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How to design the perfect living room

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Don’t even think about starting with throw pillows

Rafael Soldi

Gone are the stuffy parlors from the past—living rooms are just that: The rooms where we live. "That’s the beauty of the living room," says Portland, Oregon, designer Lynne Parker of Lynne Parker Designs. "It’s where we now do everything."

Here are her nine tips and tricks for making the living room the ultimate destination.

1. Start with a plan, not pillows

The first step? Steer clear of purchasing pillows. "I meet a lot of clients who come to me and say, ‘I started buying throw pillows and now I have no rhyme or reason to this space,’" says Parker. "The foundation [of the design] is a vision and a plan."

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Since your living room might host all sorts of activities, whether that’s a cocktail party or family movie night – Parker recommends planning for real life. "I try to understand what ‘living’ means to each of these clients," says Parker. "Does it mean that you have media? Is it a place where you’re only on your laptops? How many places do you need to seat people?"

She develops a layout and furniture plan that takes the homeowners’ lifestyle into account. This includes having a T.V., if that’s the client’s preference. "Go for it! It’s a reality of life," Parker says. From flat screens to projectors, television design has come a long way. "They’re beautiful now," says Parker.

2. Invest in the couch

Once functionality is figured out, the first piece of furniture that Parker buys is the sofa. "It’s important to find a piece that’s going to stand the test of time and be a quality piece," she says.

She encourages clients to take their time with the purchase and think through a number of factors. The most important criteria will be their budget, with an entry-level range starting from $1,500 to $2,500.

Lifestyle is also a consideration, as it will determine how much use the piece will receive, and in turn, the best color family and fabric. For instance, something like white mohair wouldn’t work well with sticky children’s hands and muddy paws from pets.

When choosing the fabric, Parker reviews the "rub" number, which provides a clue to durability. Finally, she wants to know clients’ aesthetic preference, such as classic or modern, and has them do "sit tests" to gauge comfort.

Sofas available to the trade will be the highest quality, especially those made by longtime furniture manufacturers like Lee Industries, Kravet, and Schumacher.

Mainstream retailers offer a range of great styles but the product may not last longer than a decade. In order to illustrate the price variations in a similar style, Parker compared the West Elm Monroe in Celestial $1,300, to the Malibu from Jonathan Adler $3,200, to the Kravet Villanova $5,200.

3. Punctuate with lighting

When planning the room’s furniture layout and window treatments, Parker prioritizes natural light. "Then I make sure we have high and low lighting," Parker says. "Do we have great lamps? Do we have good overhead lighting?"

For this part of the design, she prefers to choose lamps that support the overall aesthetic and act as sculptural notes. "Invest in some beautiful lamps and you’re going to have those forever in your collection," she says.

Parker favors YLighting, Robert Abbey, and Moooi, a Scandinavian lighting company. "I also think Lindsey Adelman’s work is exquisite," she says, citing the branching chandelier. "It’s like a work of art."

She also finds unique vintage models and has them rewired. "Lamps just punctuate the space," she says.

4. Define the room with rugs

"I like the rugs to claim the territory," Parker says. "I make sure that the rug is much larger than the seating space." Sizing larger with the rug will ultimately make the room look bigger.

"Go more oversized than you would think," she says, just making sure not to bisect major circulation paths and keeping all the front legs of a seating group on the rug area. The rug needn’t always make a bold statement.

"There’s going to be a lot of other elements that come into play," says Parker, so she makes sure the rug’s color, texture, and pattern balance with the whole scheme.

5. Accent with tables

Coffee tables can become a focal point, since the eye is drawn to their shape as it contrasts with the larger mass of the sofa. As such, Parker often likes to choose pieces that have strong lines and are timeless.

"This is a piece that I like to choose something iconic, like a beautiful Noguchi," she says. Accent tables are also functional necessities, as every seat needs a place to put their coffee cup or cocktail glass. Parker likes to pick these pieces up at vintage shops or estate sales, or search 1st Dibs under "Coffee and Cocktail Tables."

6. Layer different textures

To make the room inviting, juxtapose the textures of different materials, such as wood, metal, wool, silk, and glass. "Texture is super important," says Parker. She advises that the materials you use should feel good to the touch.

"Does something feel soft when it’s supposed to feel soft? Is it strong when it’s meant to be durable? Does your carpet feel good under your feet?"

An easy way to incorporate texture is via throw blankets and accessories. Parker likes the Three Panel Throw from House of Castellon, for its modern update of a classic as well as these colorful felt coasters from Canoe.

8. Have fun with pillows

Pillows are another great way to bring in color, pattern, and texture, so Parker suggests having fun when picking them out. "It depends on the mood and style of the client, but I always go pretty bold with pillows," she says.

Parker buys pillows from all sorts of outlets, everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Trina Turk to CB2 and Leif, and she also has them custom made. "I always tell clients, you’re not going to keep a throw pillow for twenty years," she says. "So have some fun with it."

7. Add personality

Accessories are more than just trinkets or clutter. They are an opportunity to tell a story about the personality and life of the homeowner. By weaving these pieces into the overall design, the space will truly feel like your home.

In her own house, Parker prefers books and likes the selection at Better Living Through Design. "They inspire me, so my books are everywhere," she says. Whether your pieces are gifts from loved ones or reminders of the places that you’ve been, "They’re really an expression of us. That’s what your home should be: is all these expressions of you and who you love."

9. Select with purpose

"I’m a big believer that clutter stresses us out," says Parker. "While I have a lot of layers to my designs, it should have some tidiness to it." She suggests taking time with the process and selecting items thoughtfully, so that every piece has a purpose and a place.

"Technology has taught us that speed is so important, but art takes time," she says. "Really consider what you want this space to say about you and how you want it to make you feel…You’re curating your life. Everything that you look at should make you happy."