THE living room rarely lives up to its name. Unless one resides in a studio apartment, it is a room not so much for day-to-day living as it is a backdrop, the place we gather to take pre-prom and holiday greeting card snapshots.
Usurped as an activity center by the den, the family, recreation and rumpus rooms, the ubiquitous great room (the kitchen-dining-TV and baby-watching space) and, of course, the 21st century home theater, the living room had become something of a dead zone.
But reports of the living room’s outright demise have been greatly exaggerated. With interest in home decorating now exceeding the boom experienced in the 1950s — the last heyday of the living room — it is conspicuously poised for a creative rebirth. Other utilitarian public areas of the home have seen upgrades. Kitchens have morphed into gourmet laboratories; lavatories into small-scale spas; patios have been rechristened outdoor living rooms.
Now, like a neglected child, the living room is calling out for attention: Dress me up, it seems to be saying, and show me off, I’ll make you so proud.
Get ready for the new living room — perhaps it should be called the lifestyle room — a space, positioned within eyeshot of our front door, that will not only reflect our increasingly sophisticated tastes in design but also our ability to express ourselves better than the Joneses.
The shift will be more than merely cosmetic. In addition to reconsidering the living room as a design centerpiece of the home, there appears to be a more subtle, emotional repositioning. The living room has spent the past generation either ignored as a museum piece or surrendered, both geographically and aesthetically, to the kids as another playroom. Parenting homeowners are now beginning to understand what single people and empty-nesters enjoy about the living room, that it is a designated grown-ups’ domain, the place for adult pursuits such as entertaining and conversation.“In the time-honored sense, the living room is a room that is off-limits, a place for entertaining guests or showing off to neighbors,” says Mark McMenamin, senior editor of the industry publication InFurniture. “The casual design approach of the ‘90s, which led to the great room, meant fewer clearly defined formal spaces, but in the past few years, as homes have become larger, the idea of a showplace living room has come back into vogue.” Showplace, not showroom. The new living room is not envisioned as a finely furnished no-kids-land, but a comfort zone between the sometimes disparate needs of adult formality and kid-friendly casual. As such, it is likely to incorporate design ideas that stress comfort and durability as well as refinement and glamour.
“Minimalism has been brought to the masses and although it is easy to care for when you have children, people are returning to more grown-up luxury,” says L.A. interior designer A.J. Bernard.
“The overriding term you hear these days is that people want stuff that looks homey. That can translate into anything from shawls over couches to ball-and-claw-foot furniture, but it is usually something that hearkens back to a more romantic memory, such as the house they grew up in or the grandmother’s house they visited.”
This “homey” impulse, along with the revival of certain decorating styles — most notably Hollywood Regency — the continued popularity of period furniture and the success of television makeover shows and specialty publications such as Traditional Home are all bringing a grown-up demeanor back into the living room. McMenamin sees this return to older, more delicate styles as a natural evolution.
“The resurgence of classical design could very well be a reaction to all the chrome and white leather we’ve seen, which leaves a lot of people cold,” he adds. “It’s a lot easier to create a showplace with traditional style, which lends itself to excess, than with modern, which tends to be lean and uncluttered.”
Even die-hard California Modernists, for whom white leather and chrome seem to have been invented, have begun to integrate more ornate furnishings into their home, if only for a point of contrast.
There is certainly much to choose from even at midcentury modern furniture galleries and contemporary design stores. Philippe Starck’s pared-down plastic renditions of round-back Louis XVI chairs, gilded and mirror-clad Empire tables and tufted English upholstered pieces are all a part of today’s living room landscape. The market for decorative accessories — pillows, throws, trays and ceramics — is exploding faster than you can say Jonathan Adler.
This is nothing new for some folks. My folks for instance. Raising three kids in the postwar Midwest, they have always maintained a church-and-state separation between their living room and their den, where there is a television and a telephone and a sofa suitable for napping. Though their nest has long been empty, its classically organized layout remains the same.
My parents are members of the generation that knows the word “parlor” without an antecedent such as “beauty” or “ice cream.” For them it was already an old-fashioned domestic term for the room decorated with the family’s finest furniture and reserved for entertaining callers.
In the 19th century, the parlor was also distinguished from the English “drawing room” (where the ladies withdrew while the men drank and smoked) as the room in the house where the recently deceased were laid out before their funeral. This additional connotation no doubt sped the addition of the more affirmative term “living room” into the 20th century lexicon by architects and home sellers.
Despite its vivacious new name, however, the living room tended to be staid and static, a space in which the post-Depression generation displayed their newfound, hard-won middle-class affluence. There was an ordered formality to this room with its fireplace and picture window and its graceful arrangement of handsomely upholstered sofas and lounge chairs punctuated with cocktail, coffee and lamp tables.
Like a stage set for an early TV commercial with Sinatra crooning, “Man, this is living,” the living room was the domestic realization of the American dream. As such, it has left a deep imprint on the aesthetic and emotional principles of making a house a home.
For some, the living room has remained a master composition, crafted more for decorative impact than for function. It is a calm and proper adult room, free from clutter and electronic diversions. For others, it is a pioneering territory, open for exploration.
Larger homes provide other rooms for what McMenamin calls “cozy connection spaces” that encourage living rooms “with investment-quality furniture and statement pieces that reflect their personalities. I think this is most apparent at the high end, which makes sense because those are the people who generally have sprawling homes and, perhaps, sprawling egos.”
In smaller homes, “where most of us live,” McMenamin says, “the living room is becoming a hybrid. It’s not a don’t-touch zone. It’s a real platform for living and interacting and as a result, it can be all these different things at once: a gathering spot, a media and entertainment room, an office, a bar.”
As a result, space-efficient furniture that adds more than just good looks has become an important part of the furniture market.
“In this setting,” McMenamin adds, “laptop-friendly pop-up cocktail tables and cabinets with lifts for plasma screen TVs aren’t gimmicks, they’re essentials.”
Whether the new living room is furnished for fashion or function, the rules of propriety for those who use it are now as relaxed as a down-cushioned easy chair. Though the living room still exerts a certain authority as the place where nesters put their best design foot forward, the “no kids, no pets, no climbing, no eating, no watching TV in here” dictates that once defined the space are no longer gospel.
The arrival of an oversized ottoman that in so many homes takes the place of a coffee table says it all. You can dress it up with trays and candles, cashmere throws and bowls of Granny Smith apples, but the message is loud and clear: It’s OK to kick back and put up your feet, just be careful not to knock over the Chinese food boxes.