Great Expectations

By Lesley Myrick

The great room is the new heart of the home

Hands up if you have a formal living room — and actually use it. I don’t imagine many hands are raised. The formal living room, once a staple in American homes (complete with plastic-covered sofas), is definitely being re-evaluated by today’s families. Who wants to decorate — and clean — a room that’s used only twice a year for special events? In theory, however, I do love the idea of having a formal space for entertaining. It makes me think of a Mad Men-esque era of chic cocktail parties with women in pencil skirts and men thoughtfully smoking pipes. If I liked martinis, you better believe that I’d be in there with a cocktail in hand and a killer pair of heels on my feet.

But alas, smoking inside is no longer fashionable (thank goodness), and neither is the stuffy, seldom-used living room where plastic-wrapped seating abounds and kids and pets are forbidden.

Since the early 1990s the great room has become a common alternative, and I’ve got to say, I dig it for both practical and aesthetic purposes. A great room incorporates the functions of several more traditional rooms into one space. Think of it like combining the family room, living room and study into one. Often great rooms have raised ceilings and are located at the center of the home.

The New York Times has called the great room “the McMansion’s signature space.” I’m not sure how I feel about that slightly snarky observation — or how I feel in general about McMansions, which are large, mass-produced homes with little attention to architecture and design. Regardless, I’m a big fan of the great room, and it’s a trend I’d like to see continue. There is often so much square footage in a home that goes unused, and I’m thrilled to see a functional, family-friendly space becoming the norm.

I believe a home should be livable, delightful and unexpected. Livable is first in that list for a reason. What’s the point of designing a home you love only to admire it from afar? Pretty and practical is the name of my game, and the great room checks both of those boxes.

A great room is actually one of my favorite spaces to design and decorate due to its challenges. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, huh? The fact that it’s typically a very large room with high ceilings means that scale is of the utmost importance. Not only do the individual furniture pieces in the space need to be of a large enough scale to have the right visual presence in the room, but often the furnishings need to be divided into zones, which are smaller, more intimate areas within the larger room.

The great room photos featured here — designed for a client in Waco’s Landon Branch neighborhood — are a great (pun intended) example of how functional this multiuse space can be. Between the main TV-watching area, comfortable conversation seating, kids play corner, grown-up bar area (not pictured) and easy access to outdoors, this one large space actually serves five purposes. Take that, basic living room!

Growing up in a modest 1970s bungalow in Canada, we definitely didn’t have a great room. We had the family room downstairs in the basement that was used daily (simply referred to as “the basement”), and the formal living room on the main floor that my poor parents constantly fought to keep us kids and pets out of. After all, it was so close to our bedrooms, why would we not play in there? It was hardly used! Prime real estate for running in circles and building forts! And why would our strong-willed beagle not sleep in there?

When my grandparents came over to visit, we’d always gather in the living room. It felt so foreign to me. Was I allowed to put my feet up on the sofa like I was downstairs? Did I really have to sit up straight and just listen to adults talk the whole time? Why couldn’t we just hang in the basement where everyone was more comfortable? There was always a slight level of discomfort for me whenever there was a gathering in the formal living room. My poor brother struggled even more. After all, a glass coffee table is just begging to be broken by a boisterous young boy. It’s a miracle no one’s head went through the top of that table when we got rowdy.

All this to say, you can see why I’m over the living room and totally on board with the great room. There’s a happy medium in a great room. It can be equal parts chic for entertaining and comfortable for living, with enough room for both needs to happily coexist. Well-designed zones mean it can be a functional family gathering space with several activities happening at once. There’s a relaxed sense of family and home in this newfound space which just feels good. Livable, delightful and unexpected — check! And hallelujah. No more bare summer legs sticking to plastic-covered upholstery when the temperature rises.