Ask a Designer: Coming Up With a Furniture Plan That Works

Sometimes the way to improve a room isn’t to buy new furniture: It’s to rearrange pieces you already own.
Ask a Designer: Coming Up With a Furniture Plan That Works
In this photo provided by Brian Patrick Flynn, this living room by the designer Flynn demonstrates his use of scale and proportion to create a successful space plan. (Rustic White Photography/Brian Patrick Flynn via AP)
The Associated Press

Sometimes the way to improve a room isn’t to buy new furniture: It’s to rearrange pieces you already own.

Interior designers can spend hours creating the best furniture plan for a room, balancing practical considerations, and creative risk-taking.

“Changing up the placement of your furniture can make a massive difference,” says designer Brian Patrick Flynn, founder of Flynnside Out Productions. Adding, subtracting, or relocating furniture, he says, affects “how natural light plays in the space and also how frequently the room gets used. By simply adding a bench to a wall, a room can become more of a hangout.” Removing a few pieces to create more space “can make it feel a bit more casual and informal.”

How do professionals map out a furniture plan, choosing the best location for each item? Flynn and two other interior designers—Dan Faires, host of HGTV’s “DanMade,” and Betsy Burnham of the California-based design firm Burnham Design—share advice:

Analyze Your Space

Begin by deciding how the room will be used, Burnham says. Is it a living room used mainly for TV watching or socializing? Does the space have two roles, such as a home office that doubles as a guest room? Or is it a playroom, where the priority is open space and maximum storage?

In a new home, knowing the answer can take time. “It’s important to live in a space for a few weeks or months before assigning it a space plan so that you truly get a sense for how you'll use it,” Flynn says. “Then decide on your seating capacity and find a way to maximize it without sacrificing visual balance.”

Consider any quirks: Are there lots of windows or doors? Unique architectural items such as a fireplace or beautiful windows with a view? A particular piece of furniture or art that you want visitors to notice?

Depending on the answers, Flynn likes to choose one “standout feature” and then arrange furniture in a way that highlights it.

Also, says Burnham, “lighting can direct a furniture plan.” Is there a lot of natural light or will you need plenty of lamps? Are there built-in sconces or a central chandelier?

Measure and Draw

Even if you’ve got a general plan in mind, Faires suggests measuring the space and creating a scaled drawing with exact measurements of every piece you’re planning to include. (You can find a template on Burnham’s website,

Don’t skimp on empty space. “I always allow a minimum of 18 inches between sofas and coffee tables,” Faires says, “and 3 to 5 feet for walk spaces. The flow and negative space in a room is as important as the overall function and the furniture” because it makes the space feel more open, uncluttered, and inviting.

Consider the size and placement of rugs. “I cannot imagine designing a living-room space with a rug any smaller than an 8-by-10,” Faires says. “The rug is meant to unify the entire space and connect furniture pieces together, so a good rule of thumb is that at least the front legs of any sofas or chairs in the living room should be on the rug. For a larger area rug, allow at least 18 inches from the edge of the rug to the wall.”

In very large rooms or loft spaces, rugs can help define small areas and make the space feel organized.

“To keep everything balanced while visually separating each zone, use area rugs in coordinating colors with slightly different textures and patterns,” Flynn says.

Know the Rules, Then Consider Breaking Them

Some rules are important, says Flynn. For instance, “leave at least 36 inches of open space between the back of a dining chair and a nearby sideboard to allow for proper traffic flow.”

But plenty of other rules can be broken or modernized.

“For example, it’s not ideal to enter a living room and be staring at the back of a sofa,” Flynn says. “But if you flank the back of the sofa with a console table and lamps, it instantly becomes more inviting and less closed off.”

Also, while some symmetry is important to “ground a furniture plan,” Burnham says, mixing in a little asymmetry “makes for a much more interesting room.”

If she flanks a sofa with matching end tables and table lamps, “we may balance the grouping with mismatched chairs and a standing lamp.”

Remember, you don’t have to place furniture along walls.

“Floating furniture in the middle of the room helps highlight architectural features and also aids in proper movement throughout the space,” Flynn says.

Placing furniture away from the walls also works well in spaces that have lots of doors, or soaring windows that shouldn’t be obstructed.

And not every living room needs a sofa. Burnham suggests trying “an unusual layout, like a living room with four lounge chairs around a center coffee table instead of the expected sofa.”

Use unexpected pieces, like “a library table stacked with books in a wide hallway, or two area rugs instead of one to define spaces within a bedroom,” she says.

And remember: You’re not obligated to use everything you’ve got.

“Curate and edit down your existing pieces,” Faires says, “keeping the items that work well and selling the items that don’t.”