What is it about a formal living room design that makes it feel formal? It’s something a lot of readers and clients wonder, and so today I thought I’d reveal the answer to you. Because designing this space is very different from designing your everyday living room.
Furnishing and styling a formal living room takes a keen design eye to get right. Thankfully I have two of them, so scroll on as I share my pearls of wisdom around decorating a formal living space. Or formal sitting room. Or whatever you want to call it, really.
I should point out that all of the images in this post come courtesy of the designers at Metricon. I’ve worked with them as a brand partner and presenter for years and am constantly blown away by how stunning their display homes are. So let’s examine some of their photos and get your formal living room looking just as lush.
A Formal Living Room is Different to a Rumpus Room
This is the best place to start because people often confuse a rumpus and formal living room. Which one you want to prioritise at your place is an important consideration if you’ve got a second living space outside of your day-to-day lounge room to play with. And so knowing the difference between the two is key.
A rumpus room is a relaxed zone, with a TV in it, and usually a sectional sofa. It’s where kids and teens hang out and play games, or where you watch a movie while your partner watches sport in the main living room. It’s for stretching out with a blanket, and it’s often upstairs or at the rear of the property in a more secluded area.
A formal living room operates differently. It’s not designed for sprawling out in. It’s a zone to sit and have conversation in, with friends and a drink or five. It’s far more adult and often moodier in feel. Less casual, less relaxed, and less hidden. It’s usually on the ground floor of the home, often at the front of the property so people can see it as they walk through to the main living area.
A Formal Living Room Has a Strong Focal Point
So you’ve decided you want to use the second living zone as a formal living room. I’m totally on-board. The first thing you want to do when mapping out the layout of the room is ensure there’s a strong focal point. This is something that draws the eye to it as you walk into the room.
Often this focal point is directly opposite you as you walk into the room, but not always. If you scroll through the images in this post it’ll become clear that a fireplace is the most-used focal point in a formal living room design. It’s a great idea if you can install one, because it helps in creating the conversation pit vibe I’ll discuss further down. It also brings a strong sense of presence to the room, which you’ll also want.
It doesn’t have to be a fireplace though. If you have a great outlook, the focal point might be a window you can sit and look out of. It may be a large mirror or piece of art on one of the walls. If might not even be on the wall at all. A large feature light hanging from the centre of the ceiling, for example, is a genius idea.
Formal Living Room Designs Have Symmetry
You’ll want to keep symmetry in mind when thinking about the design elements of your formal living room. It’s another staple of this space. Without that symmetry, the room can start to head into rumpus room territory. And we want to keep it feeling structured and formal.
The image above, and loads of images below, all have a sense of symmetry at play. Case in point above: the windows either side of the fireplace are a mirror image of one another. In other images, you’ll notice mirror either side of a fireplace, or shelving.
Don’t stress too much if you can’t pull of that exact sense of symmetry. You can do it in your furniture orientation. Furniture in a formal living room is always placed across from one another, either side of the room’s focal point. This creates what we call a conversation pit (a place to talk).
You can have the same sofa twice in the room, or go for a sofa on one side of the room and armchairs on the other. As long as they fill roughly the same amount of space, you’ll achieve the formal feel.
Above: If you cut this room down the middle it really is a mirror image. This is a great approach if you want the room to feel very formal. Below: There’s still a sense of symmetry, with the scale of the sofa matching the scale of the armchairs, but there’s material and colour diversity. It feels formal, but not as formal as the room above.
Formal Living Rooms Are Moodier in Colour
You know how some families have a sibling that’s far more relaxed and chilled; the fun one? Then there’s another sibling that is a bit more serious, disciplined and mature. That’s a good metaphor for your everyday living room and formal living room design.
Your two living spaces should be related. They should feel like they’re from the same style family. However, they’re sisters, not twins. They look similar in colour and style if you sat them side by side, but your formal living room should be a more mature, moodier and serious version of your everyday living space.
Changing the colours between the two spaces is the key to getting your formal living room design right. The tone of colour should be darker; mustard instead of sunny yellow, navy instead of sky blue, dark brown instead of beige, olive instead of sage green, and so on.
That’s not to say these deeper colours need to be large in scale. If you love a neutral living room is can still feel formal if you have all the other rules in here covered and just have a pop of colour in a cushion or throw.
Above: Love the orientation of this space, even if it does have a TV in it (usually a formal room no-no). The art and windows create great symmetry though. Below: Even in a minimalistic room design you can create a wow-moment with tiles around a fireplace; a great focal point.
Formal Living Room Furniture: More Structured, Less Cosy
When it comes time to think about furniture for your formal living room, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind, particularly around the profile and comfort level of the seating you bring in. Because these should differ from your everyday living room.
Formal living room designs aren’t for spending all night watching TV in, so the sofas don’t have to be as comfortable. You might have a full feather base cushion in your everyday sofa, for example (they might even recline), but I’d opt for a springier full-foam cushion in a formal living room sofa. The same goes for armchairs. You want more spring, less sag.
I don’t just say this because you’ll spend less time sitting on a formal living room sofa. It’s about looks too. Over time you want your sofa and armchairs to hold their shape. You don’t want cushions to droop or sag, because it looks too relaxed for a formal living space. So always go for a firmer cushion.
Formal Living Rooms Often Have Refined Materials
I’ll often tell clients to invest more in their formal living room than their everyday living room. If they have kids or pets, let the main lounge room that sits beside the kitchen be the wear-and-tear zone. And with that in mind, they shouldn’t go crazy with the spend here if there’s a formal living room they can invest dollars in instead.
It’s often the materials that feature in a formal living room that are invested in. Tiles or stone around a fireplace, for example, rather than paint or wallpaper. It might be more expensive and better-quality curtains than you’d place in kids rooms or a rumpus upstairs. Or it might be an epic feature light, especially if the formal living room is the first space you see when you walk in the door. You want to create that sense of wow-factor.
Even in furniture, I’ll suggest investing money. Marble coffee tables, a gorgeous velvet on an armchair, finer cushion fabrics, or even a better quality rug. Of course any successful room design is about mixing and matching brands and price points, I’d just suggest you consider throwing a few more bucks into a formal living room over an everyday family lounge room.
You want it to feel more expensive than other zones in the home.
A Sense of Space is at Play in a Formal Living Room
The other thing you’ll notice in a formal living room is a sense of space. Furniture isn’t crammed in. Remember, you want to avoid it feeling cosy. It’s not a dumping ground for decor, it’s not overly-layered with throws and blankets and rugs. There’s air flowing around it, there’s room to appreciate the focal point in the room. It’s not too visually chaotic.
It would be wise to have some furniture on legs, lifted off the ground. Not every piece has to be, but some. In this post many of the formal living room designs have a sofa on the ground, but the coffee table and armchairs elevated on legs, or vice versa. You don’t want every piece on the ground or the room will feel too heavy and weighed down.
If your formal living room is carpeted, I would avoid putting down a rug. By all means rug a tiled or floorboard room, but a rug on carpet is adding a bit too much cosy. Less is more.
Before We Go, A Quick Exercise
The formal living room above is lovely, don’t get me wrong. But now that you know all there is to know about how to complete a formal living room design, take a look at the image and think about what you could change to improve it.
For me, the fireplace is divine, the shelving either side is divine, the sofa is also divine. It’s following a tonne of rules. However, I would replace the sofa directly across (to the right of the fireplace) with two armchairs separated by a side table. It would give some more formality, less cosiness.
As the fireplace is to the left, not directly across as you walk in, a feature pendant in the middle of the ceiling would also be a nice touch. But that’s all the room needs. Not a lot, just a few tweaks to take the design next-level.
Got everything you need to make your formal living room design a stunner? Drop me a comment below if you have any questions.
This post includes images and/or videos of Metricon display homes and events, reproduced with permission. © Metricon Homes Pty Ltd 2021.
Thank you so much for your helpful article.
I just moved to a new house. I am struggling to decorate the formal living room because of its layout.
My formal living room is rectangle shaped. It has french doors to get in. Entering through the french doors, a big window to the front yard is on the left side. To the right side of the living room, a formal dining area is connected. There is no fireplace.
If I make the wall opposite to the french doors ( which is the longest wall of the rectangle) as the focal point and arrange the sittings ( 1 sofa and 2 armchairs) to face each other on each side of the focal point wall, the sofa or armchairs cut the flow of the room from the french doors to the dining room. If I make the window as the focal point and arrange the sittings to facing each other, the sofa or armchairs block the french doors. The doors cannot be opened without moving the chairs.
The only way to keep the flow seems to be to put the sofa against the opposite wall of the french doors and arm chairs to the window side. The arrangement is in L- shape which is not symmetric nor formal.
Please, is there any way to create a more formal yet functional layout for my livingroom? I would really appreciate any insights.
Hi Johana, it’s really difficult to give specific advice in this instance. I’d encourage you to hire a local designer for a consultation who you can bounce ideas off.
Thank for sharing ideas. I really appreciate it.
I’ve been following your blogs since last week and I just wanted to thank you for being super helpful.
I’m actually in the process of decorating my new home and I really love the curtains displayed in the 5th image (of this blog). Would you be able to let me know where I can find it to make a purchase?
Thanks so much!
Hi Hannah, I don’t have those details but if you show the photo to a window treatment manufacturer they should be able to make you something similar.
Thank you for your tips & ideas on the Formal Living Room, I am near building a brand new Hampton home which shall be complete in 3-4 months, with a formal room next to the dining room, a family room next to the kitchen & a patents/grandchildren’s retreat upstairs next to the main & grandchildren’s ‘s bedrooms. I am going to be using all rooms as much as possible as both my husband & I are in our 60’s still working full time in our legal practice. My grandchildren usually stay with us every second week 5-6 days.
Regarding your tip on NOT having a TV in the formal living room, well I have decided to have a custom made wall unit for a large TV in the centre plus glass cabinets on either side to put a few beautiful Limited Edition Swarovski Crystal pieces that I have collected yrs ago which very ornate & beautiful to look at.
What is your view on my decision?
I shall also have a custom made wall unit upstairs in the parents retreat with similar items as downstairs except in a more relaxed nautical theme. Last but not least the family room next to the kitchen, this one shall be the most relaxed of them all always in a Hampton theme. I would appreciate your view. kind regards Rita D’Angelo
Hi Rita, I do prefer not to have a TV in the formal room, but if you want one then you could place it in cabinetry like you are doing. You could also have it rise out of and lower into the cabinetry when not in use. Another option is one of the TVs that can be set to look like art when it’s not being used as a TV. Best of luck with the build!
I enjoy receiving your blogs – so thank you for all the tips and ideas. When I see a piece of furniture I like how do I follow it up? Perhaps not possible …
I have an old home (colonial mudbrick) where the the formal living room sits off the hallway. Further there is a need to walk across the living room to reach an enclosed verandah space . I have struggled to make this area work and hence it doesn’t get used much …the fireplace on one wall I guess would be a focal point but then it’s not directly in front of you but adjacent to you as you come into this space . So the issue of a thoroughfare is problematic when you add a coffee table ! Any ideas?
Hi Necia, thanks so much for following the blog. It’s always hard to give good advice based on a few sentences. Honestly in your scenario I’d try to find a local interior designer or decorator who can help you get the space right with a one off consultation. It will likely cost you a few hundred dollars, but it would be worth it to get this space right. Plus you should have time to review any other rooms and ask for their suggestions. Just let them know want a one off consult before you book them.
I could throw out suggestions but they are going to be too general and without seeing the space my suggestions might not work. I wouldn’t want to lead you astray.