The First 5 Things You Should Buy When Decorating Your Living Room

Updated 09/24/19

There’s no denying it—decorating can be overwhelming, even if you focus on just one room at a time. The easy answer is to hire a designer to help you, but that’s not always in the cards, especially if you’re on a budget. But you know what is free? Asking a designer friend or two for some advice, and that’s just what I’ve done here for those of us out there that just want a cute living room that didn’t cost a million dollars or take five years to furnish. Because the most practical way to decorate a room is to hone in on five or so big pieces to set the scene.

“When designing your living space, it's super important to get the ‘big’ pieces right the first time,” says designer Maggie Griffin of Maggie Griffin Design. “We always tell our clients, cry once, and buy quality pieces.” As someone who has cried over broken pottery and a bad paint color choice (or three), I’d say that’s pretty sound advice. Honestly, if you lay a solid foundation for a room, you can worry about adding that last layer of personality later, just by collecting things you love as you experience life. So, here’s what a few designers have to say about what you should buy now so you can check “living room” off of your decorating to-do list.

1. Start From the Floor Up With an Area Rug

living room
Design by Emily Henderson Design; Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp

Once upon a time I assumed rugs literally existed to prevent cold feet. And sure, they’re a spot where you can add a hit of pattern and color, if you’re into those things. But it turns out rugs work a whole lot harder, design-wise in the grand scheme of a room. “They ground the room, help define the space, help with noise levels, and make the room feel cozy,” says designer Ashley Moore of Moore House Interiors. Anything kind of goes with rugs right now. You can find something super graphic and patterned if that’s your style (like Emily Henderson did in the space above), or go with a more tonal textured piece. Either way, the rug is what will define the mood for your space, says Griffin. Her favorite? A large bound thick woven jute layered with a oushak.

2. The Seating Comes Second

cozy living room
Grace Laird Photography; Design: Ashley Moore

“You’ve got to decide how you are going to live in the space and if you’re a sectional or couch type,” says Moore. “Your seating will be your biggest investment in this room, and that’s the way it should be.” Comfort may be the most important thing to you, so a slouchy sectional might be just right. Or maybe you want something more streamlined or tailored because you entertain a lot and want a more formal set up. Regardless, you want something that “fits the room properly, is comfortable, and holds its shape,” says designer Abbe Fenimore of Studio Ten 25. Griffin recommends performance fabrics for upholstery, and in general, it’s safer to go with a solid sofa and mix it up with a pattern for your side chairs. Don’t skimp here. These pieces should last quite a few years and are what people will notice first when they step into your room.

3. A Good Coffee Table Is the Third Must-Have

living room
Trinette Reed/Stocksy

Obviously, we all need a surface for our snacks and drinks, so a coffee table is a no-brainer. “A coffee table is practical, helps keep your remotes organized, and adds style, especially when you decorate with coffee table books and décor,” says Moore. Bigger isn’t always better. If you have a small space, consider an alternative to a traditional coffee table such as a pair of drum stools or a little vintage trunk. Know your limits, though. If you can’t stand water rings, marble isn’t for you. Wood or glass are always safe bets.

4. Don’t Forget Window Treatments

living room
Emily Hart Photography; Design by Abbe Fenimore of Studio Ten 25

“Soften the look of the room with drapery,” says Moore. You might not have the time or money for custom curtains, but there are plenty of basic, off-the-shelf shades and drapes that will pull your room together and make it feel finished. You just want something that will block a little light and give you some privacy, especially if you live on a busy street. Bonus points if you can find a print that doesn’t overwhelm the room.

5. Finally, Let There Be Light

bright living room
Design by Emily Henderson Design; Photo by Tessa Neustadt

Lamps provide soft lighting rather than the harsh glare of overhead lighting,”says Moore. “They also add character and dimension to the room.” You definitely want a mix here—chandelier or pendant, table lamps, floor lamps, even a wall-mounted light or two as seen here in Emily Henderson's home. “Multiple light sources can carry you through changing seasons and entertaining guests,” says Griffin. “Small can lights can be directed toward fabulous art, while chunky lamps on end tables create ambiance.”

If you start with these pieces, you’ll be well on your way to a pretty and functional living room. The key is to not sweat the small stuff too soon or get bogged down in the details before you lay the proper groundwork.

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