Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Message Is Your Furniture Sending?

Don't Come In...
Furniture arrangement is a powerful design tool in many ways. Apart from creating a look, the way furniture is placed also conveys a message - whether you intended it or not. For example, when you place the back of a couch facing the door where you enter a room, you've created a barrier, not a welcome. The unintended message is, "Don't come in".

Another way furniture arrangement conveys a message is whether it helps or hinders your ability to have a conversation.  There's a name for each type of furniture arrangement, thanks to British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond (1917-2004), who coined the terms sociopetal and sociofugal.  

Socialfugal Arrangements (discourage conversation)

  • back to back chairs (airport)
  • side by side chairs (doctor's office, movie theater, classrooms)

Sociopetal Arrangements (encourage conversation)

  • rectangular dining room table
  • circular conference table
  • living room conversation area

Conversation, Comfort and Convenience

Table Within Easy Reach
When you're thinking about furniture placement in your living room or family room, keep in mind the goal of social interaction. If you want to encourage conversation, most sofas and chairs should face each other and be no more than eight feet apart. Choosing suitable tables for sofas and chairs, and placing them for comfort and convenience is also important.  Each side table needs to be as tall as the arm of the sofa or chair, or one to two inches lower, and should be positioned beside it for easy reach. Allow 16 to 18 inches between the front of the sofa and a coffee table so there's room to access it and still be able to use the table, which should be no more than 3-4 inches different in height from the seat of the sofa. Sofas and chairs should be placed about 6 to 10 feet apart, depending on the scale of the furniture and the size of the room.  Before you commit, test your furniture placement to be sure that traffic flows smoothly.  Test sofas and chairs to see how easily you can use the tables that go with them.

Mind Your O's, U's, and L's 

When your goal is to create areas for conversation, remember the alphabet. In a dining room or conference room, the friendliest configuration is an "O", a circular table that allows maximum eye contact and interaction, followed by a small rectangle. Size matters. Think about what happens when you add all the leaves to your rectangular dining room table at Thanksgiving. That's why I sometimes like to ask people to change places for each course, or at the very least, for dessert. It also livens things up and makes dining under a fancy chandelier a lot more fun and a lot less stuffy.

The most common furniture arrangement in a living room is the "U" shape, where the open part at the top of the "U" is dedicated to the focal point, such as a fireplace.  "L" shaped sectional furniture can work well too, when supplemented with seats placed across from it. An ottoman, a piece of sectional furniture or a bench without a back, can facilitate conversations in more than one area in a large room by allowing people to sit facing in opposite directions. In larger rooms, it's often desirable to divide the space to have more than one conversation area, as in the example above where a table acts like a low wall and eliminates the view of the backs of the sofas.

Now that you know your furniture has a voice, make sure the way you arrange it sends the right message.

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