During the American Colonial years, the 17th and 18th centuries, families spent a great deal of time together during the day and in the evenings in a part of the home known then as the keeping room. It was a descendent of the great hall of medieval Europe where a large open space held the cooking fire, dining tables, seating for conversation, and ample space for jostling and entertainment.
In America, the keeping room also held a cooking fire, but in a fireplace complete with spit and warming oven; tables and seating for dining, study and domestic chores; the rudimentary kitchen; and often a spinning wheel or loom, butter churn or other service items used for providing for the family or for earning a living. It was not uncommon for a bed to be placed in the corner, on occasion occupied by an ailing family member or someone wanting to sleep in the warmest part of the home.
However, as affluence was realized in the years following, these functions were housed in separate rooms: the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the den or office, and separated bedrooms. This pattern of single-function rooms was the norm through the 19th and 20th centuries, with the exception being perhaps the county farm kitchen, which functioned much like the Colonial keeping room.
During the mid-20th century the family room appeared on the scene, first in the basement as a rec (recreation) room, then on the main floor as part den, part living room. The family room was a child and family friendly environment where families could be together to visit, be entertained by media, play board games, dance or goof around. But the family room was only a part of the solution. Today we have seen the family room evolve into a full-fledge media/entertainment room, great for occasions, but not necessarily practical for everyday living.
It has become clear that the heart of the home today still is the kitchen, and it appears that Americans have decided more than cooking, dining and clean-up needs are to take place there.
In the past few decades, lifestyles have become increasingly complicated and compressed. Two-career couples, children with varied extracurricular interests, communication devices that put us within anyone's reach anytime, and harried travel conditions can result in a demanding and frustrating lifestyle. In today's home, something had to be done to meet these demands, simplify routines, rejoin and renew family ties, and bring peace back into our lives. After going our separate ways from dawn to dusk, today's family now yearns to spend more time together, in the same room, finding comfort in performing separate tasks or pursuing separate interests but doing them together. This is a similar scenario to the farm family whose members each had small chores, perhaps leisure pursuits, and did them in each other's company in the keeping room or farm kitchen.
The first ingenious step in solving the dilemma was to tear down the wall between the kitchen and the family room. This resulted in the great room, and the recipe went as follows: take kitchen and add island or eating bar, informal dining, family room with seating, television and stereo and perhaps a fireplace.
A good solution, but somewhat rigid. Since its inception, the great room often included a computer, and some brave souls are de-emphasizing the television in favor of more intimate conversation areas or additional areas for studying, crafts, sewing or other hobbies.
Some of these new great rooms much more closely resemble the Colonial keeping room where family, rather than entertainment, is emphasized in the furnishing selections and their arrangements. Sofas that are durable yet comfortable can double as day beds for the ailing, or as a comfortable place to nap between home office or homework sessions.
Looking to the Future
What of the future? The trend is toward the enhancement of this large room, and the room even may be referred to as the us room or the gathering room. The family decides what activities take place here, and what is included. Perhaps the television will be center stage. Perhaps it will be just a small television found behind cabinet doors that are opened for catching the news or keeping the small tikes up with the latest on "Sesame Street."
The great room, the gathering room, the keeping room, the us room is a space that focuses on functions-conversation, domestic or professional tasks, study and leisure. It may include walls of cabinets that hold supplies for hobbies; it may have a hydroponic garden in one corner; it may have lots of counter or table space and rolling office chairs for projects. It will have good lighting that is adjustable for the task at hand from cuddling up in a cozy reading chair with a child to working on a large sprawling assignment, sewing, handicrafts, tying flies for fishing, working on paper collages, college homework and creating a document or graphic on the computer. Flexibility and function will be the keys.
The computer emphasis will gain momentum, eventually perhaps an entire wall of computer stations with ample work space, even an L- or U- shaped work station. Additional equipment that is finding or will find its way into the great room includes a photocopier, scanner, fax machine, enhanced telephone system, intercom system and home automation controls such as heating, air conditioning, video monitoring and so on.
However, the day may soon come where too many computers, like too much television, is unappealing. There may be a desire for a high-tech/low-tech interior: conveniences afforded by technology, but only those that are deemed really necessary. Some will feel the more automated the interior, the more costly it becomes to run, maintain and fix in case of breakdown and therefore is environmentally irresponsible. There still is appeal in opening a window for fresh air, and opening window treatments for natural light.
Another consideration is that many women who lived through or watched their mothers struggle through the feminist movement have decided that having it all really means doing it all (chronic exhaustion!) and that the high-profile paycheck simply isn't worth sacrificing family, health and peace of mind.
Many bright and capable women have chosen to forego career completely or to scale back career via telecommuting or lower paying part-time work in order to put more time and energy into the role of mother and/or spouse. They are deciding that creating a loving and supportive environment for family should be the top priority and ultimately more important than the status achieved with higher pay or sacrificing their lives and family on the corporate alter.
These newer attitudes have a hand in creating personalized family spaces. These women, and those men who are mancipated-emotionally, physically and spiritually involved with their families- want spaces where their families can be most comfortable and productive and where they can bond and support one another amidst a crazy world that often devalues family.
Other Family Spaces
Other spaces are becoming key players in bringing family back together. One is the media room, often complete with board and electronic games, pool or ping-pong. Front and center is usually the big screen television with surround sound and lots of comfortable seating. Window treatments should be able to darken the room as much as possible. These rooms also may feature a kitchenette or bar for refreshments, and may have a patio, deck or access to yard or pool.
The sport court-indoor or outdoor-is another family space. From indoor racquetball to outdoor tennis, more home owners are completing their personalized spaces with fun places to exercise. The exercise room, as opposed to the local gym, is a costly but convenient way to exercise. Great decorating and good equipment can go hand-in-hand here.
The hot tub area is being touted as a great way for the family to relax together. Certainly this activity would be more appropriate once the children are at least adolescents. Some indoor spas are popping up as an extension of family space or just off the master bedroom. And, of course, the hot tub set in a beautifully landscaped yard becomes an outdoor room, appealing to young and old alike. Proponents say it is a place where unwinding and visiting become pleasant ways of family togetherness.
Decorating Family Spaces
So how does all this affect decorating decisions? Some confusion is apparent: Do we decorate with a theme throughout the area? Is it possible to combine beauty, function and durability? The answer to the first question is: Perhaps, but don't let a theme rule every decorating decision. To the second, the answer is a resounding yes. Beauty, function and durability can coexist. Here are some guidelines:
1. Select a theme that is flexible. If the theme is gardening, for example, then the upholstery, some artwork, window treatments and table accessories might carry out this theme. The computer station, the bookshelves and the appliances certainly don't have to sport any gardening motifs if it becomes silly, cumbersome or interferes with practicality.
2. Link the areas together with color. Starting with the floor, connect the areas within the space-perhaps hardwood or laminate wood floor with area rugs or with careful coordination of installed carpeting and hard surface materials. Also consider keeping the permanent floor choices neutral for more decorating flexibility over the years to come. Choose good quality that will endure high traffic and look good over time.
3. More touchable and durable materials are definitely the trend for rooms where families congregate. Choose upholstery that can be cleaned up with soap and water, not only solvents. Medium to dark value colors with complex patterns usually hide spots or stains that are inevitable from the youngest family members. Consider leather, and look for protected leather, which has a finish coat that resists staining. Leather is the most durable of all upholstery and also one of the most handsome. Check the durability of the fabric by judging its weight-lightweight and medium weight fabrics will not be as long-lived as heavyweight fabrics.
4. Select window treatments that resist soiling, such as those treated to repel dust and either can be sponged clean, vacuumed or sonic cleaned when little hands mark them up. And always see that all window treatment cords are well out of reach for child safety. Look for break-away controls that will help prevent strangling. Valances are a great idea, and lighter, brighter colors can lend a cheerful, optimistic touch.
5. Remember, light colors show more soil and dark colors show dirt or debris. A mid-range color scheme in neutralized hues will likely be the most practical. Consider the psychological effect: warm versus cool colors, bright versus dull, light versus dark. Balance the values if possible, some light, some medium, some dark hues.
6. Consider slipcovers that can be laundered. Some upholstery pieces come with this option. Check on the precise washing and drying instructions, first.
Encourage your customers to make a list of things they want in their family spaces, then work with them to achieve the look, the personality and the practicality that will make their space really work for them.
The best houses are those that make their owners and occupants feel contented and secure, where love can abound and where discord is minimized because the interior decor is pleasing. Respond to their preferences and work with their prized possessions as a basis for a theme. Fitting lifestyle harmoniously with interior design is a challenge, but the rewards will be well worth the effort.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.