50 Living Room Decorating Rules You Need To Know

Hi Everyone,

Thanks so much for all of your kind and encouraging messages. I’m still in New York but am leaving on Monday for Boston. The weather forecast is for a 35% chance of some RAIN showers and a high temp of 36 degrees. Tuesday, the big move-in day, is partly cloudy with a high of 39 degrees; practically balmy. haha


In the meantime, a friend sent me a couple of pics of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, all lit up after the heavy snow. They had more than we did in New York.


How magical!


And, because I’ve always loved astronomy and looking up at the stars, on the 17th and 18th, I went looking for Jupiter and Saturn in the southwest sky, just after sunset. To my astonishment, there they were. The only two stars “out.”

12.18 Jupiter and Saturn

I took this with my eyephone on max magnification. That building is really about 50 feet from me.

Pondfield Rd W - Bronxville apartment for sale - bedroom - Mural Sources - Chinoiserie Wallpaper - Benjamin Moore White Dove wall color

I took the images out of this window. (if you missed the photos of my apartment, please go here.) Of course, I was right on top of the window when I took the photos of the planets.


Okay, time to move on to our topic, which is 50 living room rules you need to know.


If you own the 333 Rules and Tips Guide, most of this post is in there. Of course, this is only a small portion of what’s in the guide.

You can purchase this guide alone, OR you can get one for FREE, along with the new Etsy Guide, if you purchase any of my other guides. (more info at the bottom of this post.)

The post was inspired by this note from a kind reader, “Sally Ruler.”


Dear Laurel,

Please, oh please, please do a post about living room decorating thumb and measurements rules.

I’m going a little crazy because I see contradictory info on the internet. Some of it seems to be okay, and some of it is downright wacky. Even *I* can tell that it’s wrong.

I don’t know where some of these people derive their information. It makes me wonder if they are just making it up?

With appreciation,

Sally Ruler




Well, Sally, you shall get your wish to the best of my ability. And yes, I agree that some of the measurements I see on the internet and even in books are not optimal. In fact, some are way off what they should be.

A while back, some of you may remember this post that talked about following these rules that could get you in some deep doo-doo.

I just saw one for a typical coffee table be 36″ long. Sure if the other side is also 36″ but 36″ is better for a loveseat, not a full-sized sofa of 84″ or more.

Of course, all good designs should begin with a solid furniture plan.


One important rule of thumb to consider when discussing all of the 50 rules is to understand that much of the time, that rule can be broken. That’s why they are rules of thumb, not rules set in stone. haha


While there is some overlap in many of these decorating rules of thumb, to make things as clear as possible, we are going to go by individual rooms.


Time to Begin. Are you ready?


LIVING ROOM Decorating Rules You Need To know ( Living room means rooms for living and includes family rooms, too.)


These are the rooms where we typically spend the most time. The 21st-century living room is no longer the “dead room.” That’s the room that many of us had to endure for most of the 20th-century.

The old living room was the room we weren’t allowed in. That is unless our friends and we were professionally fumigated and dry-cleaned before entering this sacred space.


Baby boomer parents and later generations revolted, and now many living rooms also double as family rooms.


While going through the living room decorating rules of thumb, please refer to this post showing one living room with seven different layouts to see these principles in action.


Upholstered Living room furniture




  • It can be anywhere from 54″ (small loveseat) – 110″ or more! In length. However, the most typical length for a living room sofa is about 84″ (7 feet). That is the over-all measurement, arm-to-arm. For more about the perfect sofa, click here.


  • It is vitally important to choose the best length sofa for your space.


  • Sofa depth varies from about 34″ – 45″. However, a settee might only be 28″ deep, and a sofa-bed (daybed) could be as much as 60″ deep. (click here to see some examples).


how to measure a sofa or chair - height - depth - living room decorating rules of thumb


And when we say “depth.” We mean the over-all depth, which includes the back pitch, which usually adds several inches.


Sofa height


Remember, when we talked about “human scale furniture?”


I was just talking to a friend who told me about a movie he loves. He said that he’s going to be buying a home in Westchester, which is how he wants to decorate it.


via the best picture project - since-you-went-away- 1940s film - human scale furniture

Image via the best picture project from the film, Since You Went Away with Jennifer Jones, Claudette Colbert, and Shirley Temple.


  • Ahhhhh… those were the days. The back of that chair is not more than 32″ and probably a little lower. The seat height is no more than 17″.


1940s club chair dimensions

I found another chair on 1st Dibs from the 1940s. And see? Those are very similar dimensions to my estimate.


Well, today’s furniture is mostly larger.


  • But, still, for me, my upper limit for a sofa height is 34″. Chairs come in so many styles, so there’s more variation.
  • Arm height = 23″ – 25″
  • A Tuxedo or Chesterfield (arms same height as the back) is generally 28″ – 33″ (I prefer 31″ or below)
  • Seat height – 18″ – 20″ – But, this is difficult to measure because most seat cushions have a “crown,” so to the welting might be 18″ but the crown will add another inch or two.


  • Seat depth is usually from 22″ – 25″. However, if there are loose back cushions instead of a tight back, that affects the depth to some extent. It’s not an exact science. When I custom-made an English Roll arm sofa, with a tight back, I usually specified a depth of 24″. And, especially if the husband was tall. You can always add throw pillows. But sometimes if they weren’t so tall, I specified 23″.


Speaking of throw pillows and living room decorating rules.


This is one rule that I see so many unusual measurements, and usually, it’s for pillows that are too small. In my opinion, it is better to err on the side of too big than too small and dinky when it comes to throw pillows.


  • For an 84″ sofa, my favorite configuration is three different covers.
  • With two pillows at 22″ and two @ 20″ and a rectangular pillow in the middle can be various sizes. Mine is quite large, but a more typical size is approximately 14″ x 25″. For a far more detailed post all about throw pillows, click here.


End or side tables


  • Generally, I like these tables’ height to be within a couple of inches, either higher or lower than the sofa arm. So, that would be from about 23″-27″ for a typical sofa arm.
  • But, if you have a big Chesterfield with a 33″ arm, an end table height of 28″-30″ should be fine.

Measurements for an end or side table.


  • Square is usually about 18″ – 28″ square.
  • A rectangular end table can be as narrow as 12″ (to 24″), but I would not have it be more than 28″ deep.
  • The perfect size round end table is from about 24″ – 30.”

Here’s a good post about end, side, and accent tables.


Coffee or Cocktail Tables


Let’s begin with height. I’ve talked about this several times.


  • For me, no matter how high the sofa seat, my maximum height for a coffee/cocktail table is 18″. However, my preference is for 15″-17″.
  • If a rectangular table, it is usually about one-half (minimum) to not more than two-thirds of the sofa’s length. But it should never overlap the arms.
  • So, for an 84″ sofa, the ideal length is about 48″ with a depth of about 24″ – 30.”
  • A square coffee table can be a little smaller. But is usually not more than one-half the length and not less than 30″ sq.
  • Round coffee tables that are great looking are so difficult to come by. A good size for an 84″ sofa is 48″. 36″ is a more common size, but that would be better for a sofa 72″ or less. The largest round I have ever done is 54,” but that’s pretty big.


  • Most of the time, coffee tables should be about 12″-18″ away from the sofa seat. The most I would recommend is 24″.


How to style a coffee table has many ideas for what to put on your coffee table and where.


Other decorating rules of thumb for living rooms.


  • Major pathways should be at least 36″. But, if it’s just a few inches of something going into 30″, it should be okay. However, you wouldn’t want to have to walk the entire length of a sofa with only a 30″ pathway. That is if it’s a major pathway that requires frequent traveling.


  • Walking through the room, I very much try to keep all pathways at least 30″.


By all means, float your sofa if you have the depth and layout to do so. If your room is very deep, you might want to add a sofa (console) table behind the sofa.


  • Console tables are usually from two-thirds to three-quarters the length of the sofa.
  • And, from 12″ to 24″ deep.
  • The height should be at least one or two inches below the top of the sofa.
  • If this is not a major pathway behind the sofa and there is only a wall behind it, then 30″ is the minimum I would go between the sofa and wall.


  • In the case of a bookcase, then it’s back to a minimum of 36″. However, if there’s not enough room, then leave out the sofa table.
  • Sofa tables are particularly nice when the back of the sofa needs to face directly in front of the room’s opening.


Case goods


Case goods, if you don’t already know, are non-built-in cabinetry of any kind. That includes bookcases, chests, armoires, china cabinets, buffets, media cabinets, secretaries, and so forth.

Case goods might be used for display and/or storage and can be either tall, medium, or short in height.

Most living rooms have at least one kind of case goods in them.


The main living room decorating rules of thumb for case goods are:




Jay Jeffers

These are built-in, but I did three smallish armoires about the same size on a long wall one time in a bedroom. It was pretty cool. One for him. One for her. And One for the TV. Haha.


  • You don’t want to have one long wall with a tall secretary and then a short chest followed by a medium bookcase. It will look like a hodgepodge of furniture.


What about tall pieces? Yes, here, one needs to be very careful.


If there’s a fireplace or sometimes a door or a window on a long wall, there can be identical tall pieces flanking it.


Paint Palette Opal - case pieces flanking fireplace

Y’all get that, I’m sure. This is from the Laurel Home Paint and Palette collection.


Please also check out the Ultimate Guide to Fireplace Mantel Decorating.


  • Most tall pieces should not be higher than the door frame unless it’s not near a door and the ceiling is quite high.
  • Avoid having two tall pieces on perpendicular walls.


Area rugs


The old school of thought is that there should be about one foot of floor showing around the room’s perimeter.

The problem with this is that if there are any case pieces against the wall, most likely, they will be half on and half off the rug. (most case pieces are deeper than one foot)


  • However, it is fine if your sofa is partially on the rug.
  • I prefer if the rug is only just a little past the legs if this is the case.
  • The reason is that it’s best to avoid having your end table half on and half off the rug.


  • Therefore, for an average-sized living room of, say, 14′ x 24′, a two-foot margin plus/minus less should be fine.


  • Area rug sizes that are possibilities are anywhere from 8 x 10 up to 10 x 14.


A 6 x 9 is going to look too dinky. However, it is possible to layer a smaller Oriental over a natural fiber seagrass rug.


  • There should be a bare minimum of one foot of seagrass showing, but I prefer a minimum of 18″-24″ for the width. There can be more seagrass showing for the length. It depends on how long the room is.
  • If there’s a cut out for the fireplace and hearth, I would suggest not more than 6″-8″ of floor showing.


For a much smaller living room, family room, den, or library, I have read that it is okay to have a margin of 7″-12″.


Again, the issue is furniture half on and half off. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Try to pick a floor covering that is very low if this is the case. Pads or levelers can be added to the back legs, if necessary so that the table or case good will be level.

And, by the way. Floors are sometimes wildly uneven. It is usually not the furniture that’s having an issue. It’s your floor! Uneven floors can create wobbly situations and throw doors and drawers on the case pieces out of alignment. For dozens of my jobs, I had to have a carpenter come over to adjust the doors on case-goods. So stressful to get the call from the client that things arrived out of whack!


If a room, like an office or den, is super small. That is eight feet or less for the width. You might want to consider wall-to-wall carpeting if you wish to have a floor covering.


My favorite is always seagrass.


How to mix area rugs in a semi-open plan

What to do if your area rug is too small


Lighting For Living Rooms


I’ve written a lot about lighting for living rooms in numerous posts.



If the ceiling is at least nine feet high, there is a chandelier or semi-flush-mount, or ceiling fan for some rooms.


Art Work


  • Art can be hung individually or in groups of two or more pieces.
  • For art over the sofa, some have said that it should be far less than the sofa itself.


living room layout-Laurel Bern Interiors Bronxville Living room decorating rules of thumb


However, these clients put up this painting, which is nearly the same size as the sofa, and it’s pretty stunning. Should it be a little smaller? Ideally, probably a few inches in all directions would be ideal. But I love the painting so much, and I also love that it’s “breaking the rules.” Beauty trumps all.

This post has many great ideas for art walls and sources for free and/or very cheap but great looking art.


More rules of thumb for hanging art.


  • The center of the piece of art or art grouping should be at about eye-level height, which we’ll say on average is between 55″ and 65″. However, there are other factors to consider, such as the ceiling height, size of the room, etc.
  • Usually, I do not let the top of the art go past the top of the window and door frames. But, an exception would be over a fireplace. And, also if the ceiling is very high.
  • When doing art walls in groupings, I think the art looks best if the spacing is from one to three inches. But again, there are so many situations.


For more ideas about how to hang art, you can check out these posts for ideas here, here, here, here, here, and here.


50 living room decorating rules of thumb

please pin to Pinterest for reference


Well, that was quite a bit, but it’s only a taste of what’s in the 333 Decorating Rules & Tips Guide.

In that guide, we go over the rules & tips for all of the major rooms and areas, window treatments, including a huge glossary of terms, art, and much more as outlined in the link above.


I hope that you enjoyed this post about living room decorating rules!




PS: please check out the newly updated HOT SALES and HOLIDAY SHOP.


(Clicking on the links will send you to the pages to learn more about my interior design guides)

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The Essential Paint Color and Palette Collection (two volumes)


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333 decorating rules and tips you need to know

333 Decorating Rules & Tips You Need to Know


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22 Responses

  1. Fell in love with your “ Donald” cabinet. It’s perfect to store my crap behind doors. My dilemma is SCALE. The intended location is a 14x 11 DR with an oval table/ chairs in the middle. Ceiling is 8’.

    My gut says while it will fit the side wall, this cabinet is going to EAT the space. Yes? No.? Maybe so?

    Would love to see more of your blogs on SCALE – dining room.

  2. Gorgeous post! I’m wondering about built-ins rules, baseboards and crown moldings. Should all of them be from one catalog? Do you have personal rules for built-ins, Laurel? How about Modern built-ins and 1920s moldings and door trim, can they work?? I’d love to read about built-ins rules. William Mclure’s bathroom builtin is gorgeous and his door trim and baseboard and crown moldings. Are they all from one architectural period?

  3. Hi Laurel,
    By the time you get this you’ll be in Boston. Good luck with your move tomorrow. I hope it won’t be too stressful. I’m praying that all your things arrive in one piece.

  4. Love this, Laurel! I wondered how you feel about having two English roll arm sofas in the same space? I simply cannot decide between the lee industries roll arm chair and the 3 seater! Can’t I do both? I so often see family/ living room setups aim for balance with two identical uncomfortable accent chairs that no one will ever sit in but never 2 of the same sofa style! Is this a decorator IG sin?

  5. Laurel, congrats on your move!
    Since you like astronomy, tomorrow (12/21) is the first time in 800 yrs where you can see the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction. They will look like 1 big bright star. Unless you have a telescope. Last time it happened, they hadn’t invented telescopes.
    Just fyi as you mentioned a love for astronomy. Unless you’re busy w moving. Well either way have a great and safe move, holidays and happy stargazing.
    I should spend more time checking out starts but I obsess over the decorating mistakes I’m forever trying to fix! Love your tips though. I think this is in my top 5 of your posts.

    1. Hi Vanessa,

      Did you see my photo? That is Jupiter and Saturn which I took because that is as close as I’m going to be able to see them together. I guess I just assumed there’s been so much press about it that most people already know about the event. I took those photos the other night because it’s forecast to be cloudy and has been every evening since the 18th. Or, I might forget. Or, might not be able to see them because of the other buildings in Boston. But, thanks for letting others know about it.

  6. Hi Laurel,
    Of all the blogs I follow, yours is certainly the most fact filled, and definitely the most entertaining! I really loved today’s blog, and I ordered your 333 Decorating Rules and Tips about a week ago. It came, but there wasn’t any info about the free ETSY guide. (Or maybe I didn’t see it.) Is there a way for me to get it, please? I really don’t know why I didn’t order your 333 rules earlier–such good stuff! Thank you!

  7. I have one question (although you’re moving so if you don’t see it/can’t answer it no worries!). The built-ins I typically see in living rooms seem to almost always match on either side of a mantel – two floor-to-ceiling bookcases, for instance. But does this always have to be the case? For instance, if someone has a centered mantel with only one side that has a built-in while the other side has something else (say, a radiator that cannot be moved), is that just typically too lopsided to look good?

    Good luck with your move!

    1. Hi Kiera,

      Well, this isn’t an easy question to answer without seeing the entire situation. But, I have a situation in my new place with a small radiator in an odd place. So, there might be a post about this one day in the not too distant future. In the meantime, are you sure that the radiator can’t be moved or an alternative source of heat used? We had some floor radiators that were unsightly in our townhouse. Well, we got rid of them and rarely noticed the difference.

  8. I can’t speak for Laurel, but I don’t like recessed lights (also called pot lights), especially the way contractors tend to do them – putting lines of them down a ceiling like they are lighting up a runway. The only place we had recessed lights put it were in the kitchen (which has a very high arched ceiling), and in a couple of bathrooms where the sconces were going to need help. I was on the fence about the kitchen, but with a two story height I thought it needed all the help it could get and I am glad they are their (in addition to a chandelier, two large pendants, a sconce over the sink, lights in the oven hood, and undercabinet lighting). The contractor really wanted wanted to put pot lights down the hallway from the front door down the length of the house to the kitchen, but instead we did a line of nice looking brass flush mounts and I love it (something like these – https://www.circalighting.com/basil-small-flush-mount-ah4014/
    Oh – we also did ‘eye lights’or eyeball lights in my husband’s office close to one wall – the light washes down the wall and highlights his guitar collection. So, that’s just my two cents on when and how to keep recessed lights at a minimum but use them in some spots.

  9. I love seagrass rugs and have them in my living room and family room. I need wall-to-wall carpeting in my office and I am considering seagrass. Will it unravel if it is installed as a wall-to-wall carpet? Will I need an installer with special experience with seagrass? Has anyone here used seagrass wall-to-wall and can give me pros and cons?

  10. I always look forward to your posts – informative, funny, full of real life situations and real life resolutions. Good luck with your move to Boston!

  11. Good luck on your move to Boston! You’ll love it there, I’m sure. A question: could you please post something about sizing your sofa to your room? For instance, we are buying a place with a small living room (about 12.5′ square) and I am worried about overwhelming the space with a sofa that is too large. Is there a rule of thumb about this? Thank you.

  12. Good luck moving, Laurel! Such a beautiful new home and hometown. Can’t wait to see how you transform the space. I’ve always enjoyed the coziness and quiet of a good snowfall, makes even the busiest town or day somehow feel a tiny bit magical. Even here in the Northeast where we get a lot of it. Hope you can find some peaceful downtime over the holidays. Thanks for your generosity and humor.

  13. I recently bought the 333 decorating rules and it has been a great help to have a reference for all these rules.

    I have two questions though.
    1) You said you prefer to not have recessed lights in the ceiling. Does that also mean no ceiling lights at all? We are pre construction on a living room and it feels a bit crazy to not have any ceiling lights and just a fan (texas!). But, it also makes sense because the light from lamps and sconces is so much nicer.

    2) When you say “wall to wall seagrass”, are you talking about a rug over the existing floor, or doing a seagrass carpet over the subflooring?

    Thank you so much for your help. And wishing you the best in your final journey to Boston. So exciting!

  14. Hi! I always appreciate your ideas, even if I can’t afford them. I, too, love the look of seagrass rugs, and just put one in my dining room. Which my black lab promptly started to chew up. He has not chewed up anything in two years, but must have been drawn to the smell of the seagrass. So I would recommend pet owners to be cautious about using seagrass rugs.

  15. Laurel, I am happy for you and hope you enjoy your new home. I love your blog and I thank you. You make me laugh out loud and I love looking at all your work. You are so very talented. I love this room above need that couch! I need to search it out now…Thank you for all you teach us…but mostly for all the hilarious things you say also because you make us laugh out loud!!

  16. All I can say is that you have had the luck of the Irish on this move: find the perfect new home in Boston, sell your home in NY quickly, and AVOID MOVING FROM NY TO BOSTON IN A MAJOR SNOW STORM! The gods are with you Laurel!

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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