Your living room is arguably the most important space in your home. It’s called the living room because that is where we spend most of our waking hours at home. Therefore, the importance of having a living room where we feel comfortable, happy and balanced cannot be understated.

The most important factor in ensuring that your living room works for you, is buying the correct furniture for you and your space.

I have seen many instances of homeowners buying the wrong kind of furniture, and they are left feeling uninspired and even uncomfortable in their own living rooms. Very often, they can feel that the space does not work, but they don’t know why. When they purchase new furniture to “fix” the problem, very often they make the same mistakes again.

If you buy the wrong furniture, then the effort and money that you spend on the design, colour scheme and décor would be wasted. Simply put, having the right furniture is the building block of a stylish living room.

This situation can be easily avoided by following a few simple design rules that interior designers use when selecting living room furniture for clients.

The style and feel you want to create warrants a full blog (or more!) on its own, so here I am focussing on the essentials of function and form.

1. Avoid over-sized sofas and chairs

One of the biggest mistakes that I see homeowners make is that they purchase furniture that is just too big for their space. This is particularly true for sofas and occasional chairs.

I cannot overstate the importance of buying sofas and chairs that are in proportion to the scale of your room. Pick sleeker, slimmer chairs and sofas that don’t have wide armrests or backs.

Classical living room with chunky sofa and chairs

Recently, sectional and chaise longue sofas have become increasingly popular. I love them as well, they look fabulous. However, a sectional may not be right for your space.

Unless you have a big living room, steer clear of large sectionals. You may find that a sectional sofa fits in at a real push, but it will just over-power the space and your living room will never feel balanced or comfortable.

Moreover, sectionals can limit the ways in which you can re-arrange your space, so be aware of that. If you like to move your furniture around from time to time, then consider whether you wouldn’t be better off with sofas which give you more design flexibility.

The average living room size is between 16 and 18m2, and this can accommodate seating for 5 or 6 people. Generally, chunkier chairs do not actually provide more seating. You don’t have to sacrifice seating capacity when opting for a smaller sofa.

What is important is that you buy a sofa with a narrower armrest, back rest and seating area. Think sleek rather than oversized for comfort.

2. Steer clear of complete living room suites

The days of full living room suites, complete with 3, 2 and single-seater sofas, are thankfully over.

Rather, we have seen a trend in having one or two matching sofas and then pairing these with different occasional chairs. This creates visual interest and makes the space look more dynamic.

According to Hunker, the reason for the trend is, quite simply, functionality. Living rooms have had to become multi-functional spaces, because of the recent shift to remote learning and working.

However, it is important to ensure that the sofas and occasional chairs speak to each other. In other words, that they are not so different as to be completely mismatched. They don’t need to be the same, but they need to complement each other.

Contemporary living room with a charcooal grey sofa and patterned occasional chair

When purchasing your living room furniture, rather than looking for a living room suite, opt for individual sofas and different occasional chairs.

3. Don’t go small on the rug

Another big design fault that I come across all too often, is picking a rug that is too small for your living room.

The correct rug is one that’s edges fit underneath the edges of your sofas and chairs. The right rug will cover your exposed floor area, not to just fit the width of your coffee table.

Contemporary living room with bold, colourful rug

That means that you should opt for a rug around 200 x 300 cm in dimensions for an average sized living room, or a 160 x 230 cm rug for a small living room.

4. Avoid patterned sofas and chairs

We all know that pattern is a great design tool to add visual interest to your space. But your living room furniture is probably not the place to use it.

Certain design styles, like bohemian, incorporate loads of bold, quirky pattern which gives the style that thrown-together look. But a bohemian living room may not be for you.

If you tend towards a more modern or contemporary style, be careful with your use of patterned furniture pieces in your living room.

Matching anything to a floral or zig-zag patterned sofa is going to be tricky, whereas solid fabrics go with anything.  Further, because your sofa is the largest, most noticeable piece in your living room, having a patterned fabric could overwhelm the space.

Rather use pattern in your soft furnishings, like your rug, throws, curtains or scatter cushions. Accessories like vases are also a fabulously simple way to incorporate pattern. That way, if you tire of the pattern, you can easily remove it or change it out with something fresh.

Living room sofa with a striped and floral scatter cushion.

If you absolutely love pattern and want to have furniture with patterned fabric, opt for a very light and muted pattern, like a grey pinstripe. Alternatively, cover your occasional chairs in patterned fabric but leave your sofas plain

5. Don’t opt for colourful sofas and chairs

Colour is a fantastic design tool that can bring almost any space to life. However, for most people and spaces, your furniture is not the place to incorporate crazy colour.

Opting for sofas in neutral colours, like grey, cream, white and oatmeal will make your space feel bigger because your sofa won’t overwhelm the space.

Plus, sofas and chairs are pricey purchases, so you want them to be timeless and to get the longest possible use out of them. Colours go in and out of fashion, and a lime-green sofa that looked uber-cool in 2015 just isn’t in anymore.

Our tastes also change with time, so the colours you love today just might not be doing it for you in five years.

You can safely mix and match different neutral colours with your sofas and chairs, for example a greige (grey-beige) sofa with white occasional chairs. Your seating does not have to be an exact match; each piece just needs to relate to others in the space.

Bring colour into your living room with your curtains, throws, scatter cushions and art. That way you can change your look easily and affordably if you want to.

This fun graphic illustrates how many looks you can create with a neutral sofa, just by changing the scatter cushions:

Graphic showing one grey sofa with various scatter cushion colour schemes.

If you really want to bring colour into your space without going over the top, then bring in muted shades of colours, like a rich olive green or a deep blue-grey. Pick a colour that is so muted or deep that it tends towards a neutral more than a colour. That way, your space will be more vibrant but still timeless.

6. Avoid under- and over-sized coffee tables

Another design mistake that I see people making all too often is buying a coffee table that is too big or too small for their space.

Neither is great because a too-small coffee table will look lost in your living room, like an after-thought. An oversized coffee table will dominate your space and overshadow your sofa.

As a general guide, I use coffee tables that take up about 30 – 40% of the “visual weight” of your main sofa. This sounds more technical than it is. Simply look at your sofa and weigh it up mentally against the coffee table in terms of size and visual weight. For example, you could probably go bigger on a glass coffee table. But if you have a heavy, mahogany coffee-table, watch that it does not overpower your design.

Check out this living room with a muted colour palette. Unfortunately, the heavy coffee table over-powers the space. A more appropriately sized coffee table would complement the light, elegant design.

Modern living room with oversized black glass coffee table.

7. Optimize your TV/plasma unit

Your TV unit is a pretty important furniture piece because a LOT of attention is given to the TV that it houses.

Make sure that your plasma unit is in proportion to your TV, not too big or tiny.  Cielo provides a great guide in determining the size your TV unit should be:

Bear in mind that most people upgrade their TV’s more often than they change their furniture. So make sure that your TV unit is bigger than your current TV, so that if you upgrade to a larger screen, your unit won’t look out of place.

Storage is another major factor when selecting the right TV unit. A sleek, open shelved unit may look great, but don’t forget that you may need some storage space for those ever-present remotes and gadgets. Plus, it’s a bonus to have somewhere shielded to hide those pesky TV cables and wires.

Cielo provides a great guide on how to buy the right sized TV unit for your TV:

Graphic showing right TV unit sizes for TV

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The starting place when shopping for living room furniture is to go for sleeker, more neutral sofas and chairs.

Ensuring that your coffee table and TV unit are appropriately sized will give your space a more balanced feel.

Lastly, opt for a rug that actually covers the exposed part of your living room floor.

By implementing these simple design tips, you are well on your way to having a living room that you and your family will love spending time in.

Founder and interior designer of Home in a Box, Taryn De Nysschen

Written by Taryn De Nysschen

Taryn practised as an attorney for 12 years before pursuing her love for interior design. She is the lead interior designer and founder of Home in a Box.

Home in a Box specialises in virtual interior design concepts in South Africa, and is passionate about re-decorating homes conveniently, simply and affordably.