What Does Open Concept Mean Anyway? Your Complete Guide to the Design Trend

An open-concept interior, where the kitchen and the dining room are connected

Reena Sotropa

There’s no denying it—“open concept” is a buzz-phrase within the interior design community. And with good reason. In 2015, 70 percent of recent and prospective homebuyers said they preferred a space that was partially or completely open. The following year, 84 percent of builders said the typical house they built featured an open-concept design. And the trend hasn’t waned in recent years. Sneak a peek at kitchens, living rooms, and dining rooms in your area, and you’re likely to see a floor plan that’s at least a little bit open. 

The only issue? Many of us have no idea what the phrase “open concept” actually means. Odds are, we have a vague understanding of what an open-concept interior looks like. Maybe we’ve used the phrase in conversation—and maybe we even know we like the design trend. But if someone asked us to define the phrase “open concept,” we’d be at a loss. For too long, “open concept” has been a you know it when you see it phenomenon. But because clarity is important, that ends today.

The phrase “open concept” describes an interior that’s relatively large and open. In an open-concept floor plan, walls are scarce and private spaces are rare. A good litmus test? If at least two common spaces in your home are connected—and not separated by walls or doorways—you’re probably dealing with an open floor plan. Are your kitchen and dining room in the same room? Your home is at least partially open-concept. And if your kitchen, dining room, and living room are all in the same room, your home may be fully open-concept.

what is open concept - open floor plan living and dining room

Design: Emily Henderson Design, Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

What Is an Open-Concept Floor Plan?

An “open-concept interior” or “open-concept floor plan” maximizes open space and cuts down on separation. Instead of relying on walls for structural support, open-concept interiors are often supported by steel structural beams. This allows builders to cut down on walls, doorways, and other separators, enabling common spaces to blend together. Remember, a great way to determine whether an interior is open-concept is to see if at least two common spaces are in the same room. 

Since open floor plans are now so popular, it may be hard to imagine the alternative. But other home layouts do exist—and have for a long time. Back in the day, for instance, homes were separated into a bunch of private and clearly defined rooms. A hallway would lead you from one room to the next, but the spaces were totally separate. If you were in your living room and your friend was in the dining room, both of you would have total privacy.

Of course, this changed as time went on. Innovative architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, began to design spaces that felt larger and more open. This allowed people to approach their homes more casually and flexibly. It also invited people to embrace smaller home footprints without feeling cramped.

These days, as you well know, it’s not uncommon for the whole of a house to exist in one massive room. The kitchen bleeds into the dining room, which bleeds into the living room, which bleeds into the foyer. Bedrooms tend to remain separate, but common spaces have become one—inviting traffic to flow from one space to another, totally seamlessly. But you can still find floor plans designed with privacy in mind. (And in case you were curious: Yes, you can actually use the phrase “closed-concept” to describe these more privacy-centric interiors.)

What’s Good About an Open-Concept Floor Plan?

Open floor plans have a number of strengths. With fewer walls, spaces can feel larger and more open—even if your home’s footprint is relatively small. This openness can also leave your home feeling brighter. When common spaces are combined, a single window can shed light on all of them at once. So even if windows aren’t abundant in your home, you should still get plenty of natural light.

Open floor plans are also incredibly flexible. With a little creativity, you can make any common space multifunctional. A living room could double as a home office—and triple as a movie theater. And your foyer could easily be transformed into a breakfast nook, a music room, or even a mini-library.

These are all real advantages. But the open floor plan’s greatest strength may be how easy it is to navigate. People can seamlessly move from space to space—or occupy two different corners without feeling separated. This is particularly great for entertaining. The party can start in one space and spill over into another, without missing a beat.

open concept floor plan - living and entryway open space

Design: Emily Henderson Design, Photo: Tessa Neustadt

What’s Bad About an Open-Concept Floor Plan?

It should come as no surprise that open floor plans have a few weaknesses, too. More openness means less privacy, which can be particularly frustrating when you’re trying to work from home. Not to mention, lacking clear visual boundaries between spaces can be distracting and overwhelming. If your kitchen is looking a little cluttered, you can’t necessarily escape it by heading to your living room—the two may be connected. 

From a logistical standpoint, open-concept homes tend to be harder to heat and cool. And since there are fewer walls to block out sounds, open-concept homes can get a little noisy.

How Do You Decorate an Open-Concept House?

Decorating an open-concept home can get a little challenging. Without walls to use as boundaries, how do you know where to begin? 

Start by deciding how you want to use your space. Do you work from home? Do you love entertaining? Do you enjoy snuggling up by the fireplace and diving into a good read? In lieu of walls and other obvious boundaries, let these activities define how your space comes together. The result will be a space that has open pathways where you want them and separations where you need them—and a home that feels totally and completely yours.

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