What Is a Parlor Room? How to Make the Most of This Living Space

parlor room with marble fireplace

Design: Case Architects & Remodelers / Photo: Stacy Zarin Goldberg

In This Article

Parlor rooms are also known as reception rooms, and are still features in both historical homes and modern homes alike. They can be used to welcome guests and, as such, often feature the home's best furnishings.

Below, we examine the history of the parlor room and how it was traditionally styled and how to make the most of a parlor room now.

Meet the Expert

parlor room with marble fireplace

Design: Case Architects & Remodelers / Photo: Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Parlor Room History

Historically, parlor rooms served as a space to entertain guests who often did not set foot further into the home. Often, that meant that it was the most beautifully decorated and furnished room in the home, says Sarah Cole, founder of of Sarah Cole Interiors.

"They were a signal that a family had acquired wealth, and families invested heavily in their parlors," Cole says.

Allie Mann, senior designer with Case Architects & Remodelers, says that they were also referred to as drawing or sitting rooms in smaller-scale homes, and would be used to display the best furnishings in the home. Items one may encounter in a parlor room in the Victorian era, for example, include musical instruments, vases, a secretary desk, rugs, tapestries, tea tables, loveseats and chairs, wallpaper, and heavy window ornamentation, Mann says.

"After a formal dinner it wouldn’t be uncommon for ladies to withdraw to this room after supper," Mann says.

parlor room with blue ceilings

Forbes Masters

Modern Uses of Parlor Rooms

Parlor rooms are ideal for socializing but are more formal in setup than other rooms where friends and family may gather, such as a living room, family room, or kitchen. While many gathering spaces in modern households are multifunctional and contain items such as televisions, desks, and workout equipment, parlor rooms should be kept relatively simple. Due their lack of a television, the parlor room shouldn't feature lounge-like furniture, Cole says.

"Think shallower sofas and more upright chairs rather than an overstuffed sectional and a recliner," says Cole.

The concept of two living room-like spaces may seem foreign, but an extra area can certainly come in handy for many reasons in this day and age.

"With more people working from home, the need for multiple living rooms has increased, and the parlor now has other duties, like a quiet space for a Zoom meeting, homework, or just to read the paper in peace on Sunday morning," Cole says.

While electronics should be kept to a minimum, don't forget to set up some speakers to set the tone of the room, Cole suggests.

curved bench in parlor room

JK Interior Living

How to Decorate a Parlor Room

When it comes to selecting furniture items for your parlor room, you will want to ensure that you are able to create a comfortable space to entertain and gather with friends and family. Caroline Kopp, founder of Caroline Kopp Interior Design, advises incorporating seating for at least four guests at once. Be mindful that friends may be sipping cocktails or coffee in the space, too.

"Make sure you have tables placed near each seat so your guests can set down a drink," she says. Additionally, don't forget to incorporate ottomans or footrests if you wish. 

"It is lovely if you have a suitable place to put your feet up, if desired," Kopp says. 

Furniture in a parlor room is generally nicer in quality, Cole says. They're an excellent spot to showcase a beloved heirloom or special upholstered piece, for example.

When it comes to lighting, do not rely solely on an overhead fixture in your parlor room.

"Soft, moody lighting that allows flexibility is key to the 'private club' feel we are going for," Kopp says. 

In fact, because parlor rooms are often visible from the street, you may wish to outfit yours with a fixture that will make an impression from the outside of your home. Cole is a proponent of hanging a beautiful chandelier in the parlor room.

Lastly, don't forget to style some thoughtful accessories.

"I also like to include some plants or a tree, interesting art, and a mirror or two," Kopp says.

secretary desk in parlor room

Design: Sarah Cole Interiors / Photo: Jared Kuzia