design by Bunny Williams
Recently, when I was fortunate enough to hear Bunny Williams speak in San Francisco, she joked that it has been said of her that “no one can squeeze more furniture into a space than (she) can.” While that statement may be true, I challenge you to find a living area designed by Ms. Williams that isn’t perfectly suited to good conversation over a cup of tea for two or for after dinner lounging for a group of ten (or more.)
Bunny Williams’ formula for furnishing a living room : “A no-fail arrangement consists of a 7-foot sofa, a 4-by-2-foot coffee table, one upholstered chair, one bergère or other upholstered chair, a pair of open-arm chairs that can be moved around, one 30-by-20-inch bench, two odd end tables, and two low drink tables .” Translated, that is seating for no less than eight, and could expand to upwards of twelve or more if needed.
The key is not simply to have a lot of furniture, but to have a number of pieces that can be moved easily as well as some that multitask. For instance, the three armchairs in the photo above weigh considerably less than a fully upholstered chair and can be moved without strain. The garden stool can be used for seating, drinks, or even to stack books or magazines. The ottoman in the back is functioning as a coffee table in the photo, but could quickly be converted to seating. The upholstered chair by the fireplace would be a lovely place to curl up and read a book when alone, but one or more of the armchairs could be pulled over to use for a small conversational arrangement when guests arrive.
One lesson I learned the hard way is to make certain that all of the seat heights in a grouping are the same. In my family room, I have one large upholstered chair that is especially squishy (granted, it could stand to be re-built and reupholstered) and, when sitting in it, I feel as though everyone else is looking down at me. When selecting seating, it can’t be assumed that seat height is standard, and if you’re using antique pieces, all bets are off! Be sure to bring your tape measure!
Large rooms are especially suited to having multiple groups of seating arrangements for different sized conversations. This much publicized space designed by Jeffrey Bilhuber has it all. Here and in the photo below, you can see that this room was designed for conversation. There is ample “fixed” seating, supplemented by several occasional chairs and a number of ottomans. The arrangement with the sofa and (gorgeous) klismos chairs is perfect for a larger group of people.
At the far end of the space, under the window, a pair of Bridgewater club chairs offer cozy seating for two and by the fireplace, there is another pair of chairs with somewhat more distance and an ottoman between them…perhaps a grouping for three, or a place for the homeowners to relax by the fire and read. (Those of you that have been in a relationship long enough know what I mean—sometimes it’s nice to just be in the same room with your partner without having to converse.)
I think a somewhat unconventional seating arrangement such as this one, designed by the firm McAlpine, Booth and Ferrier, can be tricky to plan, but the less traditional and less expected layout results is a casual and comfortable grouping—one that is easy to live in.
In this space, Phoebe Howard uses my favorite go-to solution for extra seating: ottomans, footstools and small benches. When I am out thrifting or antiquing, if I come across one of these little gems in good enough condition, I almost never leave it behind (no, really)—they are usually inexpensive and easy to reupholster and if the wood needs cosmetic repairs, that can also often be done at little expense. I have one Swedish style bench in my living room for which I’ve had several top cushions made (currently it’s sporting a zebra pattern). It’s so simple to pop off the top and change out the upholstery seasonally or whenever the mood strikes. These small pieces are the masters of multitasking. Besides being “back-up” seating, they can hold a tray for drinks or a vase of flowers or support a stack of books or even a small lamp. Frequently, newer upholstered ottomans offer storage under the seat—a perfect place for newspapers or magazines or a game or a deck of cards or even for that collection of remote controls that seems to plague the modern living room. Benches can be tucked away under a console table, which, in turn helps to anchor the console arrangement. (See my previous post on the subject here.) A small pair of stools looks fantastic pulled right up to the edge of the coffee table, or if the table is a bit taller, they can slide in underneath. I (quite obviously) can’t say enough about the benefits of having several of these small pieces in a room.
I find that when I have only one guest, we often seem to wind up seated at my 40-inch round kitchen table. My theory about why this happens is that when the group is so small, people are more comfortable with some sort of physical barrier separating them. This is akin to the phenomenon whereby I stand in the kitchen and company stands on the other side of the island. (I dunno, maybe it’s just me….) Designers Babs Watkins & Eleanor Cummings (whom, by the way I’ve become slightly obsessed with upon seeing two of her recent projects simultaneously featured in Veranda and House Beautiful!) have brought the same sized table into the living area. This looks to me a perfect arrangement for two friends to share a little gossip and a cup of coffee.
Have you ever found yourself in the uncomfortable situation of sitting in someone’s living room and having to raise your voice in order to be heard? It drives me crazy, the enormous living/family rooms so popular in the past decade that have but one seating group of grotesquely over-stuffed upholstered pieces that put people twelve feet away from each other separated by a coffee table large enough to seat dinner for eight.
This room, also designed by Jeffrey Bilhuber, makes good use of a potentially awkward space adjacent to the fireplace by squeezing in (comfortably) appropriately proportioned seating for four. Keeping seating groups tight facilitates relaxed conversation.
This arrangement by Eric Cohler is perfect for conversation. This radial type furniture plan works especially well in a square-ish room. Everyone gets their own chair, so there’s no sitting at opposite ends of the sofa (because you know, nobody ever uses the middle cushion unless there is literally nowhere else to sit.) There’s ample comfortable seating as well as some that can move around. I actually wanted to do something similar to this in my own living room, but the boys won and the sofa stayed.
I just love the arrangement of this California living room by Betty Burgess. It has many of the key ingredients for comfortable conversational seating: 1. A not-too-big sofa (avoiding that middle-seat syndrome). 2. An upholstered, yet moveable, armchair. 3. An ottoman doubling as a coffee table. 4. A long bench with a beefy cushion (bonus-it doesn’t block the view of the garden.) 5. Extra seating tucked under the console, just waiting to be called into service. 6. All seating is at roughly the same height. And, 7. The distance between seats is not so great that you’d have to raise your voice.
When designing seating in a living area, I always try to imagine that the chairs are conversing with each other. I’ll ask myself “Can left cushion sofa talk comfortably to blue bergère?” I know it sounds kooky, but it works for me.
So, do you have any favorite tricks for seating arrangements? I’d love to hear your suggestions!