How to Fake Separate Rooms in an Open Floor Plan

A living room in Santa Monica, California, designed by Chris Barrett

Chris Barrett

When it comes to architecture and design, there’s one layout that seems to be ubiquitous these days, and that is the open plan. Love it or hate it, but big, open floor plans are here to stay. 

“More and more houses are being built with a big open floor plan,” said LA-based designer, Chris Barrett. “I can't think of a house I've done in years, that hasn't been a big open floor plan.”

If you find yourself considering a move to a space with a kitchen-living-dining-playroom, there are some rules to follow. For your sanity as much as your family’s, open floor plans work best if they’re zoned. But what is zoning, you ask? We turned to three interior designers to find out zones are and how to create the right plan for your space.

Why Zones Are a Must

Emma Sims-Hilditch creates zones with furniture in this townhouse

Emma Sims-Hilditch

Zones connote which area of your room is meant for each activity. Some are obvious, like the kitchen. But if you have kids, creating zones in the living room area of the floor plan is pretty much a requirement. Otherwise, the play area can all-too-easily blend into the TV area, which might butt right up against the dining area.

“It's so important to have zones,” explained Barrett. “Otherwise, it just looks vast and not cozy or inviting. I like to create a space that feels like you want to go into it. And if it's just a bunch of furniture, it looks like you're going in a warehouse.” To help combat this, Barrett suggests “little pockets of places that flow nicely. This is the area where we play games or watch TV. This is the area where we sit and have cocktails. It's just important for the look and feel to have defined areas.”

British designer Emma Sims-Hilditch wholeheartedly agrees. “Creating specific ‘zones’ within the area helps to give it structure, and is a great tool to use to maximize the space available.”

Now that we've determined why zones are important in an open floor plan, here are expert-approved tips to consider when designing your space.

Create a Plan First

Sims-Hilditch warned that, while open-plan spaces might look easy-breezy, they still require forethought and careful planning. “An open-plan space is a great way to encourage social interaction among family members and guests, and it helps to bring the rooms in a home together, creating continuity and flow.”

But, “before buying your furniture for your open-plan space, we recommend that you have carefully planned how you will divide each area, and where your furniture will go.”

Otherwise, you run into a few problems. For example, your furniture might not all fit into its designated zone, or certain pieces could appear clunky instead of chic.

Keep Your Space Open...

This might sound counterintuitive, but creating zones doesn’t mean closing off any part of the room. There’s a reason open floor plans appeal! 

“While creating an area, I also make it feel open,” explained Barrett. “Say you have the first area in front of the fireplace. If it's not that big of a room, you probably don't want the sofa facing the fireplace. [Instead, consider] two sofas flanking the fireplace, so it still invites you in.”

...Or Use Moveable Dividers

UK-based Dee Campling had another take. She sees the endless opportunities of an open floor plan as something to truly embrace. 

“Use movable room dividers to provide storage and to demarcate the zones,” suggested Dee. “If they’re movable, then you can reconfigure the room whenever you feel like it.”

Use Rugs to Create ‘Rooms’

If dividers aren’t feasible for every area, there are other ways to section off each zone. “Use rugs to designate,” said Barrett. “Say you have one big, giant rug covering the whole space. Layer different rugs in different areas. It looks great, and it definitely defines the space.” 

Sims-Hilditch agreed, pointing out the added benefits of area rugs. “A nice rug adds a cozy feel to your sitting room area, whereas a hardwood floor in the kitchen marks this out as a more practical space.”

Zone by Color

Another option, according to Campling, is to use colors to create your zones. “With color, [you can] use a slightly different tone [in each area], or completely different colors if you’re feeling bold.”

Use Various Types of Seating in Each Space

Chairs serve as different seating in a separate space from a living room designed by Chris Barrett

Chris Barrett

One natural way that zoning occurs is through the various types of seating required in each area. “Always use different types of seating,” said Barrett. 

Sims-Hilditch agreed. “A long or L-shaped sofa can split a seating area arranged around a fireplace off from the dining area, which could, in turn, be separated from the kitchen by an island. A large space without zoning can look bare and result in much of the space going to waste."

Consider Your Light Sources

A living room with multiple sitting areas, designed by LA-based Chris Barrett

Chris Barrett

Campling suggested using “different lighting to zone each space differently. Maybe a pendant light in the dining area, ambient table lighting in the lounge area, and task lighting in the kitchen.”

“You need lighting from different areas,” Barrett agreed. “You need ambient lighting, and you need overhead lighting.” But while lighting is important, Chris warned that it’s still important to try to keep it simple. Don’t overdo it on the hanging fixtures, and don’t rely solely on recessed overhead lighting, either. “It’s so important. [Bad lighting] can kill a space.”

Remember to Create Zones Outdoors, Too

LA-based interior designer, Chris Barrett, designed this outdoor space, which features multiple zones for different purposes

Chris Barrett

If you’re reading this and thinking you don’t have an open floor plan so the rules don’t apply: think again. Your backyard or patio is naturally an open floor plan, and Barrett said that zoning in these areas is just as important. “Even if you don't have a roof over an area, you want to create different areas [outside] so that it makes sense!”

Consider your barbeque or kitchen area, your dining area, and your outdoor lounge as possible zones.

Consider Ventilation, Especially for Entertaining

British designer Emma Sims-Hilditch's design features accordion doors to connect indoor and outdoor spaces

Emma Sims-Hilditch

“An open-plan space is great for those who love to socialize with family and host guests, allowing the host to interact with their guests easily while preparing a meal," said Sims-Hilditch.

"But consider how the room will be ventilated. Any smells in an open-plan area can linger.” Depending on the space, “consider having double doors installed or placing diffusers around the house.”

However you zone, make sure you set off space where you can sit back with your feet up and unwind.