How to design a formal living room – designer Emma Sims Hilditch's tricks for creating smart spaces

How to design a formal living room – designer Emma Sims Hilditch's tricks for creating smart spaces

A formal living room is the one room in the house that you might keep the kids and pets out of, where you're unlikely to indulge in TV dinners but are very likely to invite guests into for smart soirées. Designing a formal living room follows a number of formula that are easy to translate – but how to do so in a way that makes the room feel welcoming as well as beautifully curated?

If you have been browsing formal living room ideas, you will likely have noticed that they have quite tight layouts, that furniture is neatly upholstered and that drapes are sumptuous. But how to add that magic touch that will make the room feel welcoming, despite its elegance? Here, interior designers that specialize in both formal and informal spaces advise.

You might start the design of your formal living room by considering various iterations of traditional living room ideas. 

'These will have many of the elements of a formal living room, including a nod to the period and architecture of the room; decorating with antiques will also bring you nearer to a look you will find timeless yet characterful,' says Lucy Searle, Editor in Chief of Homes & Gardens.

Below, interior design experts offer their advice on formal living room design that is elegant yet cozy.

'For me the biggest challenge of a formal dining room or drawing room is decorating it so that you want to use it more often than just high days and holidays,' says Emma Sims Hilditch, Creative Director & Founder, Sims Hilditch (opens in new tab). 

'The dining room – as we once knew it – has had to reinvent itself over the years as many people opt for open-plan and, more recently, broken-plan living ideas. 

'What is the point of a room that doesn’t have regular usage? Every formal reception room should have atmosphere. It should be a reflection of the owner, not a soulless room without personality,' advises Emma. 

Above, Emma designed a space inspired by home library ideas. The textures and colors of the books give this formal living space a more welcoming, characterful feel.

Formal living rooms need to be inviting all year round but if the space is cold and stark you won't feel encouraged to use the space. Fireplace ideas can reverse this.

'Adding a working fireplace is the easiest way to give a room atmosphere and make it inviting,' says Emma. 'We have a fake log gas fire in the formal front sitting room in our home in London and I know that if I didn't have this, I wouldn’t go in there.' 

Beautiful blinds, classic curtain ideas or custom-made shutter ideas all add to the overall atmosphere within a space. With some care and attention, window treatment ideas can be more than just for privacy or warmth, they can help a space to feel finished – an inviting area of the house to relax and entertain guests in. 

'If you have large windows and are looking for ways to stretch your budget, I would always suggest it is better to choose an inexpensive fabric, but don’t scrimp on the curtain making. Handmade curtains are a very worthwhile investment and we always opt for the heaviest weight interlining to make curtains feel really luxurious,' advises Emma. 

'Don't forget to budget for artwork – the room is unfinished without it,' states Emma. 

Many interior designers use decorating with art as a starting point for developing color schemes or themes within a room. It's an easy way for expression and creativity. 

'A lovely way to add decoration to a wall is to buy antique textiles and frame them,' suggests Emma. 

'We are working on a Jacobean manor house in the Cotswolds where we have framed some beautiful crewel hand-embroidery from Chelsea Textiles (opens in new tab) as an alternative to a painting.'  

A formal living room is one where you might bring guests, and it's often to be found near the entryway of your home. An informal living room is usually further into the house and this space might be one you search for family room ideas.

Images Powered by Shutterstock