Autumn celebrations produce gatherings of friends and family members in home settings. In addition to dining together, activities on the group agenda might include watching televised football games (while cheering, jeering and snacking) or participating in impromptu group sports. Doing these kinds of things together is a bonding experience. Yet for most adults, the most desirable activity is simply visiting.
Reconnecting with those who are dear is a soul-satisfying part of life, especially when some slowing down can be in the mix. This means that perhaps more than at any other time of the year, well-planned conversation areas are of paramount importance in home design and decorating.
The placement of furniture may be the single most important aspect of creating good conversation areas. There are standard clearances generally accepted as measurements of anthropometrics, or the measure of the human body as it relates to its environment.
For example, three feet is considered adequate for walkways, with one and one-half feet as a minimum passage distance between furniture. The exception to this rule is the placement of a coffee table, which is generally most comfortable at slightly over one foot from the seating piece.
Three feet also is required for extending one’s legs out in a stretched position; and from the table to the wall in a dining area where serving takes place behind the seated guest. If no formal serving takes place, then one and one-half feet from table to wall is adequate for getting into and out of dining chairs. Measuring from the center of one dining chair to the center of the next, a good distance is two feet, which gives opportunity to chat while dining without feeling either crowded or estranged.
Furniture is grouped to accomplish specific goals, and conversation is one of the goals well-met through proper arrangements. Here are the standard furniture groupings:
• Solo Grouping is where one person sits and interacts only with the furniture, as in computer work, reading or hand-held work. This grouping consists of a chair/seat, table/desk, lamp and perhaps an ottoman or footstool and other support items such as a basket, box or even bookcase or file drawers.
• Straight Line Grouping is the placement of either anchored or loosely placed seats in a row, seen in theatres, transportation terminals and sometimes in front of televisions at home. It discourages interaction (good for schools and concert etiquette, for example), allowing each person to observe, concentrate, read, relax or be entertained.
• L-shaped Grouping is good to encourage interaction. On a larger scale, it might consist of a sofa on one side of the “L” and two chairs or a loveseat or another sofa on the other. The “L” may consist of one chair and one loveseat or two chairs and a chair-and-a-half, for example, set at right angles to each other.
Generally, the two sides are uneven in length, which tends to appear more balanced, ironically, and more inviting. A small “L” is especially conducive to conversation; either tucked tightly into a corner or placed at a less-than-90-degree angle and turned slightly toward each other. Two chairs in an “L” grouping offer a chance for quiet, intimate conversation without being distracted by other conversations in the room.
• U-shaped Grouping is an extension of the L-shaped grouping, where another side is added in the form of another sofa or loveseat, chair or pair of chairs. The U-shaped grouping is excellent for conversations between four to six or more people and may become a most comfortable space, as traffic flow-through is usually inconvenient so less disruption is likely to occur as the conversation moves through its course.
Often a U-shaped grouping is anchored around a wood/metal/glass or upholstered coffee table and both the L-shaped and U-shaped groupings generally include end tables and lamps, and may include an ottoman or footstool, sometimes shared between two seating pieces in informal settings.
• Box Grouping is a U-shaped grouping with the addition of seating pieces on the fourth side. These may take the form of a pair of ottomans/footstools or two occasional (smaller, lightweight) chairs one on each side to allow access in and out of the grouping. These chairs might also be angled to suggest some flexibility and decrease intimidation about entering the box. In other words, they need to appear friendly if traffic moving in and out of the conversation area is to be encouraged.
A larger chair, such as a wing chair, club chair or chair-and-a-half, also may be used as an angled single piece on one corner; also allowing accessibility yet offering the sense of coziness that the Box grouping can provide.
• Parallel Grouping is achieved by placing seating pieces facing each other. This is a more formal grouping and can be a threatening one—similar to an interview position. Anchoring the two items with a coffee table, especially with some interesting art or accessory items, to soften the arrangement is a wise choice. The Parallel grouping also is good on each side of a focal point such as a fireplace, a wall of art, a magnificent case-piece of furniture, or a beautiful window treatment or window with a view. These give the occupants something to look at and converse about and take the pressure off the conversation when needed.
• Circular Grouping is a very friendly arrangement as there is no “seat of prominence” and all members are able to see one another and to more freely exchange ideas. A round conference or dining room table is an example of this arrangement.
In upholstered seating pieces, there might be some variety in style and upholstery or there may be complete uniformity. The difficulty in this arrangement is usually the feeling of emptiness in the center of the circle (hence, the larger dining or conference table). It is also difficult to place a coffee table close to all pieces. Some office “think tank” rooms may have small end tables between chairs that are wired for a lap-top to be plugged in. This allows for the free exchange of ideas in a non-threatening grouping.
Color is a powerful motivator in encouraging conversation. Warm hues (yellow, orange, red) in all their varieties are more stimulating; people will talk longer and say more intelligent things in rooms that are mentally rousing. These colors also give life and energy to a room. Warm colors tend to blur details rather than emphasizing them. This means the focus can be on people rather than on objects.
Keep in mind that a color can be cool, yet have warm colors mixed into the pattern fabric or mixed right into the dye or the paint. We often refer to these as warm undertoned cool colors. Cool colors often are relaxing, particularly when lighter and duller, or less pure. When complemented with smaller amounts of warm, and even bright hues, cool colors may also prove to be good choices for interiors where small spaces need to visually expand or where seeking refuge from a hot climate is the norm.
Colors with some depth or saturation are often stimulating—even just to get a conversation moving, as well as to stimulate appetites in dining areas. A wall of coral-red has been a popular accent wall in many homes for this purpose.
Keep in mind that colors that are powerful should be appreciated by a wide variety of people and should make people feel comfortable and accepted, not intimidated. For example, fuscia pink and strident yellow-green are off-putting to many people. Choose colors that are easy to live around, and give just enough color without overwhelming the occupants.
Wall coverings also can be a great background for conversation areas—subtle patterns with texture and depth are appealing to many people and are a way to insert color as well as friendly qualities into areas designed for chatting.
LIGHTING AND WINDOW TREATMENTS
Natural light in rooms where people chat needs to be tempered. Begin with window film to cut glare and add shading or screening devices that keep the sunlight at bay while keeping a constant, pleasant light. At night, conversationalists feel and act much more secure if the windows are covered with privacy treatments.
Add balanced lighting to the dusk and nighttime interior. Background lighting accomplishes general or ambient effects. Focal point lighting highlights art or architecture. Task (table lamps for reading, for example) and accent lighting (buffet lamps, for example) establishes mood.
Layering is essential in establishing the right mood for conversations. For intelligent, stimulating, or good-natured bantering conversations, light should be brighter. For more gentle, intimate, or relaxed conversations, turn off the background lighting and use only focal point, task and accent lighting. Make sure the ability to control the light, from carefully selected window treatments to layered artificial lighting, encourages conversation.
Last of all, the accessories in an interior make an impact on conversation. Items that are interesting for their art value or are precious finds brought home from world travels and items with historic or sentimental value all can jump-start a conversation. Some designers like to avoid the generic type of accessories in favor of things that are custom made or unique, including items that have emotional value to the homeowner.
Area rugs often are used to anchor a conversation grouping. They are sometimes considered accessories because they may be changed often, even seasonally. A rug’s darker colors, patterns and textures often create a sense of security and earthiness, a place where the people seated around and on it feel safely gathered in.
And it is autumn, time to gather in those you like and those you love. And it’s time to tell them so. Enjoy the chat.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.