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formal living room styling with dark green walls fireplace with round mirror above and velvet green sofa

Formal Living Room Design Ideas: How to Lay Out, Furnish & Style this Space

What is it about a formal living room design that makes it feel formal? It’s something a lot of readers and clients wonder, and so today I thought I’d reveal the answer to you. Because designing this space is very different from designing your everyday living room.

Furnishing and styling a formal living room takes a keen design eye to get right. Thankfully I have two of them, so scroll on as I share my pearls of wisdom around decorating a formal living space. Or formal sitting room. Or whatever you want to call it, really.

I should point out that all of the images in this post come courtesy of the designers at Metricon. I’ve worked with them as a brand partner and presenter for years and am constantly blown away by how stunning their display homes are. So let’s examine some of their photos and get your formal living room looking just as lush.

rumpus room with large sectional sofa and media cabinetry with mounted tv
this is a rumpus, not a formal living room

A Formal Living Room is Different to a Rumpus Room

This is the best place to start because people often confuse a rumpus and formal living room. Which one you want to prioritise at your place is an important consideration if you’ve got a second living space outside of your day-to-day lounge room to play with. And so knowing the difference between the two is key.

A rumpus room is a relaxed zone, with a TV in it, and usually a sectional sofa. It’s where kids and teens hang out and play games, or where you watch a movie while your partner watches sport in the main living room. It’s for stretching out with a blanket, and it’s often upstairs or at the rear of the property in a more secluded area.

A formal living room operates differently. It’s not designed for sprawling out in. It’s  a zone to sit and have conversation in, with friends and a drink or five. It’s far more adult and often moodier in feel. Less casual, less relaxed, and less hidden. It’s usually on the ground floor of the home, often at the front of the property so people can see it as they walk through to the main living area.

formal living room with curved sofa grey walls and fireplace with round mirror above

A Formal Living Room Has a Strong Focal Point

So you’ve decided you want to use the second living zone as a formal living room. I’m totally on-board. The first thing you want to do when mapping out the layout of the room is ensure there’s a strong focal point. This is something that draws the eye to it as you walk into the room. 

Often this focal point is directly opposite you as you walk into the room, but not always. If you scroll through the images in this post it’ll become clear that a fireplace is the most-used focal point in a formal living room design. It’s a great idea if you can install one, because it helps in creating the conversation pit vibe I’ll discuss further down. It also brings a strong sense of presence to the room, which you’ll also want.

It doesn’t have to be a fireplace though. If you have a great outlook, the focal point might be a window you can sit and look out of. It may be a large mirror or piece of art on one of the walls. If might not even be on the wall at all. A large feature light hanging from the centre of the ceiling, for example, is a genius idea. 

formal hamptons living room with striped grey and white armchairs and fireplace with mirror above

Formal Living Room Designs Have Symmetry

You’ll want to keep symmetry in mind when thinking about the design elements of your formal living room. It’s another staple of this space. Without that symmetry, the room can start to head into rumpus room territory. And we want to keep it feeling structured and formal.

The image above, and loads of images below, all have a sense of symmetry at play. Case in point above: the windows either side of the fireplace are a mirror image of one another. In other images, you’ll notice mirror either side of a fireplace, or shelving. 

Don’t stress too much if you can’t pull of that exact sense of symmetry. You can do it in your furniture orientation. Furniture in a formal living room is always placed across from one another, either side of the room’s focal point. This creates what we call a conversation pit (a place to talk).

You can have the same sofa twice in the room, or go for a sofa on one side of the room and armchairs on the other. As long as they fill roughly the same amount of space, you’ll achieve the formal feel.

formal living room styled with provincial furniture and fireplace with round mirror above

Above: If you cut this room down the middle it really is a mirror image. This is a great approach if you want the room to feel very formal. Below: There’s still a sense of symmetry, with the scale of the sofa matching the scale of the armchairs, but there’s material and colour diversity. It feels formal, but not as formal as the room above. 

formal living room design with large window and orange velvet armchairs across from dark grey sofa

Formal Living Rooms Are Moodier in Colour

You know how some families have a sibling that’s far more relaxed and chilled; the fun one? Then there’s another sibling that is a bit more serious, disciplined and mature. That’s a good metaphor for your everyday living room and formal living room design.

Your two living spaces should be related. They should feel like they’re from the same style family. However, they’re sisters, not twins. They look similar in colour and style if you sat them side by side, but your formal living room should be a more mature, moodier and serious version of your everyday living space. 

Changing the colours between the two spaces is the key to getting your formal living room design right. The tone of colour should be darker; mustard instead of sunny yellow, navy instead of sky blue, dark brown instead of beige, olive instead of sage green, and so on. 

That’s not to say these deeper colours need to be large in scale. If you love a neutral living room is can still feel formal if you have all the other rules in here covered and just have a pop of colour in a cushion or throw.

formal living room design with horizontal fireplace and tv mounted above

Above: Love the orientation of this space, even if it does have a TV in it (usually a formal room no-no). The art and windows create great symmetry though. Below: Even in a minimalistic room design you can create a wow-moment with tiles around a fireplace; a great focal point.

formal living room design with black tile fireplace and conversation pit

Formal Living Room Furniture: More Structured, Less Cosy

When it comes time to think about furniture for your formal living room, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind, particularly around the profile and comfort level of the seating you bring in. Because these should differ from your everyday living room.

Formal living room designs aren’t for spending all night watching TV in, so the sofas don’t have to be as comfortable. You might have a full feather base cushion in your everyday sofa, for example (they might even recline), but I’d opt for a springier full-foam cushion in a formal living room sofa. The same goes for armchairs. You want more spring, less sag.

I don’t just say this because you’ll spend less time sitting on a formal living room sofa. It’s about looks too. Over time you want your sofa and armchairs to hold their shape. You don’t want cushions to droop or sag, because it looks too relaxed for a formal living space. So always go for a firmer cushion.

formal living room styling with mirror on wall pink armchairs and grey sofa

Formal Living Rooms Often Have Refined Materials

I’ll often tell clients to invest more in their formal living room than their everyday living room. If they have kids or pets, let the main lounge room that sits beside the kitchen be the wear-and-tear zone. And with that in mind, they shouldn’t go crazy with the spend here if there’s a formal living room they can invest dollars in instead.

It’s often the materials that feature in a formal living room that are invested in. Tiles or stone around a fireplace, for example, rather than paint or wallpaper. It might be more expensive and better-quality curtains than you’d place in kids rooms or a rumpus upstairs. Or it might be an epic feature light, especially if the formal living room is the first space you see when you walk in the door. You want to create that sense of wow-factor.

Even in furniture, I’ll suggest investing money. Marble coffee tables, a gorgeous velvet on an armchair, finer cushion fabrics, or even a better quality rug. Of course any successful room design is about mixing and matching brands and price points, I’d just suggest you consider throwing a few more bucks into a formal living room over an everyday family lounge room.

You want it to feel more expensive than other zones in the home.

formal living room styling with black and grey furniture and fireplace with art above furniture

A Sense of Space is at Play in a Formal Living Room

The other thing you’ll notice in a formal living room is a sense of space. Furniture isn’t crammed in. Remember, you want to avoid it feeling cosy. It’s not a dumping ground for decor, it’s not overly-layered with throws and blankets and rugs. There’s air flowing around it, there’s room to appreciate the focal point in the room. It’s not too visually chaotic.

It would be wise to have some furniture on legs, lifted off the ground. Not every piece has to be, but some. In this post many of the formal living room designs have a sofa on the ground, but the coffee table and armchairs elevated on legs, or vice versa. You don’t want every piece on the ground or the room will feel too heavy and weighed down.

If your formal living room is carpeted, I would avoid putting down a rug. By all means rug a tiled or floorboard room, but a rug on carpet is adding a bit too much cosy. Less is more.

formal living room with fireplace and shelving either side in black joinery and white sheer curtains

Before We Go, A Quick Exercise

The formal living room above is lovely, don’t get me wrong. But now that you know all there is to know about how to complete a formal living room design, take a look at the image and think about what you could change to improve it.

For me, the fireplace is divine, the shelving either side is divine, the sofa is also divine. It’s following a tonne of rules. However, I would replace the sofa directly across (to the right of the fireplace) with two armchairs separated by a side table. It would give some more formality, less cosiness. 

As the fireplace is to the left, not directly across as you walk in, a feature pendant in the middle of the ceiling would also be a nice touch. But that’s all the room needs. Not a lot, just a few tweaks to take the design next-level.

Got everything you need to make your formal living room design a stunner? Drop me a comment below if you have any questions.

This post includes images and/or videos of Metricon display homes and events, reproduced with permission. © Metricon Homes Pty Ltd 2021.

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Chris Carroll

Outside of writing this blog, Chris is an interior designer, presenter and author. He’s also spent time on TV, on Channel 10’s Changing Rooms, as well presenting segments on Channel 7’s Sunrise and The Morning Show. If you’d like to book a design consult with Chris, you can find out more here

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LET’S GET DECORATING!

I’m interior designer Chris Carroll, and at TLC Interiors we’re all about helping you create an amazing home without breaking the bank. It’s affordable designer style at its best, and we make the whole process easy and fun for clients & readers alike!

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