Wherever you live – Richmond, Kew, Barnes, Putney – we’ve all hankered for a large, open-plan living space – Katherine Sorrell explains how to get the most out of it
We all love a space where family and friends can be relaxed and sociable together, yet do their own thing at the same time. And the key to ensuring that an open-plan room looks good and functions brilliantly is careful planning. Start by thinking about how you’ll use the space – for cooking, informal eating, entertaining, working, relaxing and so on – and divide it into appropriate areas. Just as if they were separate rooms, but without conventional dividing walls. In some cases these separate zones can be created with changes of level, but generally they’re achieved through the considered use of flooring, colour and pattern, lighting and the positioning of furniture.
Choosing flooring for a multi-purpose space can be problematic, as kitchens/halls need something splash-proof that can be mopped, while sitting areas ought to feel inviting and comfortable. There are two solutions. Either use different (but complementary) floorings, thus automatically creating visually distinct zones, or lay one practical flooring throughout, giving a sleek and flowing look. Stone or ceramic tiles, engineered or laminate floorboards, rubber and good quality vinyl are all suitable – simply soften with woven or fluffy rugs around your sofas and chairs to create the framework for a separate ‘living’ area.
Pale colours will emphasise open, airy spaces, while darker shades are dramatic and can help make large areas feel cosy. One option in an open-plan room is to zone the scheme by using tones of one colour, going from light at one end to darker at the other. If your space is very long and thin, painting the end walls in a deeper shade makes them appear closer, thus improving the proportions, while a neutral scheme throughout can be given matching accents of a brighter colour – say, a rug in the living area, glasses on the dining table and a couple of kitchen accessories – for a smart and interesting look.
You may find that conventional furniture doesn’t work as well as expected in an open-plan space – in which case search for larger-than-average pieces, bearing in mind that they have to look good from all angles, not just the front. What you need to avoid, especially in a larger room, is placing the seating around the edges, or spacing it too far apart. Steer clear of the hospital-waiting-room or furniture-showroom look at all costs. Instead, group your seating so that sofas and chairs are sociable, either facing each other or creating a corner (modular units are good for this).
If you’re starting from scratch with an open-plan design, try to include an island or peninsular unit between the kitchen and the rest of the room. That way, you get a visual break between the two zones and the cook can comfortably chat with family or guests while preparing food. Kitchen manufacturers now produce plenty of products that blend kitchen, dining and living functions, from cabinets that co-ordinate with free-standing storage to media units that incorporate a TV, so it’s no longer hard to design a space that blends easily from one zone to another.
Good lighting makes a big difference in any room, and is especially important for open-plan living, helping to zone the space and provide either strong illumination or soft ambience. Food preparation areas need bright lights, which can usually be built into the bottoms of wall-mounted cabinets or, if you have an island unit, can take the form of a ceiling-mounted track or a row of pendants. In dining and living areas, meanwhile, you’ll want flexible lighting that can be turned up or down easily. Experts advise installing a range of circuits that can be controlled by separate switches or dimmers but, unless you’re at the building-work stage, this will involve a fair bit of disruption (not to mention the extra expense). Instead, simply introduce flexibility by replacing main light switches with dimmers and plugging in a selection of table or floor lamps at strategic points.
One final point: bear in mind that sound carries, and you won’t be able to shut a door to block it out. If you’re eating dinner, watching TV or catching up on emails, you won’t want to be disturbed by the extractor fan howling or the dishwasher gurgling so, if possible, put your washing machine somewhere separate and buy super-quiet appliances.