How to Arrange Furniture to Create a Harmonious And Functional Space

Floorplan of an apartment. How to Arrange Furniture to Create a Harmonious and Functional Space.

Arranging furniture feels like it should be easy, but often it is not. When the furniture is poorly laid out, in overabundance, or insufficient, your space is likely to feel somehow “wrong.” If you are struggling with this challenge, fear not. Today I’m sharing tips for how to arrange furniture to create a harmonious and functional space.

[Disclaimer: I am not a decorator. My focus as an organizer is on flow and function within the space.]

Let me begin by saying that there are lots of reasons why you may be struggling to place your furniture in a comfortable layout. For example:

  • Your home has had many additions over the years, leaving you with some oddly shaped spaces.
  • Your home’s design was more focused on form than function.
  • The walls of your rooms are filled with windows, making furniture placement difficult.
  • You have multiple entry/exit doors on the walls in your room that need to be left accessible.
  • You have large, gaping rooms and you don’t know how to take advantage of the space.
  • You have tiny and/or narrow rooms.

All of these – and more – can make placing furniture difficult. Often, we move into a home, quickly set up our furniture, and then live with the setup whether it is working or not. I understand this scenario. When we move in, our goal is to unpack and start living. It’s sort of like when we were young and went to the lunchroom on the first day of school. Wherever we sat that first day turned into the place we sat for the rest of the year, whether it was our preference or not. Momentum can be a barrier to change. And let’s face it: moving big and heavy pieces of furniture is not easy, making us reluctant to consider alternative layouts.

The good news is that finding a comfortable layout is an achievable and worthwhile goal. Furthermore, with digital tools, it is easier than ever to entertain a variety of options before you ever begin lifting and shoving. If you happen to be on the cusp of a renovation, new build, or relocation, take advantage of the planning phase to think about furniture layout. Few things are more discouraging than designing a new home, only to discover you can’t figure out how to use it once you move in. However, even if you just want to update a room in your current home, these same tips apply.

Where do we start with floor planning? Begin with a drawing of your room(s). If you have architectural drawings, you can use these. If not, measure all the walls, being careful to note the size and placement of windows and doors. You can put your drawings on graph paper, or try a digital tool like Floorplanner or Roomsketcher. Some of the furniture companies also offer a floor planning feature, such as West Elm. As with most apps, there is a free version and a paid version. If you just need to work on one room, you can probably get by with a free version. Remember, this is just an option. You can always stick with paper and pencil.

The next step is to draw in your paths of travel. These are just simple lines that show where people enter and exit the room. Bear in mind that there may be multiple paths of travel! Drawing these lines may immediately help you understand why you are having difficulty with your room. If your room is covered with lines, you have a challenge on your hand. No one likes to sit and watch TV while other members of the household repeatedly cross in front of them. Similarly, it’s no fun to try and work or eat with people bumping into you from behind.

It is also helpful to notice where your windows are, especially if they are floor to ceiling windows, or windows that go down far enough such that you wouldn’t want to block them by putting furniture in front of them.

Once all your paths of travel are drawn in, take a look at your image. Now identify where you have “empty” space (not full of travel lines) in which you can place furniture. You may find you have only one fairly clear space. Alternatively, if you have a very large room, you may find “pockets” of clear space. In this case, you may want to establish a couple of distinct furniture zones. If your room has no empty spaces, you might want to consider whether any of your paths of travel are superfluous and might possibly be “disabled” or blocked. 

If you are using paper to plan your furniture, cut out to-scale pieces for all your furniture and place it on your empty plan. Digital tools offer furniture options you can select and size and then play around with. At this stage of the process, it is helpful to keep in mind a couple of general floor planning “rules of thumb.”

  • For main paths of travel, the ideal is to have three feet of width for walking. This may not be possible in your space, but it is helpful to remember you need sufficiently wide spaces if people are going to be walking through them.
  • Paths of travel can get shifted a bit if this works best for the room. The path doesn’t always have to be a straight line, it just needs to be wide enough to walk in.
  • You can get by with less space when it comes to walking between pieces of furniture, such as between the coffee table and the couch. At a minimum you want 18”, but if you can, aim for 24-30” of width.
  • If there is a TV in the room, your goal is for your primary seating in this space to be facing the TV, and about ten feet away from it. Too close and you’ll feel like you are in the front row of a movie theater; too far and the seating will feel disconnected. If a room has both a fireplace and a television, be honest about which is the true focal point. Usually, it is the television.
  • In a dining room, you ideally want between 42-48” between the table and the walls and/or other furniture. If your room cannot accommodate this margin, know that you need at least 24 inches to pull out a chair.
  • Don’t be afraid to move furniture away from the walls. Having all the furniture against the walls, especially in a large space, can make the room feel cavernous.
  • Remember to think about who will be using the room. Tall people need sufficient height to sit and stand comfortably.
  • Be mindful of scale and “furniture clutter.” Small rooms often function better with fewer pieces that are designed for small spaces, while large spaces do well with bigger pieces, such as a large sectional sofa. In either case, avoid the pitfall of filling every inch of your room with furniture. Negative space (i.e., space with nothing in it) is critical for a comfortable room.

Clearly define each furniture zone. Examples of a furniture zone include:

  • A conversation area with sofas and/or chairs.
  • A media zone, with clear lines of sight to the television.
  • An eating area with a table and chairs or a banquette with a built-in seat.
  • A reading zone, with comfortable seating and good lighting.
  • A desk or working zone.
  • A food prep zone, with easy access to the sink, a worksurface, cooking, and refrigeration.
  • A play zone, with open space on the floor.

These are just a few examples. Again, the goal of a furniture zone is to be able to perform the preferred activity inside it without suffering significant interruption from others operating outside of the zone. You may end up with narrow spaces outside of a zone, usually along a path of travel, such as some wall space near a door or in a corner. These are great places for either a single piece of furniture (e.g., a free-standing bar, a bookshelf, a chest of drawers, a demi-lune table, etc.), or something decorative, such as an artificial tree.

One way to unite the elements of a zone is by putting an area rug underneath it. Here are a few “rug rules of thumb” you might find helpful:

  • Rugs should be large enough that the furniture can rest its front legs on it.
  • If your rug will cover “the whole room,” aim for about 8-12 inches of bare floor between the edge of your rug and the wall.
  • A dining room rug should extend at least 24 inches past the edge of your dining room table. Most people prefer 36 inches. This avoids the chairs having to straddle hard flooring and a rug.
  • A bedroom rug should extend at least 18 inches past the edge of your bed frame. For instance, an 8×10 rug under a queen-sized bed and a 10×12 rug under a king bed.
  • If you use a rug in an area with a desk chair that has wheels, make a plan for how the chair will move over the rug. One solution is to replace standard, small wheels with extra-large ones. Another is to use a mat. Often, no rug at all ends up being the easiest solution.

Once you have an idea of how you think you want the pieces of furniture to be placed in a room, the next step is to give it a try. Moving furniture can be hard, but you can ease the process by using either a hand truck or furniture sliders (and/or garnering help from some strong volunteers). This step is important, because it can be challenging to truly visualize a space in two dimensions. Move the furniture, sit on it, pull out the chairs, walk around it, etc. Once you are happy with it, you can move on to adding accessory pieces, such as lighting, art, storage pieces, and décor. If you struggle with color and design, you may want to call in a decorator to help you.

As I said, I’m not a decorator. However, I have collected a couple of guidelines that come in handy when moving into the decorating phase of the process.

  • When hanging art on the walls, the center of art should be at eye level, about 5-6” from the floor. I’ve been told that museums and galleries typically hang their art at 57 inches.
  • When hanging art above a piece of furniture, (e.g., a console table, buffet, dresser, sofa, etc.), you want the art display to be about 2/3 the width of the item over which it is hanging. You also want it to be hung about six to eight inches above the piece, with approximately two to three inches between individual pieces.
  • The bottom of dining room light fixture should be about 30-34” above a table.
  • Be mindful of various kinds of lighting (overhead, task, environmental), and consider where your outlets are. If you lack sufficient outlets, you may want to hire an electrician to add some. This is worth the expense if doing so vastly improves your floor planning options.
  • Always consider storage. As an organizer, I find many spaces lack enough storage. If you are buying new furniture, look for pieces with drawers, shelves, and cabinets for tucking away whatever supplies you will use in that zone. Remember you can add storage to the back of doors and along walls, and you may be able to gain more storage by thinking vertically.

*     *     *

Furniture placement is personal, and you can put things wherever you want in your own space. The only thing that truly matters is that you like it. However, if you don’t like your space, I hope these tips will help.

If you think this is beyond you, reach out to me and let’s talk. Your home is an investment, and it should work for you.

What furniture placement tips would you add?

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20 thoughts on “How to Arrange Furniture to Create a Harmonious And Functional Space”

  1. Taking into account many ways the room can function best are important. The flow and path process recommended brings more function to the space. Often this is not taken into account in arranging the space for use and the energy of the room is diminished. Taking the use of the room into account, with respect to storage as well, heightens the function. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. I talk with clients about these things but have never written on it, so thought I would try something a bit different. I love your ideas on the functions in the space!!

  2. What a wonderful read. Decorating a room and arranging furniture is part of finishing an organizing job.
    But I do agree, some rooms have such a weird shape that makes decorating a room a tough one. We also have to know how much is too much. Too much furniture makes a room look much smaller.
    I love all the tips. Thanks for sharing.
    Janet Schiesl recently posted…Keep Your Garage Organized-Our Favorite TipsMy Profile

    1. I bet we’ve all been in those oddly shaped rooms. And often people think they are somehow missing the “right” answer. I’m happy to share that they may just have a challenging space, and then we see what we can do.

  3. I love all of these ideas. I have a client who needs to get a new desk. He wants one big enough and deep enough to hold 3 monitors and have a workspace. He also wants an L-shape that gives me enough room to work on the days I am with him. One of the companies where he was looking for desks allow you to take a picture of your office and “place” the desk in your office to see how it fits.
    Another comment I would like to offer is about rugs. I enjoy a nice rug in my office and in my living room. Because of the traffic pattern the rugs need to be turned each year when I have them cleaned or they will show too much wear in one area.

    1. Love that your client can “see” his desk in the space before buying it. Those kinds of tools are becoming more and more available! Great tip about the rugs. Turning them helps with traffic pattern wear and if you happen to be near a window where the sun is impacting the rug’s color.

  4. I’ve always enjoyed making floor plans with graph paper and was excited to buy a Home Furniture Planner at a POC Conference many years ago. It’s been a long time since I’ve used it, partly for the reasons you mention: between doors, windows, closets, radiators and electrical outlets, our options are pretty limited.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…How much does it cost to maintain a website?My Profile

  5. This was a timely post for me – we cleaned our back screened-in porch this weekend and decided to remove and rearrange some of the furniture (and, we’re planning to get some outdoor rugs to cozy it up). In an outdoor-ish space, we have to consider where the sunlight hits at different parts of the day. Too much west-facing means a lot of heat and light in the summer time! I’ll be checking in on your rug guidelines when we head out to make our choices next weekend. Thanks for all of the great tips!
    Sara Skillen recently posted…All According to PlanMy Profile

    1. What a fun project. I love that it is finally getting warm enough to sit outside again. Hooray! Be sure to take some before and after photos. 🙂

    1. Taking the time to perform this planning step can not only result in a better outcome, but it can also make the process of trying out different options pain free!

  6. This is great guidance. I’m the sort who moves in, points the furniture at the TV, and keeps everything in the same place forever. (Well, 26 years and counting.) The center of every room is open and clear, with everything on the periphery. It works for me, but it’s definitely doesn’t make for an interesting room. With clients, we do as you say and try to create zones, but you’ve done a great job clarifying the measurements associated with the “rules” of creating functional space. I’m especially happy to see you include guidelines for hanging artwork and lighting, as doing it by “feel” doesn’t always lead to the best solutions.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Cool, Sustainable Packing and Shipping Solutions for Earth DayMy Profile

    1. I frequently see artwork hung too high or too far away from the furniture over which it is hung. It’s helpful to have a few guidelines, right? I use them myself…

  7. We recently had a dog urine problem with some carpeting we have, so we decided to stop fighting it and to rip it up and add hardwood flooring. When doing that, we realized we could really rearrange the whole room and be pretty happy with a sparkling new guest room. I don’t have great advice that you haven’t already said, but I think it’s just about letting your mind be open to what will feel incredible in your space.
    Tamara recently posted…Cyber-Parents: Here are 5 Smart Hacks for Managing Screen Time and Online SafetyMy Profile

    1. And sometimes you have to empty the room (even on paper) to fully open your mind, right? What a great result to have a new guest room. 🙂

  8. This reminds me of a client I worked with for years. She loved to change things up. Every few months, she rearranged the furniture in her living room and some bedrooms. No layouts or drawings were made, but she’d do it by “feel.” It helped her get a fresh perspective on the space and keep things from feeling ‘stale.’

    Your measurement guide for the rugs is so helpful. I want to replace the area rug in our living room, and your guide will help me figure out what size to get. The one we currently have should be larger.

    1. I love having a few guidelines on hand to help me figure out where to start. The worst thing is to get a rug you love and then have trouble with furniture placement on top of it!

  9. This reminds me of my days as an interior re-designer (using what you already have) which also involved rearranging furniture. And I really have nothing to add except your saying you are not a decorator reminds me of something I always said: I am not a feng shui expert, but I do know that the first thing you do is to remove clutter. Including furniture clutter. And create traffic flow like you did with your arrows. Good job!

    1. Thanks Hazel. Love that term “interior re-designer.” I do a lot of that… let’s use what you have. I tell clients selling their house that I will help them stage with what they own. Funny how decluttering touches so many aspects of life, including design, function, sale/resale, productivity, etc. This is always part of the process!

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