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Decorating School Crash Course - Part 5, Furniture Placement

Furniture World Magazine


Lesson #5: Furniture Placement Strategies to Bring Your Rooms to Life.

Learning Basic Skills By: Margarett DeGange, M.Ed.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in our Decorating Crash Course series. The text is written so that you can easily use it to conduct a customer seminar on furniture placement. It can be presented “as is” but you should add additional elements to give your seminars a personal touch as outlined in the December/January 2007 issue of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine, “Simple but Sensational Seminars: Keys to a Memorable Presentation,” posted to the article archives on www.furninfo.com. Decorating seminars are a fantastic way to get quality leads and referrals. They help customers to solve decorating problems, and they position you as a home furnishings expert.

Quotation marks only appear at the very beginning and end of the “sample seminar script” for ease of presentation.

“I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contacts with my own furniture.” - Frank Lloyd Wright


"Welcome everybody to the fifth Decorating School Crash Course seminar given compliments of XYZ Furniture Store. My name is _______ and we will be looking at the heart of Interior Decorating; the art of furniture placement, better known as simply rearranging the furniture.

When I was a child, I was often greeted with a new arrangement of our living room, dining room, or bedroom furniture when I came through the door after school. My mother had mastered the most inexpensive method for gaining an interior design impact—she knew how to successfully place furnishings. It was cheap, and it was easy, and she took full advantage of the facts. She rearranged the furniture several times a year!

It had a powerful impact on me. I remember many times feeling as though I had walked into a new home, basking in the exciting new placement of otherwise old furniture. It was nice, and it made me feel special. I’m sure this played a part in my career choice in the home decorating industry. (Note: You can insert your own interesting or “ice breaking” story to replace this and the previous paragraph.)

The point should be clear. Our interior furniture arrangements affect our lives—sometimes mildly, but sometimes not. If you have ever been in a room where the furniture placement was awkward or unattractive, you probably felt a sense of unrest. There is a certain and sure energy or “vibe” that comes from a beautifully placed room. Quite simply, it makes us feel GOOD!

Happier Lives through Furniture Placement

Creating pleasing furniture arrangements can help us live happy and productive lives by contributing to a sense of security and feeling grounded within our homes. There is tremendous power in creating spaces that improve the quality of our lives, and the lives of our loved ones. When a room “feels” good in terms of the arrangement, it causes us to feel good emotionally.

As we design our rooms, we should strive for furniture arrangements that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional.

There are a few basic principles to keep in mind as you rearrange furnishings and redesign rooms. Once you master these guidelines, you can experiment with additional furniture placement ideas that serve to broaden your options. Keep it simple at first as you are gaining experience, and use the basic guidelines presented today for success. Focus on the main principles of arrangement. Use what works, looks, and feels best in a particular space.


Start with Questions

Before you begin creating the furniture layout in any space, you must first make some specific assessments. Ask yourself what you will use the space for. Don’t just fall into the usual room-use patterns. For example, a bedroom may be used for sleeping, but many people would love to read in the bedroom if there was a sitting area available. A formal dining room may best serve you as an office that can quickly be transformed back to dining space as the need arises.

There are other questions to consider. What kind of mood do you want to create in the space? Do you want a warm and cozy environment, or a trendy and modern space? How many people on any given day or evening will occupy the space? Are there small children to consider in the placement of furniture, lamps, and accessories? Will the room be used for tasks such as reading that will require table lamps? Will you entertain frequently? Which pieces MUST remain in the space? Can some of the pieces be removed—brought to another room or given to a friend? Are you open to using pieces from other rooms that can be incorporated into the space? Do you want to add a few new pieces such as a writing desk or ottoman with hidden storage space to give your room new life or to serve a particular function? The answer to these and other questions will help you to create seating arrangements and furniture placement schemes that work well for daily living, entertaining, and home-based work situations. Below are a few tips to get you started.

Quick Tips to Get You Going

•Discover what bothers you about the space you have to work with—be clear about any architectural or structural details that disturb you.

•Decide what you DON”T like about the arrangement now. It may be that currently it is too tight to move in and out of the space comfortably, or you may have to turn or stretch your neck in order to see a T.V.

•Know what you DO like about the arrangement now.

•Clearly define your goals for the room and the activities that will take place there.

•Understand what mood you would like to elicit in this space.

•Factor in some of your favorite colors, or ask yourself if you’re willing to experiment with new colors or combinations.

•Figure out how many people typically visit in the room on a “busy” night, other than during a party.

•Decide how often you want to entertain in the home.

•Get clear on whether or not you are open to using pieces from other rooms.

•Decide if there are a few new pieces you may want to purchase to add to the room’s style, such as a console table, a coffee table, or storage ottoman.

The Basics First

The first step in the placement process is to find or establish a focal point. This could be a large hutch, T.V. center, armoire, fireplace, or large window. Place the focal point on the room’s DOMINANT WALL-the wall you typically notice most when entering a room. After the focal point is set, arrange the next largest piece of furniture first. This piece will likely be placed to directly face the focal, to establish visual balance.

All of your arrangements, particularly seating, must relate well to the room’s focal point. Most of the furniture pieces in a space will face the focal point either straight on, or with the furnishings angled.

Angling chairs and accent furnishings is a great way to soften strict traditional or formal lines, and give a space a sense of liveliness. When large furnishings such as a sofa or bed are displayed on an angle, if you have an area rug in the room, you might angle it as well.

In common living areas a successful strategy is to assemble seating in the shape of a “U” that faces the focal point (see Figure 1). You can also try variations of the U-shape by slightly angling some of the chairs and end tables. The pieces can also form a square or a variation of a square (again, through angling some of the pieces).

Other than with a focal point piece, it is usually best to avoid placing furniture against the walls. We in the design business call moving furniture away from the walls, “floating” it.

Consider the Room’s Shape and Size

The shape of a room will help you to determine where to place your furniture. If a room is very long and narrow, try to place the focal piece of furniture on the short wall to create a sense of visual balance, rather than placing it on the long wall (see Figure 2). Then you can position the sofa across from the focal point, and arrange the other, smaller chairs and end tables around the sofa in some variation of the U-shape that again, faces the focal point. In long and narrow living and family rooms, try not to place the furniture, particularly the sofa, lengthwise with the long wall if you can help it, since doing so will accentuate the room’s narrowness. Angling furnishings can also be a very effective placement strategy in narrow rooms, giving a sense of excitement to your space.

If a room is very long or very big, create two or more separate and distinct areas within the room, each with its own conversation grouping or groupings. If possible, allow a large piece in each area to be set as an anchor, positioned directly across from one another from the far ends of the total space.

If a room with low ceilings appears short, use visual height to “add length”. Try long drapery panels, tall furniture, and tall plants and trees. To add needed height where you have no tall pieces, stack tall accessories on top of a console table, buffet, or dresser.

If a room appears very tall or the ceilings seem unusually high, then create a “normal” height line and do not decorate above this line. Keep window treatments and artwork in this “normal” height range and ignore the area above. If you are ignoring unusually tall ceilings, try using furnishings with horizontal lines rather than long vertical lines to fill the space. This will help take the attention away from the height. Just be very careful to establish the imaginary height line first. If some accessories are mistakenly placed above it, then using lower setting furniture with horizontal lines may seem too short within the space.

Placement Basics for Living/Family Rooms

As you place your pieces, create conversation groupings in the space, where 5-6 people can sit comfortably, and talk at a normal level without shouting. To help accomplish this, imagine an invisible circle eight feet across. Place your groupings to fit within this circle. The pieces can make a U-shape, a variation of the U-shape, or even a square within the imaginary circle. Make sure there is room between furnishings to freely move about. Build large traffic ways into the room for easy access in and out. These should be about 3-4 feet wide. Allow at least 2.5-3 feet for other walkways through the room.

To begin the arrangement in the living or family room, place the focal point piece—perhaps an entertainment center or large bookshelf—on the DOMINANT WALL. There may be a fireplace or large window on that wall already, which will be the room’s focal point. Really play up and decorate the focal point. Mantels provide a great opportunity for a wonderful presentation.

Position the biggest piece of furniture first—most likely the sofa— opposite the focal point - usually facing it.

Remember to use the U-shape as a guide for placing furniture in relation to (facing) the focal point. You can always “loosen up” the strict u-shape later by angling pieces, but use the “U” to get started. Try to place seating pieces across from each other or next to each other, whether chairs are angled or straight.

As an alternative to the U-shape, consider using the “V” shape (see Figure 3). For example, you can place the sofa at a deep angle, with 2 chairs or a loveseat next to the sofa and angled towards it (think of a triangle). Deeply angled furniture often looks good in square rooms. Place the chairs after you place the sofa —usually across from the sofa. You can use just one chair if you balance it with something of equal weight. Avoid using too many chairs.

Keep in mind that your arrangement should encourage intimacy, friendship, and social activity at a close distance. Remember the imaginary eight-foot circle and create conversation groupings within this circle. A living or family room should seat at least five or six people very comfortably.

I consider coffee tables to be the CENTERPIECES of conversation groupings. They should be placed a reasonable distance from the sofa, as well as within reach of the other seating pieces. Too close to the sofa and your legs hit it, too far and you must reach for your drink. A good distance between the sofa and coffee table is 14-18 inches.

Within the living area setting, have a nice mix of upholstered or fabric covered pieces with wooden or metal pieces, mixing hard surfaces with soft to create interest. Keep the scale and visual weight of items proportionate to one another to support the balance and harmony of the space as a whole. Position delicate pieces with delicate, and chunky with chunky. Use the principle of line by remembering to mix curved furnishings with straight edges to find a pleasing look.

Keep chair and sofa heights within five inches of each other for a nice visual line around the room. Each chair, sofa, or seating piece should have a table or stand within easy reach for placing drinks or books. Side table height should be roughly as tall as the arm of the nearby chair or sofa, within about three inches. These accent tables can be placed between the sofa and chairs, and between pairs of chairs.

Add task lighting for each seat. This is where your lamps come into play. Lamps should match the decorating style, and should be balanced in scale and proportion to the other accessories in the room. Change out the shades from different lamps to get the balance you need.

To give your space dimension and interest, add trees or tall plants. If you choose to use real plants, make certain that the containers are in good shape so that water does not damage flooring or furnishings.

Corners offer a good location for trees and plants. Try using a small table with a plant on top for height, color, and texture. Create depth by layering plants behind furnishings. Add wall art and accessories in proportion and scale to the furnishings.

Furniture Placement Basics for Dining Rooms

Believe it or not, in dining areas, the focal point is very rarely the table and chairs. To create a pleasing dining arrangement, create the focal point first by positioning the biggest piece of furniture other than the table. Most likely this will be the hutch or china cabinet. Place it on the DOMINANT WALL. Let this create a glamorous, dramatic, or grand statement. Again, play up the focal point. You can use runners, plants, urns, glassware, china, or a floral arrangement. If you are using a low and wide buffet as a focal point, you must dress up the area above it to take up wall space that is about equal to the width of the buffet. To make an impact, use a large picture, mirror, and glamorous accessories to scale.

Although the dining table will NOT be the focal point of the room, you should accent it. Dress the table with a runner, beautiful linens, and/or a centerpiece that is proper scale to the room. The centerpiece, if large, can come off when entertaining guests.

The formal dining room is typically a much more glamorous room than other rooms, so you can really embellish your displays here. Dress the window in a stunning treatment. Add plants, flowers, sconces, trimmings, accessories, and beautiful accent chairs to the room for a grand statement of elegance.

Furniture Placement Basics for Bedrooms

In most bedrooms, the bed will be your focal point. Center it on the DOMINANT WALL. That’s the wall you see first when entering the room.

Since the bed is the focal point, play it up with exceptional linens and pillows, and perhaps a canopy or gorgeous headboard. If you do not already have a headboard, you can easily create one! Use a decorative screen, large European pillows, a beautiful quilt or tapestry on a rod, or fabric panels draped through large rings (such as towel rings) attached to the wall or ceiling. Accent the bed with a throw or perhaps a wooden or rattan tray holding a small floral arrangement.

Since many bedrooms are small or have multiple doors and windows that infringe on the space, you could try arranging the bed in a corner. In certain rooms, this will free up space, visually enlarge the space, and add romance and drama.

Place the next largest piece of furniture after you place the bed. This will likely be an armoire, dresser, or large desk. If possible, place it directly opposite the bed to create a sense of balance. You can make a short dresser appear taller by adding a large framed mirror or picture above it so it is appropriately scaled. Keep scale, weight, and proportion in mind. A big bed needs big case goods and accessories for balance.

Use an accent table or upholstered ottoman on either side of the bed to act as nightstands. The tables do not have to match as long as they use roughly the same amount of visual space and are of the same visual weight. Try placing a long bench or ottoman in front of the bed. Accent it with a throw or some pillows.

Place an upholstered chair (left over from the living room), a desk, or chest of drawers on a wall to the immediate right (or left) of the bed, preferably on the wall that is the second most dominant wall.

Furniture Placement Basics for Multi Purpose Rooms

The use of seating groups is effective for managing a space. When placing your furnishings in a large, open, or multipurpose room, create departments within the space, each with its own seating group or conversation area. Position the furnishings in each separate area or “room” independently while at the same time allowing them to flow together visually.

Use furniture pieces to make “walls” in multi purpose and large rooms that need division. Sofas, upholstered benches, fabric screens, a console table, or a pair of chairs are some suggestions for room dividers. Area rugs can help divide and/or define a space within a space. Multiple area rugs do not have to match as long as they blend and/or generally flow.

Each area or “room” within the multipurpose space should have an anchor or a dominant feature or focal point. In each distinct space, line up that area’s largest furniture piece with its corresponding focal point. Place furniture in a U-shape positioned towards the focal point, or angle the furniture in a “V” or triangle when appropriate. Focal point pieces should be placed so that the entire multipurpose area has balanced weight (this usually means two large or focal point pieces will be opposite of each other in the grand, overall multipurpose space).

Allow the appropriate room for traffic flow. Think in terms of small parties and family gatherings.

Large Rooms

In a large room, consider using the space for a different purpose than it was intended. This may help to make the furniture placement work better. Don’t feel compelled to fill up a large room with “stuff” (and don’t feel you must minimize the number of items in a small room). Sometimes a lot of items in a big room are not necessary (and a lot of furnishings and accessories in a small space can be very cozy). It depends on the way all of the elements work together. Learn to listen to your “gut” and “instinct”.

Avoid letting big pieces of furniture become “wall flowers”, and float and angle sofas and chairs. Layering is another useful design tool for creating interesting spaces that have a sense of depth. For example, position a console table backed up to a sofa, or place a large ficus tree in the corner behind a caddy-cornered chair.

For really cozy arrangements in very large rooms, use the middle of the room to create your seating groups. Angle the chairs and tables for added interest. Fill up gaps in the room by making little “nooks”, such as a place to house an upholstered ottoman and lots of pillows, or an area with a rocker and small shelf of books, accented with a comfy throw.

Shapes, Heights, Weights, Scale, and Balance

A sense of harmony can be achieved if you deal properly with the shapes, heights, and visual weights of your furnishings. For example, wide and chunky large furnishings generally work well with chunky accent pieces. Proportion and scale matter too. Small, delicate pieces should not be lost in very large or very tall rooms, or be encased by overwhelming patterns or accessories. Pieces should be generally proportionate in size to one another.

You can also visually change the heights and weights of furnishings simply by adding certain accessories. For example, a box or basket on top of a shelf or armoire can make it appear taller, and two huge ornaments flanking a bookcase can make the bookcase seem much wider. It will help to remember that tall furnishings with vertical lines lean towards formal interior spaces, and shorter heights with horizontal lines lean towards a more casual look.

As you arrange your rooms, the “visual weight” of the elements within the space should be balanced throughout the room. Balance is more important than strict symmetry. Balance can be achieved by having equivalent visual weights on the “right hand” and on the “left hand” of a particular piece of furniture, or by centering items, as in the case of a lamp that is centered on a table.

Here’s another tip. Do not get caught having too many straight lines or too many curves in an area. Change it up, or at least accent a line with its opposite line. For example, introduce curves into a room that has too many straight lines, and visa versa. Think “outside the box”! If your sofa, love seat, and chairs all feature straight lines with no real curves, add a round coffee table or a couple of oval-shaped end tables.

If some of the furnishings you own do not work well within the space, consider purchasing just one or two pieces that will help bridge the gaps.

A Call to Action

It’s once again time to take action to beautify your home! Last time, your “homework” was to pick one room and establish its focal point. Your new assignment is to continue in that same area, and rearrange the furniture so that it relates well to the focal point. If you are working in a living or family room, use the U-shape as a starting point, then angle individual pieces within the “U” to add interest. Or, try the “V”. You may want to define your new conversation grouping with an area rug. If you are dealing with a bedroom, remember that the bed IS the focal point, so place the other furnishings to relate to the bed as we discussed in this article.


As you step forth to conquer new arrangements, always approach your projects with a mindset of fun, and ditch the fear. No matter what the outcome, you can always move the furniture back to its original placement, so there is really no risk. Get started right away, and keep going if you are so inclined! The payoff is a home that will make you feel really good. What more could you ask for in home design?

As always, if you need some expert advice, feel free to visit the design area at “XYZ Furniture” or speak with me or one of our other friendly design consultants.

Next issue

Lesson #6 – Successful Accessorizing:  Winning Strategies to Show-Off Furnishings and “Wow” Your Friends.

Margarett DeGange, M.Ed. is a Home Fashions designer, Writer, and Professional Speaker. She is the creator of Communicate 2 Connect Seminars for business and personal development, and she is the Founder and Director of The DeGangi School of Interior Decoration, with both on sight and on-line courses in Interior Decorating and Redesign. For the past 20 years she has helped business owners in the interior fashions and decorating industries to communicate better with customers, run their businesses more effectively, and increase sales and profits.

Margarett’s new product, Let's Talk About... Decorating (www.letstalkaboutdecorating.com), features pre-packaged seminars for those who want to put on the customer presentations featured in this series of FURNITURE WORLD articles without going through the bother of additional preparation. Questions can be directed to Margarett DeGange at margarett@furninfo.com or Visit DecoratingSchool.com.

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