No matter the size of your space, every nook and cranny in your home plays its own unique role. The most glaring example? The living room and family room spaces. Depending on where you live and, more importantly, how you live, you might have one or the other… or both!
There’s no real difference between a living room versus a family room, at least as far as the floor plan is concerned. But the two terms definitely carry different meanings to the people who live their lives between those walls. So we spoke to five interior design experts about these living spaces to discover five key differences that separate living rooms and family rooms.
If you grew up with a relative who covered their high-end living room furniture in plastic, you’ve experienced (quite tangibly) one of the core differences people perceive between living and family rooms. Living rooms are commonly seen as more elevated, formal spaces, while family rooms are cozier and informal rooms. Some homeowners even call their living rooms “formal living rooms,” alluding to the potential difference in formality between the rooms.
“The family room is a more casual, day-to-day place to go watch television, hang out, and spend time with your family,” says Carrie Long, principal of Carrie Long Interiors. “The living room is a more formal place, usually for entertaining guests or for extended family time.”
With the variation in formality comes a difference in function: Typically, living rooms are seen as spaces to entertain guests on special occasions. In other cases, people see living rooms as an oasis, separate from the lived-in (and potentially cluttered) spaces of the rest of the home.
Shannon Peppeard, interior designer and owner of Peppeard Design, says while the living room is often thought to be more elevated in furnishings and style, she sees it as a quiet and comfortable escape, perfect for reading and a cocktail.
The family room, on the other hand, is seen as an everyday living space and is often centered around media consumption—which is why some families call it the “media room”. “The family/media room does not center around conversation, but rather around the consumption of media, be it entertainment, video games, or internet,” says Justin Riordan, interior designer, architect, and founder of Spade and Archer Design Agency, a home staging company in Seattle, Portland, and LA. “We use the family room to interact with screens and the living room to interact with each other.”
Christina Samatas, co-founder of Park & Oak Interior Design, says she often works with clients who want to create more livable spaces in their home rather than adding a traditional, formal living room. “We like to put our own spin on living rooms and design ‘cocktail rooms’ to serve as relaxing spaces where you want to spend your time,” she says.
Another variation between the two home spaces: Often, the living room is at the front of the home, by the entryway, and a family room is in the rear, basement, or even the upper level of the house. Riordan says with the emergence of technology, the location of the family or living room serves an important purpose.
“The media room has become a separate part of the home; this layout helps families to communicate with each other on the main floor around cooking, eating, and relaxing without the interference of outside media,” he says. “We’ve started using the media room as a replacement for the movie theaters of our youth, a destination to travel to.”
Since each room serves a specific purpose, it makes sense that design and layout would vary between a living room and family room. Long says family rooms usually have more of a casual seating area of sectional grouping, along with informal, durable fabrics. “I like to use indoor-outdoor fabrics when designing family rooms for added durability to meet the needs of these high-traffic areas,” she says.
Sherri Monte, owner of Elegant Simplicity, an interior design and professional home organizing firm in Seattle, WA, says family rooms sometimes have a separate decor vibe, too. “A family room will likely display family portraits and laid back comfy-cozy accessories like throw blankets and pillows, while a living room might be a room in the home to display an expensive piece of artwork or heirloom.”
Interchangeability and fluidity
Because more and more homes have open floor plans, Monte says the distinction between living rooms and family rooms is becoming less clear. “With open space floor plans taking over, both entertaining spaces have become so interchangeable that the main difference between a family room and a living room really comes down to how one actually plans to live life in their home,” she says.
The living room and family room have their own connotations, but how you design and live in your home is ultimately up to you—the setup and design should serve how you and your family or housemates aspire to live. “Whether it’s with a living room or family room, it’s so important to find spaces that allow your family to live in a way that makes sense for your lifestyle,” says Long.