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 an option—especially if you're on a budget. But you know what is free? Asking a designer friend (or a friend with great taste) for some advice. And that's just what we like to do when we want a cute living room that didn't cost our life savings or take five years to furnish. The most practical way to decorate a room is to hone in on five 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." 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.
Start From the Ground Up
Once upon a time, we assumed rugs literally existed to prevent cold feet. And sure, they’re a spot where you can add a hint 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, define the space, help with noise levels, and make the room feel cozy,” explains designer Ashley Moore of Moore House Interiors.
Pretty much everything goes with rugs, and you can find something super graphic and patterned if that’s your style, 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 an oushak.
Invest in Your Sofa
"You've got to decide how you are going to live in the space and if you're a sectional or couch type," Moore notes. "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 setup.
Regardless, you'll probably want something that "fits the room properly, is comfortable, and holds its shape," suggests 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.
Get Creative With Surfaces
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,” Moore adds.
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.
Don’t Forget Window Treatments
“Soften the look of the room with drapery,” Moore encourages. 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.
When it comes to curtains, stick to lighter shades, which give off the illusion of a larger space.
Establish a Lighting Scheme
"Lamps provide soft lighting rather than the harsh glare of overhead lighting," Moore continues. "They also add character and dimension to the room." You'll probably want a mix here: chandelier or pendant, table lamps, floor lamps, even a wall-mounted light or two.
"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 not to sweat the small stuff too soon or get bogged down in the details before you lay the proper groundwork.