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Not your father’s living room

by Steve McKee on January 8, 2006

There’s not that much call anymore for the formal Living Room. The very name seems to conjure images of an oversized room away from the real life of the house and filled with furniture too fancy to use. Most people in the midst of designing their house favor the idea of using the extra square footage in other places where they’re sure it will go to good use, such as a larger Family Room or the like. I propose you keep an open mind about the possibilities for the “Living Room,” or at least a slightly different version of this room.

In the design of your home this room can be morphed into something much more useful than the dreadful museum with clear plastic couch covers that we remember from some friend’s house during our childhood. If the label “Living Room” is too much to get over, let’s give it a new name: the “Getaway room” or more simply, the “Away Room.”

“Parlor” can work as a name too, if your house has a sense of history to it, though you’re free to imagine the classic Victorian sitting room with whatever improvements you may desire to make it more livable. (That’s the great thing about having things custom designed: you get to make it into whatever you want.)

This room doesn’t need to be large — that’s part of its charm — but you’ll probably want to make this room big enough for at least a couch and a comfortable chair. This facilitates the conversational art. Provide a view of any sort (even just a tree will do.) Perhaps this is the room that gets the family fireplace. Despite its moderate size, let’s make sure it has some layers and moods to the lighting. Let it have its own entertainment center (music or TV, depending on your take on this.) You’re creating a mighty fine room to serve as an alternative if the Family Room is taken over by your kids’ friends.

I really like the name “Away Room” because it implies a whole new way to think about this space. I’m indebted to writer and architect Sarah Susanka for this very apt name (discussed in her book “The Not So Big House.”) At the very least it’s going to be a room with a different feel and mood than the Family Room.

My growing-up family is now showing me something that some of my clients have been telling me for years: families with teenagers can benefit by having more than one entertaining area. Sometimes you simply may not want to spend the afternoon listening in on your teenage son and his shrill buddies. One client of mine used the term “too much information” to describe what sometimes transpired during those sessions.

The recent invention of the “Great Room” (in which the Kitchen and eating area and Family Room are combined into one big space) has a lot going for it, but one thing that it doesn’t do very well is privacy. This is where our “Away Room” comes in handy.

Picture this Away Room as a smaller and more jewel-like Family Room. Consider the option of being able to close it off from the house with attractive french doors with glass side-lites. These doors let you either keep noise out, or perhaps better yet, keep noise in. This allows the room to become a place where separate music or TV viewing or video-gaming can happen. The use of glass keeps the sightlines open and the feeling of spaciousness in place, not to mention the possibilities for supervision.

If your house is limited in size and won’t allow a second room like this, you may need to develop your bedroom into a sort of retreat. However you do it, it’s important that everyone in the house have the ability to periodically enjoy some private time in a space they can control. What helps families stay close is an ability to be able to live together while having opportunities to spend time away from each other.

When my favorite Lafayette builder was touring me around his spacious custom-built house he showed me his front Parlor which was set off from the Entry by french doors with glass on the side. He explained how his teenage kids would sometimes bring friends over and they would close the doors and talk. He said it almost proudly, in a way that I knew he understood that this was a good thing, that in addition to being an attractive feature to be viewed from the Entry, this room was also serving other functions and meeting the social and emotional needs of the family.

When my daughter has a couple friends over for a sleepover, I’m quite pleased that they can watch a movie by taking their sleeping bags into the Parlor, opening up the computer armoire and watching their DVD on the Mac. Our Parlor also serves a great function for one month per year as our Christmas room. Our tree is well displayed in the front window and the room’s position away from the bustle of other life in the house allows for quiet reflection as one communes with the tree with all its delicate ornaments and colored lights, maybe even allowing one to possibly catch a little glimmer of that good warm Christmas energy from youth.

I wish we had located our fireplace in our Parlor instead of where we did in the more centrally located spot where the Family Room meets the Kitchen. By placing it at this “hub” we chose high visibility over intimacy. I now know how to design spaces so we could have had both. It’s not bad, but it turns out that the way we do fires in my family is more by special occasion, in which we make a point of being away from distractions to sip hot chocolate and watch small flames dance and embers glow as we talk about any matter of things. But that’s just me. You may have a completely different agenda when it comes to fireplaces and the like.

This jewel-like Away Room is not a bad room to have partly visible from the front Entry. In addition to the moments in which we’re inside this room enjoying it, there are those times when we and our guests enjoy it by passing by it and occupying it briefly in our minds. This aspect of enjoying a space by vicariously visiting it is not to be ignored, and is yet another way to derive value from a well configured and human-scaled space. Even if we aren’t slumped in that overstuffed chair reading our newest favorite novel in dappled sunlight filtered by the big Pepper tree outside, we can at least imagine ourselves doing so as we instead head off to some chore elsewhere. The room is a reward to look forward to.

Whether it’s a retreat, a show-piece, a teen hangout, a well appointed media or computer room, or maybe combinations of all these things, the Away Room/Living Room can add livability in any number of ways. Give it a chance.

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