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Emily Henderson

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by Emily Henderson
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A “pass-through room” with lots of doors is a layout nightmare for anyone, including this designer. Welcome to the family room reveal of the Portland Project – otherwise known as the hardest room in this house to design, where we spent HOURS upon HOURS laying out, deciding on scale and location of furniture – until all of a sudden … it worked. This room needed to function as the family hang out room – fine, easy, we know how to do that. The kids can hang out while dinner is being prepped, with the option for a TV (wired above the fireplace but here is hidden by art), and yet it is a pass-through room between the kitchen and the dining room, smack dab in the middle of the house with 3 doors that had the annoying task of ‘swinging’ which takes up even more real estate. Sure we could have turned this into a dining room and boy did we consider it, but then there would be two sitting rooms next to each other (a living room and a family room), which could have worked but we made a choice. And now I’m so glad that we did.

The biggest problem was that the sofa had no obvious place to go. None. In order for someone to watch tv, it obviously needed to face the TV. We even thought about two facing sofas, to create a cozy area and you could lay down facing the TV to watch it. It just wasn’t obvious and it was driving us a little nuts.

Now since we are here to help you learn from our experience, we came up with some very useful tips for designing a pass-through room. This way you won’t have to go through the agony we did.

Find The Right Sofa

Once in the space, we decided that in order to make it a pass-through room and for someone to watch TV it needed to be shoved against the wall. Just floating it would be too close to the TV (as it had to be high to accommodate the indoor-outdoor fireplace which made the TV higher).

My brother even reacted saying, uh, aren’t you NOT supposed to shove a sofa against a wall, and while you aren’t supposed to in big rooms, of course in smaller spaces it’s often only what makes sense and totally works.

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In order for that sofa to make sense against the wall it needed to be deep, cozy and low – it couldn’t be this high backed, shallow, fussy settee – we needed to make sure its purpose was known – to create a seating area, anchored by this flop down-able sofa in which to watch TV. It was the right scale for where we needed it to be and trust me when I say it’s one of the most comfortable sofas in which I’ve ever sat in – yet with low clean lines. EVERYONE loved it (including the buyer). It’s from Lulu and Georgia and I seriously considered it for the mountain house 95 times. The big cozy rug is from Lulu and Georgia as well and it’s the perfect amount of ‘busy’ that hides some dirt while still feeling light and airy. I’m very much considering this one as well for the mountain house.

Ovals Are Your Friend

Ok sure, we’ve figured the sofa problem but then what do we do about the rest of the room? It still needs to be a pass-through and we didn’t want to just have a sofa against a wall, we needed a coffee table and some other chairs to create a seating area. When choosing a coffee table we chose an oval shape for a reason. Hard corners like the evil “rectangle” take up more space, whereas an oval usually provides the same function, but with the ability to go around it, thus creating a better “flow”.

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We did consider a couple different shape options – a cluster of smaller round tables – could be nesting or a round table with a pouf. Ultimately they were no-gos.

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The winner was this Thomas Moser piece and boy is it a beaut. The oval shape was truly perfect. It was long enough to be the right scale with the sofa, but narrow so it allows space to walk and no one is getting bruised by hard corners.

Vary Weight And Texture Of Furniture

This is something specific that I’ve found I have done over and over and over, and works even in non-pass-through rooms. It’ my favorite sofa/chair combo – the upholstered sofa with the more sculptural leather and wood armchairs. These chairs are a great medium scale but are visually light because of the open arms. This really helps make the space feel open and breezy. Now the texture of the leather takes it from basic to more high end and special. The pretty detailing on the wood arms and curved back also help make it special. HOT TIP: Leather/wood + linen and fully upholstered is a winning furniture formula.

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And yes, your chairs can have their backs to the TV. You can still have a conversation area in your TV room and in fact, this is a GREAT way to take the importance away from the TV. The future family of this house has an additional media room so this wasn’t where multiple families were going to watch TV. So it’s ok that those two chairs are faced away from the TV.

Don’t Crowd The Space

Once we had the layout it all came together. You could pass on both sides of the coffee table as well as behind the chairs. That in and of itself is a HOT TIP. Make sure you can walk between your furniture pieces. You will be so happy that you didn’t crowd your room, making it feel like it’s closing in on you.

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I can’t say enough about the ‘see-through’ fireplace. It’s actually an indoor/outdoor fireplace (I stole it for the mountain house and it’s WONDERFUL) – it pumps hot air both ways, which means that you can sit outside in the winter. I will say in order to make it actually warm out there it has to be up really high which is loud, so at the mountain house we have it on pretty low and its perfect for inside and great for more spring/summer nights when it’s chilly but not FREEZING. But the big design win of this piece is that it makes your room feel SO MUCH bigger and open. If you have the ability to add one of these puppies into your home, do it.

Let’s take a second to dive a little deeper into the rest of the fireplace. We used Ann Sacks tile and Metrie moulding to design the fireplace, and we had to limit the mantle in order for a TV to actually fit on top without it being too high. Having that fireplace definitely limited the design as there needed to be 6″ of non-combustible space on each side of the fireplace. But at the same time, we wanted it high enough to actually see out of when you are sitting on a sofa – almost like another window. It was tricky for sure.

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We debated hard about whether or not to put a TV up there to make sure that people knew it was all wired and possible – so they could see their lives (and we would likely put it on a mount that could lean down and angle left and right). But ultimately we had so much art (by MaryAnn Puls and Jennifer Urquhart) that looked so good, so it just seemed painful to me to put a big black TV where we could put art and we didn’t have a budget for The Frame TV, sadly.

Lastly, that fan was everyone’s favorite – my brother wouldn’t stop talking about it so if you are in the market for an attractive ceiling fan, I highly recommend that one.

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There you go. The Portland casual family room reveal (did you see the basement media room?). It ended up being a room that we spent a LOT of time in and loved. It is casual and comfortable, but felt “intentional” and done well. In the above photo, I believe we cheated the chairs in so you could see all of them, but there really was enough space to live, walk and hang in this ever-so-challenging pass-through room.

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A couple quick call outs of things I LOVE – that black vessel from Mantel by Bobbie Specker Ceramics (I bought it actually and had it shipped down), that wood side table by Vince Skelley from The Good Mod is insane. It was $750 otherwise I would have bought it and lastly, that blanket (not available. SO SAD) is one that I have used one million times because it’s just the perfect amount of pattern in a sophisticated way.

If you are interested in the products we used get out the ‘Get the Look’ below:

Emily Henderson Portland Project Reveal Family Room Get The Look

1. Abstract Art by Mia Farrington | 2. Throw Pillow | 3. Pillow Cover | 4. Pillow Cover by Rejuvenation | 5. LED Ceiling Fan by Rejuvenation | 6. French Doors by Milgard | 7. Floor Lamp from Schoolhouse Electric | 8. Sofa | 9. Rug | 10. Coffee Table by Thos. Moser | 11. Wood Sculpture via The Good Mod | 12. End Table from Room and Board | 13. Vessel by Bobbie Specker Ceramics from Mantel | 14. Metal Trays (set of 3) | 15. End Table from Room and Board | 16. Leather Chair from Room and Board | 17. Lumbar Pillow (similar)| 18. Banded Stripe Pillow | 19. Throw Blanket by Rejuvenation | 20. Marble Sculpture | 21. Stone Sphere Object | 22. Abstract Art by MaryAnn Puls | 23. Painting by Jennifer Urquhart | 24. House Painting by Jennifer Urquhart | 25. Crown Moulding by Metrie | 26. Candle Holders via Mantel | 27. Wood Flooring by Hallmark Floors | 28. Indoor/Outdoor Fireplace by Montigo | 29. Window & Door Casing by Metrie | Baseboard by Metrie | 31. Oyster White by Sherwin-Williams | 32. Pure White by Sherwin-Williams | 33. Fireplace Surround by Ann Sacks | 34. Fireplace Hearth by Bedrosian Tile

 

***Photography by Sara Tramp for EHD

Design and styling by Emily Henderson and Brady Tolbert (and team). JP Macy of Sierra Custom Homes was the General Contractor, and Annie Usher and the architect.

***For anyone following along with the Portland Reveals, make sure you didn’t miss out on any:

Living Room | Staircase | Office | Master Bedroom | Master Bathroom | KitchenDining Room | Powder BathroomGuest Bathroom | Hall Bathroom | Laundry Room | Guest Bedrooms | Media Room | Playroom | Secret Room 

  1. Our current living room is a pass-through, and the biggest design headache has been the coffee table. I’ve been agonizing over it. It seems like what I’m looking for doesn’t exist (white oval coffee table that’s not a zillion dollars). I’ve also been looking at side table groupings as mentioned above… perhaps this would make a good styled roundup? 🙂

    1. Oh! That sounds like a great challenge for us, I’ll pass it along to the team. 🙂 xJulie

    2. Sounds so fun! We can definitely consider this for an upcoming roundup. For now, I would recommend checking out Overstock.com. They seem to have some cute and affordable options you may like:)

    3. Hi! There are some good and affordable white oval ones at All Modern: https://www.allmodern.com/furniture/sb1/oval-coffee-tables-c413347-a3722~9649.html

  2. I don’t get why you got so many negative comments on the portland project. This is really cool! Also, love that fireplace

  3. I really want to like this, but something doesn’t meld in this design to me. I think it’s the coffee table with the thin, long wooden legs. A coffee table with a base or one with a heavier design overall would help to come together much better. Otherwise, I love everything else. The Portland House has been my favorite thus far.

  4. it would be cool to know the other layouts that you considered, and why you rejected those options!

    1. Yes, I agree! Because I personally would never want a room between my kitchen and dining room because then I have to carry the food such a long way for every meal. Why didn’t that work?

      1. Agreed! Seems pretty for show, but requires a haul from the kitchen to serve food, refill plates/drinks, bring all the detritus back for cleanup….

        1. agreed, I would only think to add a small table in this room.

      2. Like Em said, they definitely considered making this space a dining room but then there would be two lounge areas (living and family room) right next to each other which she ultimately voted against.

    2. Ditto! A floor plan and the other considered options would be interesting here as I’m also wondering about walking the meals and dishes all the way to the table out there and all the way back to the kitchen.

      Especially as the counter has two stools, and no other eating area I can figure out – so all meals have to be all the way over there. I feel like I’m missing something.

      1. I’m with you on the distance – but it does appear that the island has seating for four – so if a family of four lives here, they could easily eat meals at the island.

  5. Love this room! Great work!!

  6. Can you please do a roundup of oval coffee tables!? And include some smaller scale options. I’m having trouble finding an oval coffee table for my living room!

  7. Those 2 chairs are lovely but, take it from someone who has chairs that face away from the TV, everyone just turns them around toward the TV and they get left in all sorts of places. It’s a bit annoying. I’m actually thinking about getting 2 swivel chairs (if I can find a swivel chair that doesn’t look cheesy). It would be nice for people to just be able to swivel around to watch TV rather than have to move the furniture.

    1. West Elm has some good looking swivel chairs! We have the Lucas ones in leather and everyone loves looking and sitting in them. I don’t think all of west elm’s furniture is great but I love these chairs.

      1. Thanks! I’ll check them out. I also just spotted some at Room & Board.

  8. Love these tips as I am about to begin a narrow pass through living room. Thanks for the post!

  9. We have a pass through living room and this is SO HELPFUL! We are at a loss at how to make it a functional living room but not get in the way of going upstairs. Side note – curious why this room is the living room and the dining room is on the other side when the kitchen is so far away?

    JennBlogsHere.com

    1. Even though she thought of that issue as well, she decided it was better to split up the two lounge areas rather than having them next to each other:)

  10. I am here for each and every post of the Portland house. This is room is quite similar to one in my home and we have handled the challenges in a similar way. There are SO many great ideas for me to borrow in the post, especially the oval coffee table and side table. And, as always, the art makes this room!

  11. I’m intrigued as to why you went with a dark colored fan. I’m in a CA bungalow with no HVAC and our 3 fans need major upgrading. I always thought lighter colors were a better option when it came to fans.
    Thanks for the tips on the oval coffee table. That was really helpful, especially since I have the evil one currently taking up space in my living room. Oh, and the tip on the leather/upholstery blend. Can’t wait to apply them to my home. 😘

  12. We had that ceiling fan at our last house and it was aahmazing. It was so powerful yet super quiet, and beautiful. We are trying Rejuvenation’s Heron fan for our new (1925 Dutch colonial) house, as it seemed more period appropriate, but I would but the peregrine again in a newer home.

  13. Love getting reintroduced to The Portland project with an educational lens. Thank you! I have a pass through dining room that also doesn’t get used much. I’ve been struggling with how to use the space (plants?) without adding clutter. Anyway, this blog has me staring at the hearth and the decision to put grey (soft black?) tile facing up on the base. Genius subtle detail that ties the window framing in without visually chopping the floor to ceiling flow. Feels like that extra professional touch where many would have stayed cream/white and missed an opportunity. Kinda wondering if I would have had the guts to do it.

  14. Thank you for this! We just passed on a house because the *only* living space was like this, and I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how to work it so we wouldn’t always feel like we were on top of each other, lol. I still think there wasn’t enough room there in the long run, but these notes are SUPER helpful in helping me process the next home I run into like this. 🙂 Thanks! Also… that indoor-outdoor fireplace is one of my dream elements! Swoon.

  15. Is there a different link for that black metal end table? It’s showing it’s not from Room and Board but a Canadian website called Structube that doesn’t ship to the US! Would love to buy!

    1. The same/a very similar table is on Wayfair – it’s called the Orwell Tray Table!

      1. You’re amazing, thank you!

  16. I think this is a really smart and beautiful layout! I do agree with another post regarding the two chairs. It’s more likely that they will get moved around to watch tv and it would always be a little awkward. I might have chosen a large sectional with a chaise and two comfy poufs. That would allow people to get comfy watching tv with an unobstructed view, but there would still be places to sit and chat if people were over for wine or something. But overall it looks amazing!!

  17. This is so beautiful and homey, probably my favorite Portland space so far because it doesn’t seem so aspirational and staged. You are SO RIGHT about this sort of sofa/chair combo being a signature for you (and working incredibly well). I want to flop on that sofa and watch the see through fireplace/tv/chat with friends in the squishy looking leather chairs. Love the context of it all next to that green kitchen too, looks so good. I’m realizing part of my love for this space is that green and cognac are much more my own home’s style than your usual white/blue/brass tendencies.

  18. Scrumptious.
    I am not a traditional house style person, but every single room of the Portland house is unbelievably perfect and I would love to live there. Great work, team EHD.

  19. Okay, inquiring minds want to know! You say the home buyer loved the sofa, did they purchase it from you? I’m so curious as to how much of your rooms they picked/bought from you versus how much you returned or moved to other places. If it’s possible to get an update on this, I’d love it! I found it so fascinating when you sold your last LA home what the buyers wanted.

  20. So, maybe a silly question, but I HAVE to ask seeing this photo again – are you sure that the kitchen cabinet color is Sherwin Williams Pewter Green? I know on-screen varies, spaces and lighting different etc. but I got a sample of this paint the other day because I loved the color so much, and it could NOT be more different than your kitchen – but is precisely like the rendering on the Sherwin Williams site – a brownish olive. The color of the Portland kitchen looks like a beautiful, muted green, whereas the sample (which I painted on board so I could move it around), no matter the light, is precisely the SW site’s rendering, which is so, so different than this kitchen. I know you’re just going to say lighting, monitor, whatever, but this is next level. I even showed the store your kitchen photo and they were like, yeah, no, that’s not the same color. It’s just bizarre …

    1. Hi Tracy, yes we promise that the kitchen cabinet color is Sherwin-Williams Pewter Green. Like you said it does vary a bit from home to home with the lighting and since this house has a lot of natural light from the windows/doors and skylights it will change the hue slightly but in person it does have a warm grey kinda brown tone to the green that you are talking about.

    2. Does it look similar to the cabinets painted either of these – SW Pewter Green and SW Retreat? I’m seeing a grayed out green and a grayish with green undertones. But maybe the pictures are just over-edited or blown out?
      https://www.oakhousedesignco.com/2017/09/color-crush-sw-pewter-green.html

  21. Thank you so much for this. It’s insanely helpful! Quick comment–I don’t think that the link for the green lumbar pillow (#4) is correct? Would you mind fixing?

    1. Hi Ally! The link is updated but unfortunately the green color is out of stock at the moment but it comes in three other options which are very pretty, have a great day!

  22. How is the light from the ceiling fan? It looks like it would be a spotlight, not spread the light throughout the room. Obviously, you have can lights so maybe the ceiling fan light won’t even be used but I have had a problem finding a modern looking ceiling fan with a light that can actually light a room.

  23. Did you consider no coffee table? The one you chose is lovely but with side tables galore is it really necessary when they aren’t staged with books? I can’t be the only one so over having this monster in a living room? I eat meals at my kitchen table and only put my popcorn bowl down next to my sofa, is this even a useful piece of furniture anymore? First time commenting but this is the only blog I check everyday and it has been indispensable to me when designing my first house with two young kiddos!

    1. I also wonder about designing with no coffee table! Our’s has 2 functions. 1. Foot Rest. 2. Crap accumulates there (mail, pens, random accessories, etc). I think we might move to a large pouf or ottoman that can be moved around when we aren’t using it as a foot rest.

    2. I thought I was the only coffee-table hater (well, disliker) in the world!

  24. I made a similar choice to place the dining area further from the kitchen, with a small lounge area between. We’re still renovating and people assume the dining table will go right next to the kitchen, for the first few months of the renovation I also thought it would go there, but that space has a few corners/doors/openings that would make the dining space feel cramped, pushed into a corner, and partially blocking kitchen access when people are seated on one side. Once I explored every possible furniture configuration, no matter how unlikely or random, I realized that if I pushed the dining area 12′ over there’d be room for a larger table, more chairs, and a 3′ perimeter on all sides for optimal comfort. So in our case, I prioritized having a larger dining area/more seating over being directly adjacent to the kitchen. This created a more comfortable/spacious/balanced arrangement that is still very practical/livable for us. It’s a fun exercise to imagine a room totally empty and think about all of the possible ways furniture could be arranged. Often this leads to at least one new idea/improvement, even a small detail can change the whole dynamic.

  25. Ugh, this is so frustrating. If having a TV was so important to this room, why are you hiding it?? People watch TV, they have TVs in their homes. I wish we could see more rooms with TVs in the way they are actually used.

    1. It’s not hidden. It’s not there. Another TV wasn’t in their budget.

  26. beatiful!! love it, very calm and fresh, love those leather chairs!!

  27. Please fix this site so that the pictures fit a horizontal laptop and eliminate all the popping, darting movement. It’s just crazy difficult to read or study. I know there have been other complaints over time, but honestly, I’ve just had it and am moving on…

    1. Carol,
      I’m visting via my Macbook Pro and have no problems.

  28. Love the fan! If I didn’t already have a vintage moroccan beaded chandelier, I’d get it for my bedroom. Sadly, the downstairs ceiling really isn’t high enough (in my personal opinion) for a fan.

    I think the most important tips in this post are about the walk through ability of the space. You need to get through a “room” like this without knocking things over or barking your shins. Love the Thomas Moser table!

  29. The entire middle of my house is a double pass through- it’s like a plus sign! This post is helpful, but I’m still pretty sure I should throw my design challenge to you instead! I knew I needed a round or oval coffee table and open armed chairs. Great explanation on the couch though! By the way, I have been wanting those chairs and just looked at them with my 4 year old daughter. She said “if you see one in pink let’s get it!” So I picked Garret Rose in jacquard fabric to show her- oh my gosh is it lovely!

  30. I’m so glad you posted this, I’ve been struggling with our pass through living room for as long as we’ve owned the house. Unfortunately, we don’t have a media room, and there is NO wall to put the sofa against, so we’re stuck trying to make a comfy cozy room good for a young family watching TV, without weighing the room down with furniture that blocks all the pathways. The room has a large entry to the dining room, to the Breakfast nook, an entry from the foyer, and then a doorway that leads to the backyard, as well as a hallway to the bedrooms. It’s a challenge!

  31. hmm.. the thing that is taking my attention is the clash between the different types of furniture legs, the tapered ones of the lounge chairs, the traditional set of the coffee table, and the metal, school lab ones of the island stools

    since this is set up as a pass through, I would leave out the coffee table altogether

    I wouldn’t be against a double parlor, if I had my druthers, ease and comfort would prevail, I’d place the dining room next to the kitchen

  32. Thank you for posting this! It is so helpful to understand your process when laying out a room. Love how it turned out.

  33. For whatever reason, the prevailing view seems to be that your readers don’t love the Portland House but as a long-time daily reader I’ve got to say, I have loved this project from the get-go, and my affection only grows with each reveal! Team Emily, you have once again knocked it out of the park with this room! Yes, it is “aspirational” and not “budget friendly”, but if I’m dreaming, why not dream of the prettiest possible home? Definitely don’t give up on the Portland House concept — I have found it to be great reading in the reno stages and as it evolved, and now it is beautiful eye-candy as it has come to fruition. I’d really love to see more of these projects if you are up for them!

    1. I second this! I have thoroughly enjoyed the Portland House it is lovely!

  34. I’d love to know how to set up a dining room that’s a pass through room. Luckily both doorways are off to one side, but they’re large and arched, and it presents problems. How do you size a rug for that space when what works best for the table & chairs would end smack dab in the middle of the walkway? What do you do when your furniture has to sit off to one side but your overhead fixture is centered? This room might drive me nuts.

  35. I love everything you do Emily! I have always heard not to put sofas against the wall like this, but rather to pull them out a bit to create a feeling of airiness. Do you disagree with this “rule”?

  36. I love the chairs, but wondering what color leather you chose – there are 5 camel-ish colors that this chair is available in. Thanks!

  37. I really never understood the concept of family room (vs living room)… Maybe that’s just not and European thing, at least not a thing here where I’m from… But, I mean, what would you do with two living areas?? Do you hang out at the family room and have the living room just for the guests?

  38. Hi, I don’t know if anyone is even going to see this, but I’ve been having an issue with the auto-play videos on your site. The sound often plays for the ads even though the video indicates the sound is on mute. It usually startles me and I instinctively click on the pause button to shut it up, but the click sends me to the site for the product being advertised. Sometimes I just don’t bother to click back to your site. I don’t use an ad-blocker because I know ads are one way that bloggers make money. But this is annoying. I don’t seem to be experiencing this on other sites, but then again I don’t follow many that have these autoplay videos that jump around and such.

  39. Omg, this post is amazing! I have a pass through living room and the design combinations literllay wake me at night. I think you nailed it with that comfy, inviting sofa! It sets the tone for the whole space which is incredibly styled. This was so well written and informative. You gave me hope that I can make this work. Thank you!

  40. This is one of my favorite Portland house posts. That sofa is divine! At some point, will you address how to select a sofa online? Without the ability to test out options in person, I’m hesitant to commit. Instead, I stare at my current sofa with disdain and don’t do anything about it.

  41. This is one of my favorite Portland house posts. That sofa is divine! (I should have sat on it at the party. Alas….) At some point, will you address how to select a sofa online? Without the ability to test out options in person, I’m hesitant to commit. Instead, I stare at my current sofa with disdain and don’t do anything about it.

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