Designing a Great Room? Make it Great


Great rooms.  There are so many of us that have them.  Perhaps you have one because you own a large older home, with its elegant bones, grand rooms and high ceilings.  Or maybe your great room came with a newer development-style home, where they have become a standard feature.  Or perhaps neither.  Perhaps you built a large addition or created a room above your double garage.  Regardless of how you got here, great rooms can be tricky to get right.

There are a few rules of thumb that might feel intuitive enough.  For instance, in a small space, you’ll want smaller-scale furniture that stands on legs so that it’s not solid on the floor.  You’ll also use airy coffee tables with glass tops, and for the most part, you’ll stay away from busy patterns and lots of color.  Because in these small spaces, you want to minimize the chaos.  Here you are creating that illusion of space.

So, for the larger spaces, unsurprisingly, you do the opposite.  This kind of room can handle large-scale furniture pieces, built-ins that go floor to ceiling, multiple seating zones, and a mixture of patterns and textures (done tastefully of course.)  Because in these large spaces you are creating the illusion of intimacy.

But before you get caught up in all that, you and your loved ones must first agree on how you envision using your great room space.  Because the answer impacts what you put in there and how you set it up.

One common scenario is the ultra-casual family space where the large-screen tv is anchored front and center. Perhaps you have young kids who need a place to jump and climb and play. And when you all gather or entertain, you are enjoying a movie or watching a game with friends.  You want a couch comfy enough for you and your dog to nap on, and sturdy enough to withstand your kids creating a fort out of its cushions.

Great rooms like these?  Bring on the giant u-shaped, super-squishy sectional sofa and a TV that is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.  Because here, comfort and durability are king.  Heck, even bring in wall-to-wall carpeting if that’s your thing, but also consider some built-ins to store the toys and games and family photo albums.  If you have enough room for two seating zones, maybe the second zone has foosball or a craft table.  But that TV will be the focal point of the room, and there is absolutely no shame in that.

I still ponder the wisdom behind the expensive armoires we bought to house our back-in-the-day elephant-sized televisions.  Yes, it did hide that TV, but then there was the problem of the elephant-sized armoire…. So, yes!  Put that television front and center and be glad we now have flat screens.  (I mean, we even have flat screens that really and truly look like framed artwork when not in use.)  But spend the money to mount them properly.  Those dangling black cords are the worst.

Here’s one last tip on those squishy sectional sofas, though.  DO splurge on something high quality with durable fabric in a sensible color to hide the wear.  The high-quality sofas use fabrics that clean up better, and some of them have guaranteed to boot.  But DON’T splurge on the down cushions.  Because after a few busy years, those cushions will get soft enough to gobble you up when you sit down.  And, trust me, a gracious exit from one of those when you’re sporting your favorite jean skirt?  Well, it’s just not possible.  Never mind your elderly great aunt.  For her you’ll need to pull together a search party.

But we are not all suited to that kind of all-encompassing casual living.  Some of us feel most comfortable in rooms that are a little more buttoned up.  Here is another common scenario.  Sure, you want to be able to sit in your great room and watch the news or catch up on the game, but you really want that room to be more multi-purpose and conversation-centered.   And yes, you like to entertain, but maybe for your book club or for dinner with a few friends.   Here, your fireplace may be your focal point or, if you’re lucky enough, your view.  Instead of a sectional, perhaps you use two facing sofas with some nice, upholstered chairs.  And you anchor in your floor plan with an area rug and some accent lighting.

And speaking of floor plans, this may possibly rock your world, but not much of your furniture in a room this size will be touching the walls.  So it’s different than the living room you had in your first apartment.  Also, you may have so much space you will need a second zone.  But my advice is this: get going with your main zone first and figure the rest out later. 

So, for starters, don’t even think about the walls or zones.  Take the furniture you have and focus on how it relates to itself.  When you’ve gathered it all together, do your guests have a surface nearby to rest their drink?  Can everyone reach the snacks?  Can the people sitting across from you easily participate in a nearby conversation?  Do you have enough flexible seating around (like square ottomans stored under a sofa table) to cover you for a larger crowd?  And how does your furniture all look together?

All that is the important stuff. And when you’re done, there might be quite a bit of space left over.  But live with it for a week or two.  Sometimes, the concept of extra space can take time to get used to.  Once you embrace the idea of it, you can fill in the empty areas prudently.  It doesn’t always pay to rush to get it done.

What are other tips for making that large space feel warm and inviting?  Well, there are tons, of course.  You can eat up some of that visual space with paneled walls, wallpaper, textiles, layered window treatments, a signature piece of furniture, large potted plants, paint, and don’t forget lighting.  Not all those things all at once, of course, but you get the idea.  Plus, the internet is always there to help.  And quite possibly your great aunt as well.  Just look for her between the couch cushions.

Jennifer Coles is a local interior designer. Her website is: