Pinkies Up, Pencils Out: The Floor Plan Made Easy

In the 1953 classic musical, The Band Wagon, Cyd Charisse comments on the stunning array of art prints in co-star, Fred Astaire’s hotel room.

“Don’t let that fool you any,” Astaire smugly smarts back, “I have no more taste in art than I do in music. I telephone my agent and say ‘send me thirty feet’s worth of paintings in assorted colors!”

Art, like fine furnishings, is an essential to any living space.

But choosing the right furniture to fit a room is an art in and of itself. And yet, when shopping for furniture, most people think they have a lot more floor space than they actually do. And while there are any number of free internet ‘floor planners’ out there to help you do some basic calculations, nothing reeks of amateurism more than going into the existing room, only to discover it littered in artlessly placed clutter, acquired merely to ‘fill’ a void. All space in your home should be functional – period. You wouldn’t simply dangle a closet-full of clothes from hangers you had absolutely zero interest in wearing, just so the closet ‘appeared’ as though someone were using it. So why add furniture to spaces best left empty, or worse, add the wrong kind, merely to acknowledge their presence in the room?

Planning a room from scratch can be a daunting task. Space, the final frontier – so spaketh Capt. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise – is also something of an enigma for many. Even when they slowly start to pipe-dream, spitball, or otherwise more concretely layout their ideas, the positioning of furniture pieces acquired, along with notions of ‘what’ and ‘how’ things go together remains unsettling – a stressor, either to be avoided or hastily dispatched, rather than a joy to be unearthed. I suppose you could spend days acquiring various pieces on approval from a local furniture retailer, going back and forth to your home on a perpetual trial run. But depending how adept you are at figuring out how all these pieces in your home furnishing puzzle succinctly fit, you may be spending the bulk of your time – and gas money – on a rat race, rather than enjoying the fruits of your labors; becoming far more disheartened, frustrated and exhausted along the way.

Like most challenges in life; left untouched, this one will not dissipate, mellow or fade with time. And applying the proverbial ‘lipstick on a pig’ philosophy, just so you can call it a day and advertise the work done, rather than ‘done well’, is not necessarily an option either. No, creativity has to come into play, and smarts, and the ability to factor in and face the fact not even top-notch interior designers get things right all the time the very first time. So, where to begin?

Personally, I am a huge fan of shopping the market for several weeks. I like to know what’s out there. No kidding; there will always be something new – and perhaps better – on the horizon. But when deciding how to layout a room I try to first consider its function…or rather, what that function will be according to my own likes and dislikes. Just because a room is labeled, say, as ‘Great Room’, ‘sunroom’, bedroom, etc. does not necessarily mean it has to be expressly utilized for the purposes the builder initially intended. After all, who’s living there – you or the builder? A Great Room may be converted into a study; a sunroom into a billiard room and/or man cave, a bedroom into a reading nook, and so on. The only rooms that do not permit for such leeway are the kitchen and bathroom. If it has a toilet, you will need to flush it from time to time!

So floor plans: how to…

1) The quickest way to create a successful floor plan is to start by accommodating the special needs of foot traffic coming and going from the room. Allow for a minimum three foot corridor of navigation between your furniture pieces. Avoid creating dead ends. Think of your room as a highway in which all points of interest should be accessible. You want to be able to get to doors, windows, hallways, the stairs, etc. et al without having to navigate through a labyrinth of obstacles. A nook is quite different from a dead end. A nook is the nestling together of various design elements (say two wing backs a bookshelf, coffee and end tables) arranged in such a way so as to create a cohesive space where interaction between all participants is possible. A dead end is when foot traffic is limited to a one way path in and out of the area in question. Dead ends – bad. Nooks – good.

2) Take measurements. Only a fool enters into an agreement without first knowing the rules. Measurements are an inescapable part of floor planning. Unless you are willing to breakout the sledgehammers, tear down a wall or build onto an existing space, measurement is a mathematical certainty. So, if you absolutely want that credenza measuring 78 inches, but only have 72 to play with, it’s time to find another credenza, or relocate the one in your dreams to another more accommodating space, finding another purpose for the now ‘offending’ empty wall where it should have gone but will decidedly not go.

3) Bring a measuring tape to the store. Armed with your measurements, seek out pieces you absolutely cannot live without. Take their measurements too and ‘yes’ – write everything down. I cannot tell you how many times a client has said to me, “Oh, I’ll remember…” but then goes home and hasn’t a clue what’s been sized up in the showroom. With all due respect, my mind is not a computer; neither is my photographic recall all that good after a few hours. I write things down. So should you.


4) Keep in mind, furniture in showrooms always appears smaller than it actually is under any other real-life circumstance. Why? Well, showrooms are cavernous, and cavernous spaces are tough to fill without lending to the illusion more space does not exist. Cleverly arranged showrooms can provide vignettes to suggest invisible walls, mimicking the floor space you have at home. But nothing dictates space more concretely than a man-made barrier of plywood, two by fours and drywall: definitive separation from one living space to the next. Do not suppose a living room set will fit in your house simply because it looks small or ‘just right’ in the showroom. And if, after measuring at home the only place where ‘just right’ seems right is in the showroom, leave it there!


5) While computerized floor planners have come a very long way, I still like to visually see the amount of space a particular piece of furniture will take up inside my home. As it is not very practical transporting heavy furniture back and forth from a retail showroom (not that any self-respecting furniture retailer outside of a rent-a-center would let you), a cheap and easier way to anticipate and picture whether or not what you want will fit the way you hope it should, is to get the full dimensions of the pieces at the store, then lay down some masking tape on your floor at home, measuring out the same distances and shapes as the pieces you are considering to eventually occupy your room. It sounds silly, but actually, it is very useful. While you won’t get the real impression of height, you will most certainly get the illusion of width and depth at a glance.


6) Allow for adequate space around your pieces. Coffee tables should never be so close to a sofa as to prevent someone from walking between it and the sofa when someone is seated. End tables ought never to be butted up and or obscured by other larger pieces of furniture, virtually filling a corner so tightly even the cords of decorative lamps are crushed against the wall and virtually inaccessible to unplug or dust around without moving three or four other pieces of furniture. Give your end tables at least 5 inches all the way around to show off their beauty. Ideally, 5 to 7 inches is preferred. Try angling tables instead of simply wedging them perpendicularly between heavy armrests where they will neither be seen nor appreciated. Remember, no piece of furniture should be hidden behind another.


7) When planning for oriental or other throw rugs on hardwood, remember you generally want your choice of carpet to fill the full girth of the furniture sitting on top of it. Partial coverage, where only the front legs of a sofa are resting on the carpet lip, is not preferred, not the least because your furniture is sitting cockeyed and wobbly on two independent surfaces of varying thickness.


8) Account for traffic flow. Far too many rooms look roomy with only furniture and no people in them but thoroughly crowded to downright congested, simply by adding a warm body or two to the equation; the space suddenly overstuffed and difficult to maneuver in without asking someone to move. You should never have to ‘get up’ or ‘move over’. Ideally, you want enough space around coffee tables and ottomans to accommodate someone else coming up to the person who is already sitting down on the sofa or in a chair. If a dining room or kitchenette, then you will want to leave at least five feet all the way around the table with the chairs tucked in, to allow for people getting up and sitting down; also, for other foot traffic to navigate around those already seated.


9) Consider the source – light source, that is. Lighting will be discussed in a subsequent article, but in a nutshell for our purposes herein, all points of interest within a well-designed living space should be sufficiently lit by artificial light sources in lieu of the sun’s natural light. Avoid creating shadows or hot spots where the concentration of light is either absent or too oppressive. Not every table in the room needs a lamp. And light can come from above too; a well-placed chandelier or decorative drum light to spread light across the ceiling where it can be uniformly directed and distributed. You can also add wall sconces and torchieres to illuminate a dark corner.


10) Think of your floor plan in practical terms. If there is no practical reason to put a chair or love seat somewhere, in other words, no reason why you should ever wish to spend time for a particular activity in the allotted area, then find a different purpose for that area; one you will want to utilize on a weekly, if not daily basis.

Bottom line: floor planning is an art, hard won by misfires, experimentation and the occasional catastrophe. Keeping these basic rules in mind can help you alleviate the latter and minimize the former to a point where your next design project will be met with more excitement than anxiety; a challenge to be faced ambitiously, conceived in triumph, and destined to intelligently succeed.

So, go forth and plan. Pencil’s out. Pinkies up. And leave the head-scratching to those with a really bad case of dandruff.

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