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How to create ‘rooms’ in an open-plan space

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We have an open plan living/dining area, but want to give it some of the atmosphere of more traditional separate living and dining rooms. Any tips?

I have a similar predicament at home in the country: our living area includes our kitchen. We do have a separate dining room, although, having no door, it is open to the kitchen. I rather long for separate rooms: a kitchen with enough space for a big table and a floppy sofa; a dining room; a drawing room. However, most of the time I’m happy with our arrangement.

Our cottage is not big — if the ground-floor rooms were separated by walls and doors, they’d be small and dark. As it is, we have a light and breezy space. In fact, the open-plan space was one of the things that made us go for the house in the first place. We’d looked at so many pretty cottages with traditional, but dismal, layouts.

When we moved in I was, like you, aware of wanting to create the atmosphere of more traditional rooms.

There is a line to tread here: I understood that I’d need to tie the spaces together enough for them to feel harmonious, but I also wanted them to have their own character. We decided to paint our living area and kitchen the same colour (grassy olive green), but we made curtains for the living area and blinds for the kitchen using completely different fabrics.

In the living area, heavy, lined, toffee-coloured curtains help emphasise the fact that this is a cosy space meant for late-night cocktail parties and Sunday snoozes. Across the room, blinds in a gaudy Josef Frank pattern say: you’re in the kitchen now, it’s breakfast time, juice some celery, we’re up and ready for the world! The two fabrics help define these spaces.

A Josef Frank pattern on the window blind helps create a cheery kitchen space © Billal Taright

Our ground floor has flagstone flooring throughout. It is a beautiful material, but I put rugs down because they help to ground spaces and create the feeling of separate rooms where no walls exist. Rugs map out rooms within rooms. So, in our living area we have seagrass squares, and in our kitchen we have a long Persian runner. You might consider a similar trick.

The way in which furniture is arranged in open-plan spaces is incredibly important. Because I faced the same issue as you, I’m going to continue explaining what we’ve done at home. Where our living room becomes our kitchen, we end the living room arrangement with an armchair, a slipper chair and, in between, a small stool-cum-side table and floor lamp.

At one point, we swapped the armchair with another one (chunky, skirted) and balance was lost: we realised that the original armchair, which is lifted off the ground by thin legs and has open arms, made the break between areas easier on the eye. The slipper chair (naturally quite small) and floor lamp (a thin brass twig of a thing) assist the armchair in its duties.

These pieces are all easy to move around while having enough presence to define the living area, along with the rest of the furniture in the space. It might feel natural to want to barrier off your rooms with large, heavy pieces, but I suggest keeping it breezy. You could try open bookshelves or a screen, for example. Beyond our two chairs we have a small circular breakfast table, which creates a kind of pause between the living area and kitchen.

Lighting is another consideration: perhaps you could give extra definition to your dining area by installing a low-hanging ceiling light above your dining table? I wouldn’t bother with a ceiling light in the living room; instead, I’d focus on table lamps and the odd floor lamp. The different levels of lighting in each space then create contrasting atmospheres.

breakfast table, from A Kind of Magic: The Kaleidoscopic World of Luke Edward Hall
© Billal Taright

I feel very lucky because life-affirming moments take place in our cottage on a daily basis, but I do have some favourite country motifs and this is one: it is summer and we have a gang of friends piled in for a long weekend stay. The sun is setting and I’m out in the garden picking broad beans. I’ve lined up pals to pod them. Said pals are sitting and waiting with a couple of bowls at their feet in the living room, happily screeching away while my husband Duncan stands at the kitchen counter mixing drinks.

There is a reason why open-plan living works: it is, basically, fun to have lots of people in one large space doing lots of things at once, versus moving from room to room and people getting separated. That kind of living can work in its own way too, and perhaps we’ll get to that stage in our next house.

But right now there are two (or three?) dogs jumping over my vases of flowers, a tail has smashed a glass and a drink is spilling over a beloved book. There is something delicious cooking in the oven, and I can hear the blender whizzing margaritas from the sofa. It is all total bliss.

If you have a question for Luke about design and stylish living, email him at [email protected] Follow him on Instagram @lukeedwardhall

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