Ask a Designer

A family-friendly, functional living room

July 6, 2012 

  • Ask a Designer Do you have a room that defies your every attempt to decorate it? Send us a photo or two of the space, along with a letter describing your design dilemma and the look you want to achieve. Members of the volunteer N&O Design Team will offer solutions to selected problems in Home&Garden. Send email to Subject line: “Ask a Designer.” Be sure to include your name, town and contact information. Due to the volume of email, we cannot provide individual replies. Note: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish your information.

We’re expecting a new baby (No. 3) in the summer and we would like to take advantage of all the space our house has to offer. We don’t have much use for a formal living room, so I’d like to turn it into a library/study type space, divided into two areas, one with a desk for homework and one with a small sitting area, maybe with a love seat and a pair of chairs. And while I’d like it to look nice, since it’s the first thing you see upon entering the house, I want the room to be family-friendly and useful, not formal or stuffy.

The room is 13.5 feet by 15.5 feet with a wide opening on one wall (which may be good for French doors someday), two windows on a second wall, a built-in bookcase and a single window on the third wall. Only the fourth wall has uninterrupted space.

I’d love to keep the existing gold and cream colors, paired with dark brown and an accent color. My taste runs toward the traditional, and I love beautiful fabrics with smaller prints. My parents have traveled to India and Turkey recently and offered to send us a rug or rugs for the room, but I don’t know how to do that with the idea of two distinct areas in the same room. I could really use help with how to implement these ideas.

Kelly Reynolds
Chapel Hill

We asked Lynne Garguilo of Thomasville/Drexel Heritage/Henredon in Raleigh to tackle this design dilemma. She writes:

Many of us have “formal” living rooms that do not mesh with today’s lifestyles, and many times it’s the first thing your guests see when they enter your home. How can you utilize this space and have it look great at the same time?

Focus on function: Dividing this small room into two spaces is impractical, but you can still make it multi-functional. There is room to the left of the entryfor a desk and a small table. The area above the desk can be used for a hutch, shelves or bulletin board. This layout keeps the desk area contained and somewhat out of sight when looking into the room. The welcoming view in shows a loveseat facing the entry and a pair of chairs on either side. The “coffee table” is actually a storage ottoman. A pair of end tables on either side of the loveseat with table lamps completes the seating area. The built-in bookshelves are a wonderful backdrop, and the space between them is ideal for a small table with an ottoman tucked below, providing another table surface and extra seating.

Unifying elements: Color, fabrics and window treatments bring the design together. One 8-by-10-foot area rug makes the room look larger than two smaller rugs would. A lighter color in the background of the rug, with color in the pattern, will lighten things up. Furniture fabrics can then be brought out from the rug colors. For paint, consider a lighter version of the current color or a soft blue-gray. Either will lighten and brighten the room.

A comfortable loveseat is perfect for the space, and to go with it, a pair of chairs that have legs showing but are fully upholstered. We liked a soft chenille fabric in tan/taupe for the loveseat, a tan-and-blue diamond pattern for the chairs, a mid-tone leather for the ottoman. Fabric for the window treatments could be a stripe, but a vine or scroll pattern would be a softer approach. Mounting window treatments outside the window molding will help with light control and makes the windows look larger. Removing the top shelf of the bookcase over the window on the back wall would allow you to go higher with the window treatment and open it up. The drawing shows this option.

Lighten up: Light sources should be located around the entire room. If you have a crawl space, putting in a floor outlet is generally not difficult or expensive. Consider it if you want lighting in the room and not just along the walls. I have includedlamps on the end tables, the desk, andon the table between the bookcases.

A blank slate: What to do with that big blank wall facing the windows? I suggest a family picture wall, a grouping of pictures of varying sizes. Picture frames should be similar, or all the same. Black frames give a contemporary edge; wood frames are warmer. To create your grouping, lay out the pictures on the floor until you are happy with the arrangement. Then sketch it out or take a picture of the layout to refer to when hanging them. You may even want to tape off the squares with blue painter’s tape and make sure you like it before putting holes in the wall.

Update bookcases: For big impact, paint the backs of the bookcases, either a darker version of your wall color or another color you are using in the room. Make the shelves attractive by grouping like colors together. Try stacking some books on their sides and others upright. A few sets of bookends would be great, as well as a few pieces of pottery, vases or small pictures.

Lynne Garguilo, Thomasville/Drexel Heritage/Henredon, Raleigh. 919-806-3406

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