Can I put a big couch in a small living room? Designers on nailing an oversized look – and when to avoid it
Interior designers on how to style a large sofa in a small space – for a scheme that's cozy and sociable (but still practical)
Here’s the conundrum: you live in an apartment, or a small house, with a tiny living room – but you love entertaining and need as much seating as possible. Or perhaps you just want to ramp up the coziness in your space and feel a huge sofa is the way to go.
Either way, you’ve asked the question: can I put a big couch in a small living room? It’s a living room idea that can easily go wrong – and the experts aren’t necessarily in agreement about what works.
We spoke to some of our favorite interior designers to get their thoughts.
Ellen is Livingetc's print editor, and an experienced interiors journalist. She spoke to interior designers to get the lowdown on squeezing a big couch into a small living room.
Can I put a big couch in a small living room?
One of the biggest arguments for an oversized couch is that it creates a sense of relaxation and even luxury. ‘A large couch in a small space can make it extra cozy – stuffy, but in a good way!’ says interior designer Samantha Struck of StruckSured Interiors. ‘For people really wanting that “lived-in” look where you sink into a space and it evokes security and comfort, an overfilled room is great!’
‘There are no small rooms – only small thinking,’ says interior designer Lisa Sherry. ‘Large or small, a beautiful room is about balancing scale and proportion, and that doesn’t mean big rooms get big sofas and smaller rooms get Lilliputian sofas. When thoughtfully imagined, a larger sofa in a more modest space feels cozy, comfortable, a just-right fit. The living room sofa also becomes the focal point of the room. And, surprisingly, a few large-scale pieces can make the space feel larger.’
Most of the designers we spoke to agreed that a bigger sofa works as a small living room idea in the right circumstances – but the key is in the proportions. ‘I think everything comes down to scale,’ says Lauren Sullivan, interior designer at Well x Design. ‘With decor, it can be fun to play with scale and sometimes break the rules – but when it comes to furniture pieces, I believe it’s important that they don’t overpower a space.’
‘A big couch in a small room can create an intimate and cozy space, and it can also help maximize seating options,’ says interior designer Marie Flanigan. ‘You should always keep scale in mind when selecting sofas for certain spaces. You don’t want a couch that completely dominates a room, but instead complements the room’s flow and has comfort.’
Designer Meredith Owen also warns against forgetting the practical side of things, too. ‘When people are planning furniture for a space they often forget about traffic flow from one room to the next,’ she says. ‘It’s important to not fill a room with over-scaled furniture so you have adequate space to move around or the flexibility to entertain. I’ve used larger sofas in cozy studies before – typically this just enhances the feeling of comfort as long as it’s not overpowering the room.’
How can you make a larger couch work in a small room?
First up, think about what it is you want from the space. Will opting for a big sofa mean you have to sacrifice other furniture pieces, like a coffee table – and if so, does a living room need a coffee table? Emma Deterding, founder and creative director of Kelling Designs, advises getting practical at this stage. ‘Consider who's going to use the space, how they're going to use it and plan your design around this,’ she says. ‘While the room is empty, laying newspaper to mimic the size of the furniture pieces you're looking to put in will help you visualize just how much room everything will take. It'll also help you make important decisions about size and scale of big pieces and whether the room will feel spacious or restricted.’
Pay attention to how the couch works with the other, non-negotiable elements of the room, too. ‘Try to avoid overlapping openings, windows, fireplaces, TVs, bookcases or any other focal points in a weird or awkward way,’ says Samantha Struck. ‘Make sure you can still navigate the space and walk through it with ease.’
After that, there are some hacks to help a bigger sofa feel more at ease in a small room. ‘Consider a sofa frame with a low arm or even go armless, which opens the sofa to the room,’ says Lisa Sherry. ‘It may seem counter-intuitive, but a sectional might be a perfect fit, defining the space and creating an all-inclusive seating area. Embrace a neutral palette, meaning paint colors and fabrics – this creates unity and calm in a space. Add texture to create quiet nuance and interest: pillows and throws are amazing accents. And bring the outside in. If privacy is not a concern, consider forgoing your usual modern window treatments to open up a room.’
‘When using a large sofa in a small space, I try to use a sofa that isn’t so tall in height, and with minimal cushion lines,’ adds Tom Lawrence-Levy of interior design studio Natural Asthetik. ‘This way, the sofa never blocks your eyesight when you walk into the home, and the minimal lines make the area look more clean and integrated. I find having a large sofa that isn't too busy in a smaller space makes the space feel larger, and also more functional.’
When is it better to use a smaller couch?
There are some cases where a big couch just won’t work for your room – but that doesn’t mean you'll have any less of a cozy living room, or a practical one, for that matter. ‘Today, so many rooms are multi-functional: it’s the way we live,’ says Lisa Sherry. ‘A large sofa in a modest space can be wonderful, but it is a commitment. If the idea doesn’t support your functional living needs, look for a plan B. Even with a generously sized sofa, the room should be easy to maneuver and elegant.’
‘So much is dependent on the room's layout,’ says Meredith Owen. ‘If your sofa is the only thing that fits or it blocks the natural flow of traffic – it’s too big. Let your room dictate the scale of your furniture, not the other way around. Smaller seating is nice for occasional use, or smaller rooms that are tight on space. There are many smaller scaled chairs/sofas that are wonderfully comfortable – the secret is that it’s all about the cushion.’
For alternatives to a bigger couch, Lauren Sullivan recommends one larger piece grouped with some smaller pieces, or a few groupings of smaller seating options. Marie Flanigan also recommends looking for studio-sized offerings with slim and compact profiles for a small living room layout. ‘If you’re still limited on space, you can always use two chairs and an ottoman that doubles as a coffee table,’ she says. ‘When a couch dominates a space and leaves no room for pieces like a coffee table, side tables or accent chair, it is likely too big. Small spaces can still live like bigger spaces when furniture selections are scaled appropriately.’
Mid-century sectional couch, Amazon
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Ellen is deputy editor of Livingetc magazine. She cut her teeth working for sister publication Real Homes, starting as features editor before becoming deputy editor. There, she enjoyed taking a peek inside beautiful homes and discovered a love for design and architecture that eventually led her here. She has also written for other titles including Homes & Gardens and Gardeningetc. While she gets ready to buy a house of her own, she takes inspiration from the works of some of her favourite architects and tastemakers. She has a particular passion for green design and enjoys shopping small, local and second-hand where she can.
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