10 Simple Decorating Rules for Arranging Furniture

traditional living room
Chanelpluscat/ Twenty20

Arranging furniture can be a daunting task. When you're faced with an empty room, filling it in a way that is both practical and aesthetically pleasing can seem like an overwhelming task. But over the years, interior designers have recognized a number of simple, easy-to-apply principles that work. Just follow these common sense rules and you'll find that arranging furniture isn't so scary after all.

Choose a Focal Point

Never underestimate the power of a focal point in a room. Sometimes they appear naturally, such as if you have a prominent window or a built-in fireplace mantel, while other times you may need to create them yourself, as with media units and televisions. Whatever your chosen focal point, make a decision and stick with it. You’ll want to arrange furniture around it as much as possible.

Don’t Push Furniture Against the Walls

The size of the room will dictate how far you can pull your furniture away from the walls, but even in a small space, you’ll want to give pieces a little breathing room by allowing a few inches between the backs of furniture pieces and the walls. Despite popular belief, this little bit of space can actually make rooms feel bigger. Of course, if you have a larger space, feel free to arrange furniture in such a way that conversation areas are created in the middle of the room, leaving several feet between the walls and the furniture.

Create Conversation Areas

People should naturally be able to talk to each other without having to crane their necks or shout across the room. Position the sofas and chairs to face each other (not necessarily straight on, but close), and so they are close enough that people can converse without raising their voices. If the room is too large, create multiple conversation areas.

Find Balance When Arranging Furniture

Balance is always important in decorating, and never more so than when arranging furniture and other items in your living room. Consider both size and placement of the various pieces, making sure not to group all the large or small pieces in one area or to one side of the room, which can make space feel lopsided and a little unsettling. Also make sure there’s variety in the shapes—if you’ve got straight-lined seating, for example, consider a round coffee table.

Consider Traffic Flow

One of the most important things to consider when arranging furniture in any room is traffic flow. People should not be tripping over furniture, or each other, to pass through the room. Make sure there are a couple of feet (give or take a few inches) between the coffee table and sofa, and between chairs. Create a clear path so people can walk from one end of the room to the other without difficulty.

Use the Right-Size Rugs

Area rugs belong under the furniture—all the furniture, if you can manage it. Exposing some flooring around the edges of the room is fine, but when using an area rug, make sure it’s big enough that all the furniture in a seating arrangement can rest on it. At the very least you want the front legs of large pieces to sit on the rug (the backs can be on the floor, if necessary).

Get a Big Coffee Table

When it comes to coffee tables, more often than not, bigger is better. A large coffee table in the middle of a seating area is great for both aesthetics and function. It acts as an anchor for the room and it leaves plenty of space for people to put down drinks or for you to display favored accessories. A large table also offers easier access from the seats around it. That said, make sure to leave enough room between seating and the coffee table for people to pass through (about 18 inches). And if you can’t find a suitable large coffee table, two smaller tables or other coffee table alternative can be a good substitute.

Put Tables at Arm’s Length

Every seat should have easy access to either a side table or coffee table. Avoid layouts that force people to move from their seats in order to set down or retrieve drinks. When it comes to table height:

  • Side tables should be approximately the same height as the nearby chair arms (if that’s not possible, lower is better).
  • For coffee tables, the height should be the same height as chair/sofa seats, or lower.

Let There Be Light

Lighting is one of the most important elements of any room, and it is neglected all too often. Always use a mix of overhead lighting, floor lamps, and table lamps (and sconces, if you can). A floor lamp looks great at the end of a sofa or behind an accent chair. Table lamps look lovely on side tables, shelves, and even mantels. Lighting needs to be placed at different levels in order to be properly balanced, so use a variety of fixtures liberally throughout your room.

Use the Right-Size Artwork 

Things that are hung on the wall—whether it’s art, mirrors, or sculptural objects—need to be placed strategically, and in proportion to the furniture. Don’t hang a tiny photo over the back of your sofa, for example; instead, use either a large piece that is approximately two-thirds the length of the sofa, or use a grouping of pieces. If you’re absolutely determined to use a particular piece of art that is too small, put it in a larger frame with a large matte around it so it can hold its own when positioned near a large furniture piece. 

Putting It All Together

When it comes to arranging furniture and accessories, it's best to plan ahead if your plan involves buying new pieces. Either use an online floor planner or old-fashioned graph paper to sketch out your desired floor plan. It's the only surefire way to know whether or not things will fit the way you want.