Trends in Furniture Arrangement You’ll Love To Try
-by Jennifer Anderson

Something is happening in living rooms across the country: people are rolling up their sleeves and moving their furniture away from the walls. Once it seemed like a given to place the sofa against that long, windowless stretch of wall. But imagine the sofa angled in a corner, a tall potted palm behind it, or moved to the center of the room, slicing the space into two distinct halves. The upholstered chairs that once stiffly flanked the sofa (so that conversing guests developed kinks in their necks) now face the sofa, creating a cozy, conversational nook. Depending on the size of the room, one or several other distinct spaces may be carved out in the same room through furniture groupings to correspond to various activities, such as watching television, listening to music, and reading. The resulting aesthetic is modern and tailored to individual needs.

Homeowners who adopt these new methods of furniture placement cite shortage of space and concern about efficiently utilizing space as major motivations. Model homes used to boast a formal living room and less formal family room, a formal dining room and less formal family eating area; this is not always the case these days. Newer homes may replace multiple rooms with a large, integrated space known as the "great room," or existing rooms may be designated for new roles, such as the home office. Through clever furniture arrangement, rooms take on multiple functions, such as dressing or lounging areas in a bedroom, or kitchen fax/photocopy centers. One local woman indulged her need for relaxation and love of tea drinking by creating a serene corner in her bedroom for a tea caddy. The beauty of this trend is that it is all about taking a realistic look at your space needs and increasing your enjoyment of each room.

While moving furniture away from the walls may be trendy, its roots lie in the open plan created nearly a century ago by Frank Lloyd Wright. Removing walls as barriers and opening up space created new possibilities and new problems, as one can see by studying the design elements of SoHo and Greenwich Village lofts in the 1970’s and "modern" homes that tested the limits of openness. These pioneering concepts of space combined living, eating, and sleeping spaces and sometimes removed the bathroom door. Such lack of privacy would have made an Edith Wharton or Henry James heroine shudder—and apparently made the average 20th century American shudder—for most new homes retain traditional walls and doors to delineate spaces.

The notable exception is the multipurpose "great room," which combines dining area, living room space, and kitchen, each part sectioned off from the other by furniture placement and design elements such as area rugs. Apparently, this open space appealed to the more casual, integrated lifestyles of many Americans, who, short on time as well as space, may now enjoy entertaining in the kitchen, or keeping an eye on the kids watching television while working on a personal computer in the kitchen. Whether your home is more traditionally formatted or not, innovations in furniture arrangement can be tools for maximizing the comfortable use of each room so that"form follows function."

How can you adapt this trend to your needs, while at the same time preserving your unique style? Home decorators suggest updating your floor plan by zoning areas in a room according to activities and interests and rethinking traffic routes. Traffic flow and activities create the "logic" of a room. Start with a simple sketch of room outlines, and add accurate wall measurements by transferring dimensions to graph paper, using a scale of a quarter inch for every foot of actual space. Include windows, staircases, doors, and fireplaces. Then, use sheets of tracing paper to try different furniture arrangements.

As a general rule, it’s best to situate the largest piece of furniture in a room first. In the living room, this is often the sofa. Consider view, natural lighting, and how you would optimally like to use a room. As Joan Kron states in her trend-setting book Home-Psych: The Social Psychology of Home and Decoration,"How far chairs are from one another and whether they face or adjoin can influence how chummy people get. When your conversational partner is seated twelve feet across the room, It’s like having an intimate discussion on a speakerphone—you hesitate to ask for unpublished details of the palace coup." A good plan gets furniture away from the walls, places seating in the center of the room, allows a natural traffic pattern, and preserves a sense of openness, while allowing for multiple "rooms-within-a-room."

Furniture that functions secondarily as a space divider is like lace, simultaneously revealing and concealing. A sofa back may separate a reading space from a television viewing space, but both spaces will be visible. Open bookcases and trestle tables which display their contents from multiple angles give the illusion of spaciousness when placed in the center of a room. Likewise, a bed doesn’t have to be anchored against a wall. The headboard can function as a divider for sleeping and dressing areas (the dressing table is making a comeback) and can even be covered with wood molding or another decorative surface to look like a portion of wall. This technique is effective for creating two separate spaces in a room shared by children.

Lighting and floor coverings reinforce furniture placement. Task lighting, such as a hanging lamp or track light angled to shine on a kitchen work area, could also be used to signify that a desk is separate from a living space. Freestanding living room lamps that provide background lighting move along with furniture. Decorative and mood lighting provided by spot lights and tracks, uplights and downlights, can be used artistically to fill in blank spots in a room and emphasize points of interest such as paintings or plants. Think of area rugs (jute, rag, tapestry, oriental, kilim, etc.) as frames or camera lenses for creating mise-en-scène within a room. Furniture may be placed within or without the boundaries of an area covering; symmetry is not necessary, and overlapping planes ("coloring outside the lines") is okay.

The new trend in furniture arrangement is fluid and organic. Here in the Napa Valley, we enjoy natural beauty, and the impulse to bring nature’s patterns and textures inside our homes makes sense. Instead of ninety degree angles, think of ripples, curves, clusters. Furniture arrangement in the 90’s has a lot more to do with "felt" spaces than with cubes and parallelograms. It is soft rather than hard, wavy rather than straight. Boundaries are suggested and indeterminate.

Should you decide to experiment with furniture placement, be prepared for other design elements to change. Moving furniture to the center of the room means there may be less room for furniture. Efficient use of space may necessitate getting rid of some clutter. Also, for the first time, people are seeing their walls, which explains the new interest in wall hangings, built-in planters, mirrors, large framed photographs leaning up against walls, trompe l’ oeil (such as a realistic view painted on a windowless wall), stenciling, and other faux effects, such as billboard sheets (purchased directly from billboard companies) or photo murals for the eclectic or high-tech look. Built-in bookcases, étagères, and screens are also popping up against walls. Painting one wall a bold color and leaving the other walls neutral creates a focal point to balance a strong feature such as a fireplace.

The new furniture arrangement emphasizes unity in color and style. Houses that might once have had a stiffly formal English Regency period living room, Colonial kitchen, and French provincial bedroom are carrying the same color note and style throughout the house. Slipcovers in rich, subdued tones can transform pieces of furniture that might ordinarily clash into best friends. Decorators emphasize the importance of projecting individuality on the home rather than turning rooms into "correct" furniture store displays. While basic limitations on how space is used are imposed by a building’s structure, knocking down walls or adding rooms is not always necessary to increase functionality of existing space or to alter the atmosphere of a room. Interested in exploring new possibilities for furniture arrangement in your home? Roll up those sleeves and say hello to your walls, glorious blank canvases that they are.

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