The living room is probably where we feel most at home, putting our feet up after a long day at work, talking with family members, and getting entertained. In larger homes, activities such as dining and children’s games can be done in other parts of the house, making the living room even more of a focus for relaxation. But how have these rooms evolved over the years as society, the availability of space, and people’s expectations have altered?
We at RENTCafé looked at five ways in which the American living room has changed since the 1950s, a period that has seen immense shifts in how people live and also the arrival of new technology. We tracked this by analyzing how the living room’s function altered as activities got moved to other parts of the home. Then we looked at the evolution of three types of living room furniture — coffee tables, sofas and dining room sets — plus the impact of the new invention of television on the room.
We found that a home’s living area and furniture mirrors changes in the wider world, reflecting a greater need for space, individuality and flexibility. In addition, it altered as floor space got taken up by TVs — until viewing switched to portable sets and then wall-mounted screens — and as other rooms got used as living spaces.
Our research showed that Americans want to stretch out in their living rooms, with airier spaces and less formal furniture being features of home design evolution. In fact, a recent survey about self storage habits suggests that people want to declutter, with furniture being the item most commonly put into rented storage units by 62% of men and 52% of women. This could be due to moving house, downsizing, or freeing up space for a growing family, but also because people regularly change their home interiors. They want to keep up with the times and not have outdated stuff lying around for all to see — while an antique rosewood table is always a treasure, grandma’s old china cabinet may not be! And this, along with the increasing square footage of American homes, helps make new and exciting interiors possible. Let’s see how the five aspects of American living room design we selected have changed over the decades — click on the arrows below the images to see more slides.
1. The Living Space Split That Started in the 50s Going Strong Today: Meet the Family Rooms, Dens and Man Caves
The size and function of living space in the average American home have changed over the years, as has its distribution in the house, leading to additional rooms being used. Kristina Wilson is a professor of Art History at Clark University — her book Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design will be coming out next year — and she tells us about the shifts in the ways families have wanted to use their living room space in the latter half of the 20th Century: while “all homes had a central living room, more and more frequently families were expressing the desire for an alternative gathering space, commonly called a ‘family room’ or a ‘den’ (or even a ‘rumpus room’).”
This desire went hand-in-hand with the increased construction of suburban homes in the 1950s, which allowed more space, more rooms and more options. While open-plan layouts became fashionable, the increased availability of space also fed the desire for more informal, separate spaces. The playful ethos of the ’60s did nothing to contradict this and it became even more common from the ’70s onward. The living room remained, and was the place to receive guests, but the family room, with its plentiful soft furnishings, was often the place to play in.
While the new room could be for the whole family, if it got called a ‘den’ there was more chance it was intended specifically for designated family members or for a certain activity. Studies and home offices are sometimes referred to as ‘dens,’ and may be the preserve of a family member who needs to work undisturbed at home, surrounded by her or his own paraphernalia. Such rooms are often relatively small, as entertaining others may not be a feature there.
A development of the den is the ‘man cave,’ a room specifically designed for and used by the man of the house. An adapted garage might suffice, and TV shows such as Married… with Children and Home Improvement featured them. But now these spaces are frequently located in the basement — as the name suggests, natural light may not be a priority! And they can be quite large, especially when equipped as media rooms with home theaters and expected to host the man’s friends as well. Not to be outdone, women can create similar spaces for themselves, calling them perhaps “girl-caves” or “she-sheds”!
2. Coffee Tables Mirror Changes in Society Like Almost Nothing Else
This piece of furniture, on which we place cups and maybe some snacks and magazines, has an interesting history. The modern coffee table may have been invented in the 1920s, but low tables existed under other names before then, perhaps first becoming fashionable with the late-19th century craze for superbly lacquered Japanese imports. The end of the 2nd World War heralded a new era and new ways of thinking and, as interior designer Laura Roberts tells us, design tended towards less ornamentation, influenced by the Bauhaus and Modernist art movements. The design of coffee tables closely mirrored trends such as this.
By the time the 1950s arrived the coffee table had started going to work — more than its fancy pre-war ancestor the cocktail table ever had. There was no better place to put the increasingly available large books with glossy pictures that were dipped into occasionally for relaxation rather than read cover-to-cover. The 1950s saw the arrival of television – more on that later! — so items needing to be readily at hand had to be kept on a low surface so as not to obstruct the view.
“The Pop Art and Minimalism of the 1960s influenced the design of furniture, and coffee table shapes became more organic,” says Laura Roberts. Plastics had been increasing employed alongside wood and glass, and as America was now embracing the Space Age, even coffee tables with a futuristic look started appearing. With the growing population, shelves were often built within the table as convenient extra storage places, or ottomans were used instead.
While the 1970s saw continued use of lacquered wood and glass, the consumerist 1980s just seemed to be shinier than anything that went before — sharp edges even appeared to be perfectly acceptable on coffee tables! Winding down from this, fashions then became somewhat softer. ‘Shabby chic’ ideas came in, even to the point where homes occasionally aspired to look like cottages, until we reach the variety of coffee tables we have today, with some people preferring the clean lines of modernity while others go for a more retro interior design.
3. TV Stands and Cabinets Enter the Living Room…. Then Leave Again
Television was invented pre-WWII but only became popular afterwards. The number of sets in US homes rose rapidly during the 1950s from around 9% to more than 80% by the end of the decade, and color TV first become avalable then too. Although screen sizes started tiny, sets were initially housed in bulky wooden cabinets — taking up floor space, but also being an item their proud owners could show off to visitors! Soon, however, screens got larger and boxes got placed on stands, and were sometimes made of Bakelite to cut costs.
The ’60s may have ushered in a time for experimentation in music and lifestyle, but many people could only experience such events via their televisions. Landmark events such as the first moon landing in 1969 often encouraged families who didn’t have a TV to finally buy one. With television now becoming ubiquitous in every home, John Monte of Elegant Simplicity tells us some houses were being built with niches in the walls specifically to accommodate the still-bulky sets.
While fully transistorized televisions first became available in the 60s, they had painfully small screens. The heavier, regular televisions with handles added to make them portable also didn’t present much to look at, but the means to watch TV alone rather than as a family was arriving. LCD technology was developed in the ’70s and ’80s but it wasn’t until the start of the 21st century that flat-screen TVs became the dominant technology, wall-mounted and therefore taking up little no floor space.
Huge screens are now placed on living room walls — sometimes the decor of the latter is made to harmonize with the former — and are used for both television and streaming media. CDs and DVDs may also be kept nearby, making the whole ensemble an entertainment center. But the interior designers at English Blinds tell us that in some living rooms now “a television is absent entirely,” and the focal point might be “an exotic fish tank, or a notable piece of art.” Plus, of course, anyone needing screen time can now use a computer or a smart phone anywhere in the house.
4. Dining Room Tables and Chairs Adapt to Trends and Availabilty of Materials
Like the coffee table, the area where a family eats has changed, reflecting society’s trends. Once upon a time it was located far from the kitchen, away from the noise of servants and the risk of fire, but it got nearer over the years to facilitate easier transfer of food. Our academic expert in art and interior design, Kristina Wilson, says in her book Livable Modernism that “since the 1930s, designers and architects have been calling for minimizing or reducing or eliminating the dining room entirely.” Dining tables and chairs — often prized pieces of furniture — also moved with the times.
The 1950s saw separate areas still used for dining — and also often a serving hatch, though which food could be passed from the kitchen, something which later became highly unfashionable. Charles and Ray Eames discovered how to effectively mold plywood around this time, making new furniture designs possible. Plastic and Formica, emblematic of the 1950s, were other materials used for dining room sets, giving the sort of look you might see in a retro diner these days.
But America wasn’t closed in its own bubble, with two of the most influential post-war designers being Finn Juhl and Hans Wegner from Denmark. The mood of the 1960s suited their egalitarian, uncluttered ascetic, with teak and rosewood often being the preferred materials for their tables and chairs. Teak in particular continued in popularity through the 70s, but darker hues were often preferred and lacquer seemed to be rather more in evidence.
By end of the 20th century, it had become difficult to source favorite furniture materials such as rosewood, and the plainer, lighter-colored pine began to be more widely used. As with coffee tables, ‘shabby chic’ had a certain vogue, and retailers began selling dining chairs separately so people could have mismatched chairs around their table. The latest interior design trend to captivate Americans is the ‘Modern Farmhouse’ style promoted on the TV show ‘Fixer Upper,’ which is a combination of modern simplicity and rustic charm, with dining room sets to match.
5. Modular Sofas Offer Flexibility When New Ideas Abound
Modern modular seating — including the ‘sectional sofa’ — was invented by American furniture designer Harvey Probber just prior to the 1950s. Whereas up till then sofas and couches had nearly always been standalone items, built with fixed armrests, the era opening up after the 2nd World War called for more flexibility in design. Probber introduced new interior layout possibilities with his modular units that could be combined in a variety of ways, and he pleased experts and customers alike with his dedication to simple lines and quality materials.
With the increased building of suburban houses after 1945, many people had larger living spaces to play with than before. The modular sofas now available consisted of units that turned corners, generally at 90 degrees and so forming an L-shape, and could seat whole families together where they could see each other. Backrests were also sometimes detachable, and with footstools and ottomans added into the mix, the possibilities were both numerous and exciting.
The ’60s and ‘70s brought in more adventurousness regarding sofa design. In addition, central heating had become more common: families were less likely to be huddled around a fireplace but instead enjoyed warmth all over the living room, making sofas situated away from its center a more attractive idea. The ‘80s and ‘90s all saw sizable jumps in the average size of US homes — 20% and 8% respectively, according to US Census data — encouraging the modular sofa concept to spread still further.
While two to four components were once common in sectional sofas, designs became more advanced and now can include many more. They may also include curved components, even to the point where semi-circular or horseshoe-shaped layouts are available. Another interesting variation is the inclusion of electric-powered reclining seating in a sofa — although such a design is not necessarily ‘modular’ — which further enhances the comfort and satisfaction such furniture can offer.
The American living room has altered considerably, adapting to shifting attitudes in society and the availability of space and materials. Increased informality, individuality and flexibility are noticeable trends. Manufacturers of living room furniture respond to demands, ensuring relaxation with family members, entertaining guests, or spending time alone all continue to be a pleasure. And the living area has grown and spawned other rooms: If space permits, children now have somewhere just for playing in, home workers have a dedicated office, and a man (or a woman) has a room in which they can really be themselves. If this doesn’t look entirely possible, homeowners can move stuff they don’t often use into a self storage unit, freeing up space for new and exciting interior designs.
The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting home design and Kristina Wilson wonders “how many dining room tables are now doubling as desks in the quarantine world we are living in – since so many people abruptly had to move their work space into their home.” And then there are the virtual meetings featuring coffee tables on which group members have placed their laptops and webcams. Working from a home’s living area may now become even more popular, with employers and employees alike discovering how possible it is. Added to this, if home sizes increase still further — they grew by 11% from 2000 to 2019 — who knows what residential living spaces may look like in another decade’s time.