Plan your perfect living room

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Whether you’re designing an open-plan layout or a more compact space, follow Julia’s expert advice to create a successful scheme.

Your living space needs to fulfil a multitude of roles, providing somewhere to relax, entertain or spend time as a family. Creating the perfect environment for all these activities requires careful thought and planning. This guide covers all the areas that interior designers would consider when planning a living room, and it will help you to create the most suitable scheme for any of the four main layout types: an open-plan space, a small living room, a period-style property or contemporary new-build home.

Getting started

As with all design projects, a brief of your essential requirements for the space should be drawn up. Sit down with the family members who use the living room, and ensure the following is discussed.

  • What you would like to improve in the room and what you wish to add to it
  • The feel and style of the space – do you want it to have a glamorous, homely, invigorating or restful ambience?
  • Activities that take place in the space Items of furniture or features that must be included in the new scheme
  • Flow and manoeuvrability
  • Budget
  • Practical and mood light-levels
  • Heating
  • Storage requirements

Remember, at this stage you are not trying to provide specific design solutions; instead, you’re merely creating a wish list. As your ideas progress, continue to look back at your brief to ensure that any new concepts will fulfil the needs of the room.

To work out what furniture will fit and how to maximise storage possibilities, draw a scale-plan to determine the most effective layout. Don’t forget to show radiators, doors (including the way they open), socket positions and any immovable features. If the layout looks cluttered, you can be sure that the finished room will be.


Open-plan layouts

One of the most popular trends in recent years, open-plan spaces are perfect for modern family life and for creating a sociable space. If they’re not considered carefully, however, large expanses will feel lifeless and fragmented. By defining a room’s personality, it will become a place where everyone wants to spend time.

Group your furniture into specific zones relative to activities in each area, and think of each space as a separate entity. While TV viewing generally dictates that sofas should be positioned facing the screen, seating should ideally be arranged in a three-sided rectangle to produce a socially conducive environment. Even if the seating not directly facing the TV is the least used, grouping furniture in this way will help create a friendlier feel.

Another good idea is to change the wall surfaces to help delineate zones in the room, although it’s important to maintain a common theme to link the areas. Accentuate surfaces to produce focal points and help anchor the furniture groupings. If you’re building an extension to create an open-plan space, varying ceiling heights in the different zones will also help to achieve interest and produce more intimacy.

Flexible lighting, designed to visually separate areas, is essential in an open-plan space, both to provide task lighting where it’s needed and a warm, dimmed atmosphere in seating and TV viewing areas. Inset floor lights can also be used to divide different zones.

With fewer walls in an open-plan space, the options for storage and shelving can be limited. A good alternative is to include mid-height open shelving on castors, which will add height and create a defined break between areas without closing down the space. The castors allow for greater flexibility, as you can move the units out of the way for parties and family gatherings.

When it comes to decoration, less is more in open-plan areas. Although it’s certainly possible to use oversized patterns, keep the scheme fairly simple for maximum impact. A neutral backdrop tends to be most appropriate, but adding lots of layered texture will soften the look and finish the room with style.


Small Spaces

Compact living rooms can be challenging to design, especially with the popularity of large TV screens and oversized sofas, but they often produce the most welcoming spaces. Initially, ensuring that you have the optimum layout is key to creating a relaxed room. I often overcome design dilemmas by changing a door position, or even hanging it the opposite way, as this can open up a space and therefore allow for better furniture placement.

Similarly, changing the location of an awkward radiator, or replacing it with a smaller and more efficient model can make an enormous difference to the look and feel of a room.

Think of every inch of a small room as possible storage or useful space. High-level shelving can look impressive, for example, and opting for furniture that’s on legs rather than solid to the floor will prevent the room feeling closed in. The more floor that is visible, the less cluttered the space will be. An inset fire surround is an excellent option for contemporary environments as this will also optimise the available floor area.

Although central pendant lights add to the ambience, they will make the ceiling appear lower. Instead, use a combination of inset ceiling lights, wall-wash lights and low-level lamps for atmosphere.

There is no reason why strong, dark colours can’t be used to great effect in a small space. It is often more appropriate to accentuate the compact size of the room than to try to make it appear larger by using lighter tones, as this can lead to the space lacking character. Although patterns can be very effective, if they’re too large they will dominate the scheme and unbalance the look.

Grouping pictures together will have more impact in a small space than if they are spread throughout the room. Also, try matching the colour of the frames for a unified look. Window dressings should be kept minimal to allow natural light to penetrate and not overcrowd the space, so go for blinds and lighter-weight fabrics. For maximum natural light, choose reflective surfaces and hard flooring to bounce available light throughout the space.

Period Homes

An architecturally interesting space is a boon to interior design. There is nothing to compare with original features – whether it’s ornate coving, a fireplace or intricate woodwork – for adding structure and interest to a room. A period property with original features doesn’t have to be decorated as if it’s a homage to the era, however. Some of my favourite home conversions have been contemporary schemes within Victorian properties, using the high ceilings and masses of daylight they offer to fabulous effect.

Whether you opt for a traditional or contemporary scheme, scale is key for a successful design. To offset the height of spaces with tall ceilings, incorporate lofty items of furniture and use statement pieces that grab attention. Period chairs look wonderful covered in on-trend fabrics, and this will help to bridge the gap between old and new. I find that the layout can certainly be more quirky in a period room, as somehow you can get away with a more eccentric approach here.

For living room flooring in a period property, I prefer to combine a hard floor with a rug, as I don’t think fully fitted carpets produce the right effect. Sanding original floorboards back to their former glory is an inexpensive option, and they can also be insulated from underneath if they are draughty.

Lighting should be used to highlight architectural features and add to the structure and texture of a space. Avoid overhead lighting and opt instead for floor uplighters, wall-wash fittings and table lamps, which provide a warmer glow. Always be aware that light from an acute angle will pick up any imperfections in plasterwork, highlighting old bumpy walls and cracks. If you’re going to put replacement coving in your room, a plaster light trough installed with a light strip throws an ethereal wash of light across a ceiling and can look quite magnificent. Visit for inspiration and ideas.

It is certainly worthwhile investing time to source suitable period fixtures to replace those that are missing from your home. Within minutes of searching online, it’s likely you’ll find what you are looking for, although you can’t beat uncovering a hidden gem at a salvage yard.


Modern Homes

Many of us live in modern homes devoid of architectural character, which is very challenging when it comes to design. Features must be created, personality injected and energy given to an otherwise soulless space. However, a blank canvas does offer an opportunity for total creativity.

In a modern, square living room, it’s likely there will only be one or two layout options, as developers are rarely extravagant with room sizes nowadays. Ascertain what will work best in the room, then focus on the most important element: creating a focal point. Most modern living rooms will benefit from the energy and movement that a fire brings, whether you go for a classic floorstanding model or a stunning hole-in-the-wall style. To break up the monotony of four uninterrupted walls, consider building a false chimneybreast to house the fire, or sink a TV screen into it for a neat finish. If space is at a premium, a full-height timber-veneered board fixed to the wall will add both impact and a backdrop for an inset contemporary fire or TV. Modern rooms benefit from tall storage to create interest and height. Continue to accentuate the height by using elegant full-length curtains or blinds, as sill-height window treatments will only serve to highlight the box-like nature of the room.

Blocks of strong colour tend to work well in this environment, whether on the walls or furniture. Experiment with dark feature colours to add personality. Similarly, go for large paintings and artworks, as the more impact the better. Graphic patterns and geometrics also look good, as do stripes and contemporary florals. My favourite trick for an uninspiring space is to use a trompe-l’oeil paper to create the illusion of depth and a 3D aspect. Try the Genuine Fake Bookcase wallpaper from Atelier Abigail Ahern or Penguin Library wallpaper from Osborne & Little.