The main living areas, whether they are separate rooms or combined in an open-concept space, set the stage for life with family and friends.
Create the Palette
You can see colors, patterns and metal finishes online, but digital images are mere approximations of what the real things look like. Wherever possible, order color chips, fabric swatches and material samples to be sure finished products will meet your expectations. “You can order samples from most vendors, and it’s always best,” said Mr. Kleinberg. “Some colors blend together,” when viewed on a screen, he added, and it can be difficult to differentiate cool and warm tones.
Don’t just look at the samples in isolation. Pin them to a board or put them in a tray to see how well they work together. “All greens play nicely together,” said Mr. Kleinberg. “All blues fight.” Putting samples side by side is the way to see if different colors and patterns will live in harmony or tension.
Ms. Hampton sometimes goes one step farther. “When we’re working on a fabric scheme, we’ll put the fabric on the copier, reduce it, cut it into the right shape for the floor plan and paste it down,” she said, “so we can see how the various fabrics spread through the room.”
Treat the Walls
Paint colors are notorious for appearing different hues in different light conditions (and seeming to change between the paint store to home). This effect is only amplified once you slather it on four walls. For that reason, it’s never a good idea to commit to a paint color when you first see the chip in a store. Look at the largest chip you can get in the room you plan to paint, at a minimum. Better yet, paint large sample patches on walls or on boards that can be moved around and view them at different times of day.
Note: As long as you test the color before painting the entire room, there’s no reason to be scared of bold, saturated colors.
Once you have a color selected, choose the sheen. Matte or flat paints offer a pleasant gauzy appearance that also hides wall imperfections, but can be difficult to maintain, clean and touch up. “I tend not to do matte walls, in general,” said Ms. Hampton, who prefers paint with an eggshell or satin finish that is just slightly glossier and easier to scrub.
Baseboards, moldings, doors and other trim can be painted the same color as the room to make them visually recede, or a contrasting color — usually an off-white in a room with colored walls — to make them more of a feature. Trim can also be painted with a different sheen than the walls. A semi-gloss sheen will bring more attention to moldings while adding durability.
You should also decide how you want to treat the ceiling. You can paint it white for a crisp feel, or the same color as the walls for a cocooning feel. It’s safe to use a matte or flat sheen because the ceiling is rarely touched by dirty fingers or smudge-creating objects. If the surface is perfectly smooth, it can also be painted with a glossy finish as a design feature that reflects light down into the living space. (If your ceilings aren’t smooth, don’t do it — the glossy sheen will only highlight imperfections.)
For something unexpected, consider looking beyond paint. Manufacturers offer a multitude of alternatives, including patterned wallpaper, grass cloth, upholstery fabrics, wood paneling and even stone and brick veneer.
Choose the Furniture
Working from your floor plan and inspiration images, choose the specific pieces of furniture — the sofas, chairs and tables — that will make the space livable. Depending on the desired vibe, you can go in wildly different directions.
For a traditional room, focusing on a symmetrical layout often helps — for instance, installing a sofa and coffee table centered on a fireplace, with matching armchairs on either side. “A very symmetrical space can be beautiful and formal,” said Ms. Hampton. On the other hand, “if you choose a sectional sofa, it’s probably going to be a less formal space,” she said, with an asymmetrical layout.
Seat height is also important. Sofas and lounge chairs in the same room should have seats that are at similar heights to avoid some people sitting much higher than others. In general, lower seats offer a casual, laidback feel, and higher seats come off as more formal.
Whether the space is casual or formal, there is a rule of thumb to keep in mind: The number of dining chairs should roughly match the number of spaces for lounging. “That’s an old truth my father shared with me,” said Ms. Hampton. “If you’re planning to have 12 people at a dining room table, you should have 12 seats in the living room,” for entertaining before and after the meal.
How Things Flow
No living room sofa or chair should be an island of its own. When people sit down, they almost always need a place to put a drink or book, as well as light to read by. Place a coffee table or end table within easy reach of each seat, along with a table or floor lamp.
No one wants to stub a toe on a chair leg, so you’ll also want to ensure there are clear walking paths through the living room, and that no furniture blocks part of a doorway or makes it necessary to squeeze by.
Will your living room have a TV? If so, plan for a wall mount or a media unit to hold it, as well as a path for cables that won’t be unsightly.
Do you plan to host buffet-style dinners? If so, a credenza or sideboard near the dining table will allow you to serve in one space rather than having guests traipse through the kitchen.
A living room with hardwood floors but no rug looks naked. For visual and literal comfort, add a rug.
There are three common strategies for doing so:
- A room-filling rug. Install a rug that covers almost the entire floor of the room, leaving a border or just a foot or two at the edges. This usually works best in smaller rooms.
- Seating area rugs. Break a larger room down into multiple seating areas by using rugs to visually hold each group of furniture together. Or, in an open-concept space, use a rug to hold the living area together, while allowing the dining area to sit directly on the wood floor.
- Layered rugs. Pile smaller rugs on top of a larger one to create extra visual interest while reinforcing the layout of the room.
Be generous when selecting sizes. A small rug under the coffee table that doesn’t reach the legs of sofas and chairs will look like a raft lost at sea. The rug should extend about halfway, or fully, under the furniture at its edges.
The last step to finishing any room is to add art and accessories, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In a minimalist space, it might be just a few objects; in a maximalist space, it could involve displaying entire collections and layers of objets d’art.
Go back to your original inspirational images and study the way those rooms are accessorized. Do they mix candles, boxes, bowls and books together, or is there just one vase on a table? Is there a single artwork above the sofa, or a freeform gallery wall?
Be sure to consider your functional needs. A tray on an ottoman can contain remote controls. Throw pillows provide extra back support for deep sofas and chairs. A magazine rack can keep reading materials out of the way. Attractive baskets are ideal for tidying up children’s toys in a hurry.