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Are Formal Living Rooms Obsolete?

Designer and author Erin Gates says they shouldn't be. With an excerpt from her new book, The Elements of Family Style, she explains why.

erin gates elements of family style
Photography by: Michael J. Lee

In its earliest days, the living room was seen as the "generalist among rooms," a catch-all space of sorts, serving no specific functional purpose, according to BBC. Although that reputation shifted in the mid-20th-century, as radio, television, and film took its place at the center of family life, kitchens have no doubt taken over from the living room as the hub of the home. (Or, in many-an-open-floor-plan, it's merged with it.)

 

It's no surprise, then, that in homes these days, formal living rooms rarely exist, as designer Erin Gates notes in her new book The Elements of Family Style, a follow-up to her similarly-titled 2014 book. "Maybe it's now a playroom, or perhaps there wasn't one to begin with—some builders aren't even bothering to put a formal living room in at all and instead create extra-large family rooms," she writes. But in her guide to "elegant spaces for everyday life," she makes a case for why they should: To serve as a refuge for harried parents to escape.

 

"If you do have one, it's lovely to make a special spot to spend time with your significant other when the day is done or alone with a glass of wine and a magazine when you need a little 'me time.'" Gates suggests. "The formal living spaces of today don't convey the old uptight feel that you really shouldn't sit down on anything. Your living room can be a space that is a little more tailored, filled with fine, pretty things—one in which you feel like a real, live grown-up." Here, Gates shares an excerpt from her latest book, offering her three must-haves for a formal (and functional) living room. Spoiler alert: No little ones allowed.

 

Related: How to Arrange a Living Room

 

A Bevy of Tables

Since entertaining is a big part of a formal living room's function, I always like to think about where every person in every seat will want to put down their drink. We use lots of cute smaller "drink drop" tables for this reason—either between chairs or paired with each chair, as well as side tables and cocktail tables. Many times we also will place a smaller game table with a pair of chairs in a formal living room as a place to eat or simply play a game. I prefer to use a mix of metal, glass, wood, and stone tables but have one unifying feature tie them together—like a metal finish. And I also try to mix up the shapes—too many rounds or squares can feel repetitive.

erin gates formal living room
Photography by: Michael J. Lee

Statement Art

When the budget allows, I always like to include some original and dramatic art in a formal living room. Again, since this is a space more dedicated to the older folks of the house, you can stretch your imagination a little further when it comes to the decorative items. I commissioned an amazing painting for my formal living room (once we had one, thanks to our new family room) and, even though the space serves more as a pass-through for us right now, walking by that painting over my fun blue sofa makes me smile every day. And you really should have an item or two in your home that does that for you too!

 

Bottom's Up

When the stress of parenting makes me feel like jumping off a cliff, it's nice to know I can turn to a dependable parenting aid—booze. So creating a bar (either a dedicated space or just a cart) is a great addition to a formal dining or living area. A lot of times we build this kind of space within a butler's pantry, with a wine fridge, wine racks, and sometimes even a custom kegerator! Have some fun in here, with a bolder backsplash tile or cabinet color or search for a cool vintage bar cart that will add some serious style to your living space.