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Design Agony: A Tricky Living Room Layout, Useless Alcoves & Color Balance Problems

We are back for another round of Design Agony. Needless to say, we have been getting a ton of pleading requests because designing can be hard (check Em’s Instastory highlight for more). And in an effort to help ease the stress and idea that “there is no answer,” we are here to help…with at least one answer. Today, we have three never-before-seen agonies: two that are product/styling based and one that is yet another layout conundrum. Furniture layouts can truly be the hardest, so we will likely always have one agony that addresses it because we GET how stressful it is. With that said, let’s get the weekend off to a happy start by chasing these agonies away.

Agony: How to Balance A Bold Color In An Open Plan Space

Our first agony comes from Ray who decided to go for it when he bought these awesome forest green velvet dining chairs (pictured below). How could he not, right? The only issue is that the rest of his living/dining room is totally neutral and adding in these bold beauties made the rest of the space feel visually off-balance.

Dining Chairs

Here are the photos that Ray sent me of his space. Lovely but could definitely use some green sprinkled around the other side of the room to make the two spaces talk a bit more to each other. The other issue is that his space is already so nicely decorated that spending a ton of money on anything new is not what he wants to do. Very understandable.

Design Agony Ray Side By Side

So I searched the internet for all things forest green, conferred with the design team and came up with these four items that he could easily pop into his living room. We think that taking away two of the larger pillows on the sofa (the dark patterned one and the solid gray one) and replacing it with the green jacquard pillow and velvet lumbar pillow is the way to go. This way we have our green accents, are tying in the velvet and the size/shapes of the pillows are more varied. The tassel pillow could replace the tan and faux fur pillow on the accent chair closest to the fireplace with it. Then for the final touch, Ray can switch out that tan box on the ottoman for the green marble box. It will create greater contrast and adds in a different texture.

Emily Henderson Design Agony Ray Green Accessories

1. Jacquard-weave Cushion Cover | 2. Cushion Cover with Tassels | 3. Oversized Forest Green Velvet Lumbar Pillow | 4. Marble Vanity Box

Ray could also play with a lighter gray-green tone if he didn’t want to go all-in forest green. Playing around is key once the products are in the space. But when dealing with a bold color like this, the idea is just to pepper it into a neutral space (aka not go overboard) and make sure that the rooms feel balanced to the eye.

Agony: Rectangle Living Room Layout

Here we have another rectangle shaped living room brought to us by Ashley. She and her partner just moved into their “grown-up house” and need help with this room. “How would one lay this room out?” she asked. Well here is our recommendation…

Emily Henderson Ashley 4x4

The chairs are probably going to need to be relocated into a different room because the design team recommends pulling the sofa forward and all the way to the left wall (looking towards the back wall) so it sits in front of the doorway and centers with the fireplace (Ashely said that black cabinet is temporary so don’t worry about crowding). Then depending on the remaining space, one of the chairs might be able to fit in the corner, with a side table, where the sofa currently is for a separate reading nook. But a large plant in the corner would look equally as great. Also, if/when you are in the market for a new sofa, consider one that is a little slimmer in its profile and has more space between the floor and the bottom of the sofa. It will help make the room feel lighter.

HOT TIP: Don’t feel like your sofa always NEEDS to be pressed up against a wall. In fact, if you find that you actually have an opportunity to “float” your sofa in the center of a room, it could really help to fix most of your layout problems if you’re dealing with a long narrow space. It opens up other areas that you can assign another purpose to (reading corner, closed storage, small work space) without things feeling cluttered or ever wall being full.

Ehd X Sixpenny Lores31
Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | From: In Defense of the Comfy Sectional—A Friend’s Almost-Finished Family Room

Bonus Round: Ashley also asked about what to do with the large empty walls in the space. We touched on this topic in the last post but on the wall next to the fireplace, a nice large diptych or triptych would look great and then potentially on the back wall some kind of slender shelving or a large art ledge. You just want to make sure the two walls don’t compete for attention and don’t be afraid of some negative space.

Agony: The Useless Alcove

So. Many. Homes. Have. Random. Alcoves. Why? Not sure, but when Jenalyn asked for help styling her alcove, I knew this could be relatable to (hopefully) many people.

Emily Henderson Design Agony Alcove Beofre

The main goal here is to create quiet visual interest. You don’t want too much going on up there that it makes you feel overwhelmed. A neutral color palette here is key unless the style of your home requires otherwise. Okay, now that that’s covered, let’s get into our two suggestions for Jenalyn.

Emily Henderson Design Agony Alcove Inspo 1
Photo and Ceramics By Luke Eastop

The first suggestion is to use all neutral/tonal pottery that look similar to each other such as in the photos above by ceramicist Luke Eastop. You just want to make sure that the pieces differ in size and shape so that it looks interesting and intentional (not like you were just storing them up there until you found a better purpose). Also, make sure to factor in the scale of the alcove. Anything too tiny or too large will look off.

Jesskitchen041 1670x2088
Photo By Sara Ligorria-Tramp | from: Jess’ Moto: You Have To See How She Hacked Her Kitchen With Diys

The second suggestion is similar to the first but has a more eclectic feel like how I arranged my open shelving in my kitchen. Pick a very simple color palette (for Jenalyn we would stay more neutral) and then play with all sorts of vessels. Bowls, baskets, vases, pitchers, etc. Just make sure they aren’t too crowded and have room to breathe. Remember to vary scale, height, shape and material. Below, I have rounded up a bunch of beautiful vessels in various budgets to help to inspire Jenalyn to tackle her agony.

Emily Henderson Design Agony Alcove Roundup

1. Eva Tall Jug | 2. Beechwood Bowl | 3. Rimini Ivory Basket Planter | 4. Celia White Vase | 5. Audrey Small Low Round Glass Vase | 6. Slim Glass Vase | 7. Judy Jackson Tiny Stoneware Bottles | 8. Livsverk | 9. Audrey Tall Oval Glass Vase | 10. Matte Porcelain Vase | 11. Chunky Seagrass Woven Serving Bowl | 12. Shape Studies Vase | 13. Lyle Round Vase | 14. Cylinder Vase Bowl (set of 3) | 15. Narrow Seagrass Vase

Agonies be gone! And again hopefully, some of you have found some answers or inspiration for your burning design questions. This was not the first and won’t be the last so stay tuned for our next round of agony squashing.

If you have any design agonies of your own, feel free to DM Em on Instagram (be sure to write DESIGN AGONY in the prompt so it stands out) and check out the Design Agony highlight on her profile to see what we’ve covered already. For an issue you’re having that might be a deeper dive, be sure to email us at

Love you, mean it.

Want more Design Agony? We have them…well, the answers to them! Click through for more useful solutions:


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Alex E.
4 years ago

Good morning! Love this series. My design agony is that we live in an old ranch home with no foyer to speak of. Our front door butts up within a few inches of our wall, and there is a very small section of wall on the other side of the door. We have no mud room, so shoes, coats, mail, etc all ends up at the front door. I can’t figure out how to make the space both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

4 years ago
Reply to  Alex E.


4 years ago
Reply to  Alex E.

Can you do something like Jenny Komenda did at the Evergreen house living/dining room? Shelving on one side with a bench behind the sofa? comment image

4 years ago
Reply to  Kd
4 years ago
Reply to  Alex E.

If you haven’t checked these sources out already, I feel like this is covered a lot on Apartment Therapy as well as The Organized Home.

Loveley of
4 years ago
Reply to  Alex E.

hi alex,
i have a small ranch where you walk in the front door and you’re in the living room. we have the teeniest 50s coat closet by the door. that’s it. we have kids and live in the midwest, meaning we need an entryway that can handle coats, boots, shoes, backpacks, a place to take off/put on shoes, a place for mail/other crap. maybe you can use the wall you first see by the door and turn that into an faux entry way? That’s what we did. You can see that here:

And our couch is directly across from the bench, facing the opposite wall where our fireplace is. and we have a credenza right behind the couch, facing the entryway bench. It has divided the living room into a cozy living room and an entryway. it works great.

4 years ago
Reply to  Alex E.

THIS! (I’ve scoured the internet, I know other sites have addressed it, but not in a satisfactory way in my opinion.)

Monique Wright Interior Design
4 years ago
Reply to  Alex E.

Do you have someone locally that could do some sort of built-in coat rack situation? Or you could DIY? We have an awkward space by our front door and installed some wall panels, small bench and hooks to suit the space since there was nothing available on the market for the weird size. A few hooks can make a world of difference!

4 years ago

Its great really! I have a open floor plan layout in my condo. Problem – two focal points.. Well, kind of three. Looking out the sliding glass doors, I have a beautiful view of the river/marina. To the right, I have a built in unit with sliding barn doors, hiding the TV. To the left, a fire place. Room not extremely large but adequate. I have a long crate and barrel couch facing into the room on the ocean side(in front of sliders). Opposite that, I have two club chairs in navy blue, a round glass table in the middle. My issue is that the chairs don’t really provide the comfort to sit and watch tv in while my husband takes he entire couch up!! Also I feel as if I don’t have enough seating when we have friends over. Every one is on the couch!

4 years ago

Small living rooms with no entryway! I have a cabinet for shoes but what to do with jackets? How to keep the whole space from feeling like a giant hallway or closet? You walk right in through the front door and there’s nowhere to go but THROUGH the small living room (couch, chair, TV on a “fauxdenza”) to get to the rest of the house. Please, please, please!!!! Especially now that I have two little kids, this is the one space that continues to stump me.

Loveley of
4 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

i have a small ranch where you walk in the front door and you’re in the living room. we have the teeniest 50s coat closet by the door. that’s it. we have kids and live in the midwest, meaning we need an entryway that can handle coats, boots, shoes, backpacks, a place to take off/put on shoes, a place for mail/other crap. maybe you can use the wall you first see by the door and turn that into an faux entry way? That’s what we did. You can see that here:

And our couch is directly across from the bench, facing the opposite wall where our fireplace is. and we have a credenza right behind the couch, facing the entryway bench. It has divided the living room into a cozy living room and an entryway. it works great.

4 years ago

Has anyone come across any good inspiration for basement makeovers of laundry rooms/gyms/tool rooms? There are plenty where people created a finished room like a family room, but I’m looking more for inspiration on how to improve a space without turning it into a completely finished area.

This is what I’ve come across so far:

Catherine (Beginning in the Middle)
4 years ago
Reply to  milo

Thank you for sharing ours – flatterered!

Francisca Paiva
4 years ago

Hi Em,

I’m designing a home from absolute scratch, and although sometimes I feel super enthusiastic about, well, erm, all of the possibilities, the endlessness of these can also overwhelm me.
My current dilemma is how to make a custom bookshelf-slash-media-console-slash-beautiful-display-shelf on a wall which has a skylight.

So… awkward bookshelf settings, anyone?

4 years ago

I know the bookcase/storage unit from the controversial overstuffed couch post (aren’t people lovely) was custom made, but it is what I would love for my open wall in my living room. Any details on who did it, or how someone goes about getting custom furniture made? I want the design specs and also for Emily to come on over and fill it up with treasures.

4 years ago

Hi Emily and team , my design agony is a wall behind my corner kitchen nook, on one side I have a window and the other wall is too blah. I have a round tulip table and white corner bench with greige cushions. The wall used to be navy blue but now I painted it Balboa mist and hate it. Please help me!!! Thank you!

4 years ago

I love these posts! Keep ’em coming!

4 years ago

My unsolicited advice for Ray is to do what Jess here recommends, but also bridge the dark green to the neutrals with something, like .a throw blanket or artwork, that contains dark green, light neutrals, AND another color (rose, lavender, light blue, peach, navy, mustard… something else!).

And my one tip for the high alcove is to consider breaking up whatever you do up there with a faux plant that trails down (maybe a succulent).

4 years ago

I have a Long rectangular living room but when it was extended part of the original wall was left either side In the middle which makes it hard to unite the space.

At one end we have a wood burner, velvet green sofas and a nice rug and coffee table – it works.

But at the other end there are Crittall doorS across the back wall, a piano on one side but not a clue what to do on the other blank wall! To make it worse there is a radiator there… it looks like a lost, forgotten space… any ideas?

4 years ago

My design agony is that I have a living room that has no floor outlets for lighting and also two entryways (one from the kitchen and one from the study) consequently there is no way for me to achieve balance with the lighting on either side of the couch. Cords across the floor will either be tripped on or ugly. A side table on one side of the couch will block the entryway into the living room from the kitchen. I have a couch along the longer side of the room and a love seat perpendicular. In the corner is a round table with a table lamp. I am not sure what to do about lighting on the other side of the couch?

4 years ago
Reply to  Maggie

Would a pendant work? If you can’t plug one in, perhaps you could hack it. Check out @nestingwithgrace on ig. She has a sconce hack using puck lights when you aren’t able to wire or plug in a fixture.

4 years ago

My entry drives me nuts! One long skinny hallway with a pony wall at the end, looking out some French doors beyond. It sort of looks like I’m staring into a refrigerator lightbulb. What to do? Any help would be so appreciated.

Paula Carr
4 years ago

We had started with our sofa against one wall, because our townhouse living room/dining space was long and narrow. But floating it in the room parallel to the long wall actually makes it seem like we have a bigger room! It’s a weird kind of optical illusion.

All these spaces just seem so drab and colorless to me, though I know that’s not their design dilemmas, but why does everyone hate color?

4 years ago
Reply to  Paula Carr

Hi Paula! Variety is the spice of life and all that. While some feel joy with color in their home, others might feel joy in neutrals – it’s okay! I guessed this was your comment before seeing your name and I don’t know you at all except through comments on this blog – that’s how often you’ve commented on others’ disdain for color, which I find kind of comical. But also I just really want to say – let them be happy with lack of color. It’s all good – just different and it’s OKAY!

4 years ago

Dreams do come true!! I have a long living/dining room room that is only open to the kitchen from the dining room. A large fireplace centers the living room with vaulted ceiling. Help! How would you suggest a layout? I’d love to avoid mounting the tv over the fireplace! ?

4 years ago

My agony is a small office that is 12 x 10 that needs to function for 2 people and as extra sleeping for occasional guests. The door opens into the space in the right corner on the long wall and the other long wall is a bank of windows. How can I fit all these needs and make it comfortable and not cramped for guests.

Sarah N
4 years ago

I would love some advice on area rugs that work over wall to wall carpet! I’m a renter, and while our carpet is not a hideous color, it is very cheap and is no match for a three year old.

Karin Williams
4 years ago
Reply to  Sarah N

How does one submit a design agony?? My living room has one solid wall due to a center hall staircase that divides the livng and dining area. Placement is the the main concern as we use this space to watch television and scale is critical. It’s time to buy new furniture and I am completely stumped as to how to approach this one. Thanks in advance for any good council!

4 years ago

I have been agonizing for years over how to decorate my living room/dining room. I keep moving things around but it never feels right. I live in a small 80 year old ranch with no foyer (the door opens right into the living room) and a living room that is a pass-through to the dining room. There is also a weird corner and a hallway entrance on one wall which just makes it so hard. We don’t have a TV, so no reason to face all the seating at one wall, but having the living room be a pass-through as well as having the hallway entry on one wall makes it really hard to float chairs or make the space into a nice conversation area. It just ends up feeling cluttered and difficult to maneuver through. I have moved stuff around so much but nothing ever works and I’m just stumped!