What does multi-generational living mean? By definition, it refers to several generations of a family living in or on the same property while sharing responsibilities such as cooking, bills, tending to children, and other household responsibilities.
As someone who comes from a very small family (ahem, only child here), I’ve always romanticized being surrounded by a large family and often envied families who have a strong family dynamic. Our next-door neighbors being one of them. After years of friendship and a giant multi-household water fight one summer that included everyone running through each other’s homes, ducking and dodging water balloons, we’ve formed a beautiful bond and a beautiful mess. Some of you have probably seen our neighbor’s children on my Instagram feed because they have become our extended family and it’s been a joy to watch them grow from the babies they were when we first met them. Our neighbors immigrated from Ethiopia with their children (now adults) and now also include their grandchildren (first generation). Their household consists of Mom and Dad (or aka Grandma and Grandpa), their daughter, whom we’ll call “H” here, her husband and their two children, H’s sister, as well as their Aunt and Uncle with their children).
After the pandemic, I was so ready to get out of my own four walls and work on a creative project but one that felt sentimental to me too. That’s when my neighbor “H” and I were chatting about their own home and how SHE was ready for a change. Simultaneously, Slumberland Furniture also reached out to me to work together and the timing couldn’t have been more aligned! I’ve worked with Slumberland Furniture before on a couple of projects, I love that they’re a family-owned business, and thought to myself this would be a perfect collaboration since this project is all about family.
“H” was ready, like so many of us, to freshen up their home after over a year of isolation and was looking ways to modernize their living space. My challenge? How to create a comfortable and beautiful space for everyone while also remaining functional for their large family needs and also not just tossing out Mom and Dad’s existing pieces.
Here’s what the space looked like before we got started:
Even sans a 13-year-old birthday party filled with balloons, the space felt crowded and the large rolled arm furniture didn’t allow for the best furniture placement and flow. So I began by putting together a mood board to envision how we could make the most of this shared space.
When I spoke with “H”, she shared her main priority was to figure out a better seating arrangement. After measuring, together we selected a sectional sofa for its comfortability for Dad (aka Grandpa) and also for large family gatherings and lounging. It instantly brightened the space and created a solid dimension and flow. We also selected a rug because their previous rug was really tiny and “H” felt it was important to bring in a fresh color. Oftentimes, family or the kids are playing on the floor so we really wanted the rug to feel comfortable as well. I really love how it added some blues and terracotta colors to this room. Designing a space with multiple people and generations in mind as the primary focus also meant that Mom (aka Grandma) needed to feel like it was still their home and not just a space we flipped upside down on her. Bringing in her love of warm wood tones helped create their aesthetic balance and when Mom first saw the pieces coming together she fell in love so my heart was truly full.
Side note: This coffee table was also selected for easy maneuverability when larger floor space is needed, as you’ll see later.
Having a large-scale TV in the space was also important but to keep it from feeling like it was the focus on this wall and floating aimlessly, we selected this media cabinet that would pull double duty – it provides surface space, anchors the TV from “floating away”, conceals tech and kids toys/games while also keeping the warm wood tones that Mom loves so much. This media cabinet worked great since the TV above it was so large, the length was the right proportion and its modern scale also didn’t take up too much real estate. Previously the only light source in this room was the canned lighting in the ceiling so popping in a brass floor lamp just felt right for not only some visual height in the corner but also some nice reading light in the evening. The curtains were custom made in Ethiopia and they are GORGEOUS, previously hung a little too low on the window (a common design mistake but one that is easy to fix) “H” installed a track on the ceiling as a great way to raise them right up to the ceiling.
For styling, I kept pieces more minimal here but I have no doubt this shelf will hold many lovely botanicals in the future. I also love that it added a focal point to this wall (where there wasn’t any previously). It also adds functionality and a display space for H’s growing plants and artisan-made home goods from Ethiopia like this woven basket.
While onsite installing/styling and shooting their home, Auntie “Z” offered us their traditional coffee, and let’s just say this was not out of a Keurig. Later informed by “H” that it is customary to offer coffee, tea, fruit, or homemade bread to guests in their home. Ethiopia is also known for its spectacular coffees and Auntie “Z” was ready to share with us the traditional way of making Ethiopian coffee.
You start with roasting the beans on the stove over a flame, which creates a little bit of smoke. Once fully roasted or close to being done she will walk around the room to the guests or people sitting around the room waiting for the coffee and splash just a little bit of water in the pan to create a lot more smoke. This is done so that people can enjoy the aroma of the coffee, she will even waft it towards guests to really get a good experience and it shows appreciation for the person making the coffee. The beans are roasted at different levels which can really dictate the taste.
The beans are then ground and put with water into a coffee pot known as a Jebena and boiled over a low flame.
Once settled, the pourer (there is only one) will start prepping people’s coffee, milk, sugar, and sometimes a fresh Rue (herb) as a garnish in the coffee.
Only one person pours and you do not touch or pour that person’s coffee.
What I loved most about this tradition is not just the experience they shared but that this is used as a form of what is referred to now as “self-care”. A moment to relax and continue to become a community or a tighter family unit. Family and community are very important in the Ethiopian culture and although everyday lives are busy, ensuring this tradition of connecting remains a top priority on the weekend. I loved that. Maybe that’s what we all need in our lives, prioritizing building family and community bonds. There’s a lot to be said about this in today’s world and much to be learned, I think.
So how do you design a living room for multi-generational living? I truly don’t have a definitive answer to that question because every family structure is unique. The best answer I can give is to prioritize shared space that each family member can enjoy individually and together. Thinking back on my own family and the financial struggles and stresses of balancing work with babies/children I would have LOVED having the support of a multi-generational household. There are so many positives to this family dynamic that I am surprised it hasn’t become more of the norm here in America. (I see you, rising costs and inflation). Maybe it should be? Unintentionally, I’ve been communicating (fine, maybe drilling into their heads) this sentiment to my own two children, now young adults (23 and 24), and how I don’t ever want them to leave. I want them to bring their families to live here in our home and allow me to help raise children should they choose to have any. Anyone who knows me knows I’m in no hurry whatsoever to be an “empty nester”. In fact to me, that sounds quite depressing. What is the point of having a beautiful home with no one to share it with or to enjoy and live in it? To create those beautiful messes that (speaking from my 40-something-year-old self) disappear in the blink of an eye.
I cannot thank “H” and family enough for allowing us into their home and sharing such a beautiful tradition with us. And also a huge thank you to Slumberland Furniture for helping us create a beautiful living room fit for multi-generational living and for supporting our story.
*Design by Lea Johnson of Creekwood Hill
**Photos by Sage E Imagery