The Five Steps to a Beautifully Designed Living Room

updated Jul 17, 2020
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(Image credit: Minette Hand)

I spotted the living room above in a recent Brooklyn house tour and instantly loved it. You can immediately see that it’s a balanced, well-appointed space. The arrangement is conducive for conversation, it feels sophisticated, and all the elements marry together beautifully. Not only do I think it’s a living room worth getting inspired by, it’s a living room that could be achieved on a budget and fit with many different styles.

It’s also a great example of designing with layers, one of my favorite ways to attack the task of decorating an empty space. Below, I point out each layer of this living room and explain what works here. Take notes — many of these ideas are universal and could apply to your living room’s design, too!

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Step 1: Use a bold rug to define your space

With today’s trend of open living areas, chances are your “living room” is more like a big open space that also features a dining area and maybe even a kitchen. Even if your living room is a separate room with walls, any living area is aided by establishing a seating arrangement by first laying down a rug.

A patterned kilim rug from Etsy is the first layer of this apartment’s successful living room composition. It’s not just that this rug choice adds lots of color to the space, it’s the perfect size for the furniture arrangement and visually establishes the living room area.

If a colorful kilim rug isn’t your style, you can certainly go with a rug that’s more your taste. The thing to remember is: pick something that makes a strong statement, either with color, pattern or texture.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Step 2: Establish your furniture layer

This living room area really starts to come together with solid, neutral furniture pieces. And forgoing the furniture “set” (and instead choosing a mix of complementary but different furniture styles) ensures that the furniture is an elegant backdrop for accessories, but not a boring, matchy-matchy look.

In this living room, most of the furniture is from well-known stores. The Crosby Mid-Century Sofa from West Elm in pebble anchors the space, while two armless Major chairs from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams add extra seating but aren’t too bulky. Because of the home’s open floor plan, an Eames Lounger and Ottoman from Design Within Reach not only adds yet more seating, but also elevates the space with its classic design. The Box Frame Coffee Table in an antique bronze finish and glass top adds just the right amount of structure to the space.

But if the above shopping list is out of your budget, you can still achieve a similar look with less money. Just remember to choose pieces that sport different but complementary styles and shapes, and go for an array of neutral-colored upholstery rather than just one color.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Step 3: Add in personality with vintage finds, family heirlooms and plant life

The key to not having a living room that looks like it’s from a catalog is making sure you mix in one-of-a-kind finds. In this living room, a pair of antique side tables contrast delightfully with the straight lines of the modern furniture. The couple added in an even more unexpected look by not using the side tables symmetrically; this “spreads around” the vintage vibes and keeps the space from feeling stuffy.

A vintage painting in an elaborate frame is the perfect thing to cap the space, and could easily be replicated by keeping your eyes peeled next time you’re thrift store shopping. And finally, a nice tall fiddle leaf fig plant adds a big dose of greenery to this living room (as well as some visual height). But you could choose another tall plant, or even pair a smaller plant with a hanging plant.

→ Apartment Therapy’s Ultimate Plant Picker

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Step 4: Incorporate texture

Texture gets its own layer because it is VITAL. Consider adding texture in with accessories sprinkled around the space. Throw pillows are a great way to do it, as are beautiful woven baskets.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Step 5: Soften with curves

Not every living room will need curved elements to counteract the straight lines of furniture, but you should take a look at your space when you’re almost done and see if it could benefit from any round accessories. In this living room, a (cheap!) IKEA mirror partners with a Restoration Hardware Gramophone. The round shapes stand in stark contrast to the straight lines of the modern furniture, adding visual softness and interest.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Bonus Round: Check for visual balance

The perfect use of the design principle of balance is the most lovely thing about this living room. The wooden credenza (an affordable Urban Outfitters find!) with the IKEA mirror on top roughly matches the height and visual weight of the fiddle leaf fig plant. The lounge seating, while different, create a visual symmetry. The whole room feels good.

→ Living Room Geometry: The Basics of a Well-Balanced Room
→ Designer Secrets to Great Rooms: It’s All About Balance

I simply can’t write a post like this and not give some credit to Christopher Lowell. Though I can’t remember what his seven layers of design are anymore, his advice was the first time I heard about designing a room in layers.