiful bar.”
For a splash of drama, invest in such portable pleasures as good art. Or, if you’re blessed with high ceilings, install a glamorous chandelier.
Layering carpets is a growing trend. To create the look that creates the aura of travel to far-away places, toss an irregularly shaped animal hide over a formal, antique carpet.
“We have rugs that look like zebra and even one that is carved in a beautiful peacock print,” Rafail says. “They look very exotic but actually they’re cowhides, painted.”
When you budget for furniture and accessories, spend less on accents you are likely to change after a few years and more on the pieces you expect to keep for decades.
“Put your biggest investment into something that could be an heirloom, something you can pass on to the next generation,” she says.
A tried-and-true formula for a timeless living room is choosing compatible pieces that look as if they might have been handed down through the family, says Caroline, a design specialist at Pala Bros. in Wilmington.
“The 18th century is timeless—Chippendale, Queen Anne and Federal—and they all look wonderful together,” she says.
For inspiration, think about places you’ve known and loved throughout your life. Caroline, a past docent at Winterthur, recalls her first girlhood visit to the renowned repository for the very best in American furniture.
“I remember going into the Chinese parlor with my mother and thinking, Oh, my goodness,” she says.
No matter what size the home is, the first piece of furniture you should buy for the living room is a sofa, Caroline says. Because it will likely be the biggest piece in the room, it is certain to become a focal point.
One of her favorites is a Chippendale sofa with ball-and-claw feet and gold damask upholstery.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous, a design that was beautiful more than 200 years ago and will be 200 years from now,” she says.
If your sofa has to stand up to pets and children, choose a glamorous shape, but upholster the piece in a forgiving fabric, suggests Jenny Powell, owner of Somethings Unique in Greenville.
Powell, the mother of three, chose microfiber for her own home. It has the look and feel of suede but is impervious to stains.
“Microfiber is great for kids,” she says. “It’s soft and durable and cleans very easily.”
Still, it’s more likely a person who buys a sofa will grow tired of it before it wears out, so be sure to commit to a style you truly love. A primary use fabric sofa—that is, a couch people sit on every day—typically lasts seven or eight years. The life expectancy of a leather sofa is 15 years.
In prioritizing purchases, Powell recommends starting at the bottom.
“Choose a rug with colors you really love, then get one of those colors into your sofa,” she says.
Robert Scott of J. Conn Scott in Selbyville also believes a carpet is essential, not only for its looks but because rugs dampen sound.
He likens the essential elements in a living room to the basics in a man’s wardrobe.
“In your closet, you must have a great navy blazer, a quality white shirt, khakis and a good pair of charcoal gray trousers,” he says. “In your living room, you must have a sofa, a comfortable chair, a cocktail table and good lighting.”
Lisa Fulton, a designer in J. Conn Scott’s store in Rehoboth Beach, says homes will whisper decorating tips to their owners—if only they will listen.
“You’ve got to acknowledge the style of your house and its location in the style of the furnishings,” Fulton says. “A good choice for all styles is a traditional two- or three-back cushion sofa. It can work with 18th century to modern, coastal to city with the right fabric. Another alternative is a pair of love seats or sofas, if space permits.”
Fulton also likes to mix in family pieces, such as chests. But no matter how beautiful the upholstery, how sophisticated the lighting, a living room won’t work without functional, horizontal spaces.
Tables are the workhorses of the room. The finishes may vary—think glass, wood, stone, leather or metal—but the purpose is the same. People need places to station lamps and decorative accessories, as well as the progression of books, plates and cups that are part of daily living.
“You can’t enjoy a space if there’s no place to set down your glass,” Scott says.
Classic components are as handy as a pocket on a shirt—and also make a style statement. Here are can’t-miss elements that elevate living rooms:
White slipcovers. Reminiscent of canvas, solid white slipcovers are the basis for many an artistic vision. Add colorful throw pillows or textured throws and accents in varying shades of white. “I love white upholstery and furniture that is wrapped in down,” says Caroline of Pala Bros. “It’s so inviting and comfortable.”
Color that moves you. The palette sets the tone for the space, so seek hues that resonate with you emotionally, as well as visually. If the color is inviting, you’ll find yourself spending more time in the room. “Get colors on the wall that make you happy,” Powell says.
Be a drama queen—or at least a princess. Imagine a chandelier that might have been forged from a dozen tiaras. Or a sumptuous fur throw reminiscent of an ermine cape. Or a portrait of a grand dame to whom you may or may not be related. “Glamour is coming back,” Rafail says. “People soon find it’s something they enjoy living with.”
Table the motion. Where shall you set your cup of tea? How about your book—and your reading glasses? And is there a home for your collection of remote controls? Strategically placed tables are the key to a room’s functionality, Fulton says.