Ask Unclutterer: How can I decorate a big room without cluttering it up?

Please welcome Holly Becker, the wonderful mind behind the design blog decor8. On decor8, Holly dishes daily on topics ranging from sofas to stationery along with ideas for living a more creative lifestyle. She was perfectly suited to answer this week’s question.

Reader Eleanor submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer along with a couple pictures:

Hi there. In one room of my apartment, I have the opposite problem of many of your readers: too much space. The living room is 21 by 17 feet, mostly featureless and with a low ceiling. I want it to be an organized, uncluttered living space but don’t want it to look like an empty warehouse! What can I do with it, besides trying to fill it up with stuff? Just FYI, moving to a smaller space is not possible right now. In the future, definitely.

Hi Eleanor! While your “problem” of having too much space isn’t the most common, it’s definitely one I’ve addressed a few times with clients who went from homes with smaller rooms to spacious open concept lofts where the lines between spaces became blurred. Once settled in, they felt overwhelmed by having to “fill” all the extra space they’d once dreamed of and, like you, compared their living quarters to an empty warehouse. You are not alone in this Eleanor, between my advice and the comments that Erin’s lovely readers will no doubt offer, I’m confident you’ll soon be on your way to a cozy space in no time!

So… where to begin? THAT is the question of the day! Since you do not live in a loft with soaring ceilings and an open floor plan, I think your space issues are a lot easier to solve because you have a predefined living room space — a gorgeous one with outstanding details (vs. 4 plain walls). You have a fireplace, built in bookcase, and the most gorgeous hardwood floors. What a gem. I am not sure if these photos are current, if not have you added furniture yet? The moment you bring in a sofa or sectional, a pair of chairs, coffee table, floor rug, window treatments, etc. you will see that space shrink immediately, so never fear — your dream home isn’t that far from reality. Here are some tips for transforming your living room into space that you’ll enjoy living in!

  1. Area rug. A must! I don’t have the dimensions of your room, but my guesstimate is an 8 x 10 would do the trick. Go with a low pile vs. high.
  2. Sofa flanked by two chairs or an L-shaped sectional would really work here. Avoid overstuffed marshmallow-like seating — bulky pieces will make that ceiling feel like it’s lower than it is. Opt for furniture with clean lines and a sofa with arms (vs. armless), and try to find pieces that sit lower to the floor but not ON the floor. I think you should show a little leg but don’t allow too much space between the sofa and the floor.
  3. I’d paint the wall where the stairwell is (right side as you walk up the steps) and continue with that color down the hallway to give that space a separateness from the living room area. Perhaps something with warm tones vs. cool tones would work there.
  4. If you are keeping this wall color, I’d change the trim to the same color as the wall paint to create height or trim it a shade or two lighter (but not darker).
  5. At the top of your stairs I’d replace that light fixture with one that mounts flush against the ceiling — again to create a sense of height.
  6. Perform this little exercise; walk up your stairs and turn slightly left looking toward your living room. Where do your eyes land first? Try it again, a few times. Ask others who will live in this space to do the same. Guests too. That is your “focal” point. I’d build the design starting from that space.
  7. Fill that lovely built-in bookcase with books — what a fantastic feature you have there. For fun, you could even paint or paper inside of those shelves (go darker not lighter). I sure would. Keep books or whatever you end up putting there, in a similar size and tone because it will look clean and neat but also provide more visual weight.
  8. Hang your curtain rods several inches higher than your window frame to create a longer line from the floor to the top of the rod — visually this makes the room look taller.
  9. If you plan to keep your television, I’d place it to the left of your fireplace vs. inside of it. (hee hee) If you don’t plan to use the fireplace, decorate the inside with a few pillar candles in varying heights.
  10. I’m not sure if your room is large enough to break out into two cozy sections, so, if not, I suggest this on furniture placement: when you are arranging things “float” pieces away from the walls vs. placing everything right up against them (not applicable to the TV unit but for sofa/chairs).
  11. Add a cozy throw folded neatly over the arm of your sofa or chair. Sounds so textbook, but a few throw pillows and a nice blanket really do create warmth.
  12. Look for drapes that touch the floor (not puddled and not too short, just skimming the floor is perfect), and replace your plastic blinds with a quality fabric shade or roll up blind — look for something tactile like wood or linen.

Thank you, Eleanor, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. And, thank you, Holly, for providing such terrific advice!

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

22 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: How can I decorate a big room without cluttering it up?”

  1. posted by Sammy on

    In the second shot of the room, the only thing in the room is a banjo.

    I totally approve. When the first thing in the room is a musical instrument, you can tell someone has their priorities straight. πŸ™‚

  2. posted by jon on

    7. Fill that lovely built-in bookcase with books β€”

    Noooooo! Fill it with some nice modern board games. Carcassonne, Ticket To Ride, Pandemic, Apples To Apples, Kingsburg. Modern games are much more fun than people know, and gaming is a great social activity.

    Try for suggestions or just ask Erin. Erin knows.

  3. posted by FupDuckTV on

    @Sammy- Although I agree with the musical instrument comment… I disagree with the banjo being classified as a musical instrument. I would consider putting two cats in a pillowcase more of a musical instrument.

    Yesterday, someone at lunch actually said “I’m going to punch you in the banjo.” The irony.

  4. posted by PJ Doland on


    Here are three really good albums that might help change the way you think about the 5-string banjo:

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @jon — I agree, Carcassone. πŸ™‚

  6. posted by Magchunk on

    Holly, you’re awesome! And what a beautiful canvas to work with!

  7. posted by Karyn on

    I would just enjoy the lovely spaciousness of it all. πŸ˜‰ A few select pieces of furniture, clean lines, low-lying (given the low ceiling), either light natural tones or (if the walls stay white) white-on-white, a few well-chosen simple objects to accent. The simplicity and serenity of a Zen garden…

    Which may or may not be what Eleanor wants, but that’s what I see in the space.

  8. posted by Louise on

    To keep it looking open, I would choose light colored furniture in solid colors. I find that patterns get old quickly, “visual clutter.” If you like color and pattern, choose them on accent pillows or lap blankets. These are less expensive items and can be changed easily, even seasonally.

    Add one piece at a time, using what you have and more importantly, what you love. If you live for several months with just a couch, that’s fine. If done gradually, you’ll figure out what feels just right and hopefully not go past that point to “too much.”

    I know this sounds strange, but avoid furniture and home decor stores, and decorating magazines. They always looks beautiful and always tempt you to try something else or something more. You’re better off seeing what you like in other people’s homes, such as a strategically placed mirror, and then trying to add just that one element to your home.

    Rearrange the furniture often. Sometimes all you need is a different angle, not another piece. Move the art around on the walls. In the summer, you might want to look out the windows at a beautiful tree. In the winter, you might want to turn inwards to the cozy fireplace. I had a condo where the living and dining room were separated by a fireplace. The dining room had the patio view. I switched rooms seasonally so I could look at my garden as it bloomed. So it was a few extra steps from kitchen to dining room in the summer; big deal. It was a small condo!

    Establish right away where your “landing strip” will be. This is the place where you put your keys, purse, wallet, hat, etc. as you walk in the door. If possible, keep it out of the living room. The landing strip can get chaotic and it keeps the living room serene if all that messy life stuff happens somewhere else.

    Send more photos as you progress! I would love to see this home again. Thanks for sharing, Eleanor.

  9. posted by Celeste on

    I love the landing strip idea.

    I think floor plants (specifically the kind that are more like a tree) in a bank of 3 are a cool way to do a divider in an open space. I also think you can use one to set in a corner and not feel like you need a piece of furniture there.

    I like the idea of warming up a wall, but my favorite way to do that is with a hanging quilt, or even a series of quilts in the area over time.

    I’d really love the quandary of too much space to fill, except when it comes to the price of utilities for heating and cooling. Where I live we have small rooms and low ceilings, so tight quartes are the price we pay for lower utility costs. I’m like Goldilocks, in search of a just-right balance!

  10. posted by Rue on

    My roommate and I had the same problem, more or less, in our first apartment, and what I’m suggesting is basically what we did.

    If possible, I’d definitely break it up into two spaces. A living area, obviously, and then another area – crafts, a home office, etc – whatever would fit your needs. I’d put an entertainment center on the small wall to the left of the fireplace, and a couch about halfway across the room facing it. A couple of chairs on either side of it, a couple of end tables and accessories, and you’ve got a living area! (Oh, and I would definitely find some art to hang over the fireplace…looks like that area is perfectly sized for a good piece of art, or maybe a really nice mirror. A mirror would reflect light coming in from the window, so it would make the room look brighter as well.)

    Then you could put a table or desk behind the sofa (in front of the window) and you have a great area for doing work or crafting. Alternately, if you don’t have a formal dining room or an eat-in-kitchen, you could make that area a dining area instead.

    As far as the bookcases are concerned – I think they’re really awesome! However, I don’t agree that you need to fill them with books (and I also don’t agree that you need an area rug – but if you’re going to keep the walls white, a rug would add some much-needed color). Obviously, if you have a lot of books that would be the best place for them. But if you don’t (as is the case with me), you could put board games, kid’s toys (if you have children), a few knickknacks that you love, office supplies if you use part of the room for an office, etc. Something that expresses your personal style. πŸ™‚

  11. posted by Mason on

    The easiest way for me to decorate any room is to decide where the TV will go, and then I can decorate around that. For those of you who don’t watch as much TV as me, I suggest finding one great piece of decor/furniture that you love and just plan around that. Finding a starting point is most often the most difficult part of decorating (or anything for that matter) and starting with one great piece (I guess in this case it was a banjo) can make things easier.

  12. posted by pat griffith on

    if you figure 2 8’x10′ rugs almost fills the space of 21’x17′ that does not mean you need 2 rugs or 2 that size it is a reference of the size that one can grasp mentally . your color pallet and likes and dislikes in style come next I picture a large oriental cabinet to house tv and electronics I like this one
    with a pottery barn sectional and ottoman
    large wall painting either framed or possibly painted
    I like this door mural it can be placed on a core door for a wonderful large accent piece
    4 of these chairs at a round pedestal table;page=1

  13. posted by Amy in Ann Arbor on

    The bookshelf will look great with a different interior color, but I suggest only painting the back wall of each shelf. Fresh paint on bookshelves can be problematic. To prevent paint from sticking to books, its recommended to either use an oil-based paint (a bit of a pain), or to let latex paint cure for *a month* before using it.

    Of course, papering the wall inside of a bookshelf is not a problem. Jon’s idea to showcase board games is a great, but I can’t imagine not needing to store books as well. πŸ™‚

  14. posted by JC on

    How do you live? What kind of space do you need?

    Those would be the first questions I’d have. Do you have a place for guests to sleep? Do you have a dining area? Is this where you want to watch TV? Do you need a space to get away from it all?

    Sometimes, it lovely to have an unfilled space at home. Perhaps a small seating area anchored with a rug close to the fire place and keep the other half of the room empty save a lovely large table to display an art object?

    Or perhaps the other half of the room could house a piano to accompany the banjo?

  15. posted by Luanne on

    I have a big room too. If you float furniture in the middle of the room, how do you create good lighting for reading without having tripping hazards created by the lamp’s electrical cords?

  16. posted by Betsy on

    We have a nearly identically sized living room and finally “solved” our problem. We grouped a couch and two chairs around a smallish area rug (I think ours is 7×9) right in front of the fireplace. Our builtins are flanking the fireplace, so this made a natural focal point. Then, we were able to put a good sized desk in one corner (sort of behind/side the couch), a bookcase with reading chair next to it in the other corner, and a small entry way table just inside the door. We have two doors into this room, so having a lot of floor space around the couch has helped traffic flow. We also draped our windows with panels in a solid color and that helped anchor the room (three large windows for us–each on a separate wall). We love it!! It will be hard to go back to a smaller room where the couch/furniture must be all against the walls. My inlaws have a similar setup and they drilled a hole in the floor next to the couch and had an electrical outlet installed. Since our two chairs are right next to our fireplace/builtins, we have small lamps on a bookshelf.

  17. posted by Louise on

    @Celeste’s idea of three big plants to divide the space is fantastic!

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  19. posted by reg on

    My first instinct is to ‘section off’ a cosy living area, and allow some ’empty’ space to balance with it. There’s no need to fill every area equally.

  20. posted by Karyn on

    I forgot to comment on the bookshelves. πŸ˜‰ I would think of them in terms of design and decor, rather than as storage, and use some kind of concealed storage for mundane stuff like board games and books. For example, I love glass art in vivid colors (especially blues) and if I had a lovely built-in shelf unit like that, I would probably actually buy some of those handblown vases and other handcrafted art objects and arrange them artfully, leaving lots of white space. Maybe include a few nice-looking books in the arrangement, or maybe not.

    Also, I’m not a big fan of rugs. I love the look of a nekkid hardwood floor, and would depend on artistic accents for color in the room. Go with what appeals to you!

  21. posted by RustBelt on

    I’d have to agree about dividing the room up. My apartment has a very large living room. When I first moved in I looked at it thinking “how will I ever fill this, it’s too big?” The question wasn’t the right question. It wasn’t a matter of “filling” the room, so much as making it work. It’s now divided into two areas, a sort of mini-office, and a living room. I have a desk off in the corner out of the way of the “living room”, with a small wooden file cabinet. It is out of sign when you are on the couch or easy chair, just as the couch, etc. are out of sight when you are at the desk. I think it works well.

    Make sure any spaces you create are functional though. I have friends that have a small “sitting area” in their living room, behind the couches, essentially to fill space. I’ve never seen it used. It’s really just to make the room look full. That seems like clutter, even if it does look ok.

    I love the floors though, maybe a small rug, but, keep as much exposed as possible.

  22. posted by Jacci on

    Books? Mundane? No way πŸ˜‰

    We have FOUR tall bookcases in our living room, and the entire room’s color scheme is planned around them! I second the suggestion to really spend time thinking about how you’ll use this room – how you want it to *fit you* and your life. Books are key in our house, but maybe not in yours. If you choose to use the shelving for storage, take a look at the great boxes available at IKEA. Mixing and matching a few different storage materials and colors keeps things looking interesting, while using all one kind and color could make a really sleek, minimalist look πŸ™‚ Great room, by the way!


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