How to choose living room furniture

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Current circumstances are forcing us to look hard at what it means to ‘live’ in our living rooms. Formerly a place where we spent an hour or two at the end of the day, in between rushing in from work and jumping in the bath, it is now where we answer emails, take our morning coffee, try our best to exercise, and teach our children. For that reason it is more important than ever to choose furniture that makes us feel joyful and comfortable. This is my guide to furnishing a comfortable, stylish living room, that is sensitive to the purse strings.

In recent years the living room has begun to relinquish its claim as ‘the heart of the home’ to the kitchen. Increasingly these two rooms have become partners to, or part of, each other. If that is the case, then when choosing living room furnishings you will probably have to think about how these two spaces interact. You might want to add lamps or curtains to the kitchen to make it less functional; and the living room may have to take on the main dining (and possibly working!) table. In my own home, I installed hardwood flooring which runs seamlessly between the two rooms.

As far as living room furniture goes, I would always start with the sofa. Once you have somewhere to rest your rump the urgency is off – everything else can simply wait until you find the perfect piece. Unlike other furniture, I wouldn’t start bargain-hunting on Ebay for a sofa. The foams and fillers used on a lot of older, 20th-century sofas tend to sag, and the fabrics to discolour. Plus, there are so many great value sofas on the high street. A safe and comfy classic would be the ‘Pudding’ by Loaf; or the elegant ‘Marple’ by Arlo & Jacob, designed by our decoration director Gabby Deeming. For bigger budgets, there are some exquisite reproduction antique pieces out there. If money were no object, my first purchase would probably be the Regency ‘Ebonised Settee’ by Max Rollitt, or a piece by Humphrey Carassco, who restores and reproduces antique seating to a beautiful finish.

Sofas can take up an irritating amount of space, so if you are living in a small home avoid styles that dedicate an excessive amount of it to areas that you can’t actually sit in – read Chesterfields. If you are more of a percher than a lounger, like me, you can get away with the more pert, upright shapes influenced either by mid-century modernism (for example the little two-seaters that Designers Guild sell), or Georgian shapes, like the aforementioned Max Rollitt (the‘Ruby’ by Sofa.com is an affordable version).

Position the sofa where you most like to sit. Usually it will be somewhere the sun slants in, or where you can look out the window. I used to live in a flat where the most logical place to put it just felt wrong; something to do with draughts, doors and human traffic. Don’t overthink it. You will gravitate to where you like to be and find yourself there anyway, leaning against the wall whilst the sofa sits in the draught, unloved. Listen to yourself, and move the sofa to a place where you will actually sit in it.

Now, work out what the ‘just right’ dimensions for the other pieces would be. The width and depth of a coffee table that won’t interrupt the opening of the door, or butt up against someone’s feet, for example. Measure any nooks that storage could slot in to. Also note standard heights: 75cm for a table, 40cm for a coffee table, just to avoid scale mistakes (the big hazard of online furniture shopping). Mock up the configuration of the room with scale drawings on a piece of A3 paper. You could even test the real dimensions of furniture with masking tape, paper or cardboard on the floor to experiment with the layout of the room.

Keep these measurements in your phone or notebook at all times, and only look for things that will fit those spots. Go to an auction site like Ebay, the online listings for your local auction house, or platforms like Decorative Collective andVinterior. Look for character and charm, be it decorative flourishes or understated detailing.

The recipe for a perfectly furnished living room depends largely on what kind of space you have, and the type of person you are. Are you someone who will use the space for lounging around with a drink and a book in the evening? If yes, you’ll probably want a side table to rest your glass on by the sofa, and a decent lamp (floor or table) to read by.

A basic recipe for furnishing a living room

Other seating

Once you have the sofa down, think about what other seating you can fit in to the space. Daybeds or a cozy armchair can be lovely. Window seats or benches are also nice to consider if you have a bay window. For added elegance I would also break up all the lumpy upholstery with one harder piece, like a wooden bench or a little chair (see an example below).’Keep the arrangement of upholstered pieces loose and have fun putting together a mix of new pieces and old friends,’ Rita Konig advises in her column on the subject. ‘Break up softness with vertical lines and hard surfaces (lamps and tables are ideal for this) to create a balanced whole rather than a meeting room of seats.’

Line T Klein

A coffee table or upholstered ottoman

A coffee table or ottoman for the centre of the space is a must, both practically and decoratively. Use a tray on top of upholstered pieces to make them more functional for resting cups and vases of flowers. Coffee tables with drawers or low shelves underneath are also handy to look out for.

Textiles

There is a lot to talk about here – how to dress different window styles, and how to scheme the textiles properly – I won’t get in to all that here, but will say there is a basic formula for making sure your fabric choices work.
1. Strictly limit the pallet to three or four colours.
2. Choose two plain fabrics.
3. Then mix with something like a stripe, a small scale pattern and a big scale pattern.
If you are really unsure do that, and it will never look bad. Rugs can also be a useful well of pattern and colour that pulls a scheme together. Some people will want to avoid big, figurative designs as it can be distracting to walk on top of a great big picture. I would just look for colours I love as the first priority.

Tables

Have some kind of table next to any seating. They are also fantastic for breaking up bigger spaces; for example a table behind a sofa, or a desk in an alcove with a lamp on it can be lovely. It is easy to find little antique side tables and tea tables with bags of character. Designers tend to be more flippant with their designs for these – with flame or scallop tops, bobbins, barley-twists and zig-zags. It would be a shame to waste that opportunity to add a dash of flair.

Lighting and Lamps

Good lighting is essential for atmosphere. Wall lights are great for evening mode, and if you don’t want to face the fuss of an electrician coming over there are lots of options you can plug in as normal and fix to the wall yourself – try Original BTC. Think about choosing lampshades with gold card on the inside for a flattering evening glow.

Art, plants, things which give character

Art is a very good way to add atmosphere to a room, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. I would look out for big coffee table books of illustrations or photographs at second hand bookstores or from publishers like Rizzoli or Taschen. They might be expensive for books, but a big Taschen volume can contain hundreds of artworks. Carefully take a scalpel to them, cut out the pages and frame them for a coherent and cheap gallery wall. Or download pieces from our printable art series Things to Put in Frames. Choose low-maintenance flowering plants like geraniums to pep the place up, and add scented bulbs in the spring time. Old scented candle jars make perfect temporary bulb pots.

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Shelves and storage

And there is no rush, all of these items – coffee tables, side tables, a little chair for the corner, are really just pleasant extras. There is also no need to rush to commission built-in storage – if you keep those dimensions in your pocket, you might just come across a characterful and affordable antique in exactly the right size. Like many of us these days, I tend to watch television on my computer. However, I do know that I have never really seen a hiding-the-telly solution that I love. I would just buy a handsome television, like the Bouroullec Brothers design for Samsung, and leave it on display. For music lovers, Beata Heuman’s Lyre cabinet is brilliant: it has horsehair door panels, which means you can sit speakers inside them without interruption to the audio. If you are having built-in storage made, steal this idea by buying a metre or two of horsehair fabric (John Boyd, or Le Crin) and asking your joiner to fill the main panels of your cupboard doors with it. Make sure that you install a bank of plugs behind and remember to have some cable holes cut in the backs of the cupboards. A neat music station is a new must for all the romantic – or raucous – evenings-in ahead of us.

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