Breaking rules creates exciting, usable spaces

To make the most of a small living room, you’re going to have to learn how to break some old-fashioned rules. Enjoy the liberty of knowing that you don’t have to use a matching sofa and two chairs in an arrangement that looks as if it has been delivered directly from a furniture showroom floor.

It is definitely all right to mix it up these days in a way that works for you. Gone are the expectations that every living room will have the obligatory sofa, matching love seat and two — count them! — chairs in a companion fabric.

If your living room will function better by having a low coffee table and four lounge chairs instead of a sofa grouping, then that’s what you should do. Perhaps you would prefer a love seat and two comfortable reading chairs.

It could be that you don’t want your living room space set up as a living room at all. Several of my clients have decided to make the living room into a dining space in order to take advantage of a cozy fireplace and a little more elbow room in the generally bigger living room area. The goal is to make the furniture work for you.

In the photo shown here, a petite sofa is positioned in what typically would be empty space at the bottom of the stairs. However, by anchoring the sofa with an area rug and an armchair, the space becomes a little sitting room.

Even floating in a larger space, the arrangement signifies that this is a conversation and entertainment place. Because the cocktail table is not one heavy item but two easy-to-move tables, they and the green armchair could easily be moved out of the way for a large gathering.

Look for nesting tables as another idea, or maybe an ottoman on casters that can double as your cocktail table. Some ottomans also have concealed storage compartments that are useful for games, magazine storage or books.

The key element in getting your home to work harder for you is your own flexibility. If you can believe in the mix-and-match idea, dozens of options are available to you.

The furniture seen in this photo is from Pottery Barn’s new custom upholstery line that allows the customer to pick from about 89 mix-and-match fabrics. Your selections need to be friendly when they’re seen together, but they definitely don’t need to match.

Freedom from the old rules makes it much easier to take advantage of sales and then pair items such as pillows that you might not have thought about before with each other. Visit discount retailers such as Tuesday Morning, TJ Maxx, Marshalls or Ross. These are excellent resources for an unusual array of home decorations and housewares at good prices.

Take advantage of any consignment shops and vintage furniture stores in your area, as well. If you are squeamish about using someone’s old upholstered items, buy a slipcover or a large bedspread to cover up the old fabric. If the bedding is large enough, you can tuck it into the corners and get a satisfactory look out of the piece. Slipcovers can be expensive when you have them custom made, so try to locate ones that will work from catalog sources in standard sizes.

Another reason to frequent vintage stores is that it’s easier to find scaled-down pieces that will be more appropriate to a small room. Most furniture stores carry very large pieces that are difficult to work into an apartment or small condo.

Christine Brun is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of “Big Ideas for Small Spaces.”

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