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The Living Room Rules You Should Know


Photo by Sara Tramp for EHD

It’s pop-quiz time, how many of you are currently sitting in your living room, looking around at things and wondering why something feels off but you can’t totally put your finger on it? If you have to take a second to think about it then this post is for you. And if you are confident that you’ve got everything all together in your living room then this is a good quiz for you to take to see how your living room measures up to “EHD’s Living Room Rules”. Think of these as the 10 Commandments of arranging furniture in your living room although technically there are 22 rules. However unlike said commandments sometimes design rules can be broken and things can still look good. We get it, it’s confusing, but we pulled these together to act more as guidelines to follow more so than rules. All of these “rules” below should help you answer the basic questions that we get asked every day like, “how tall should my coffee table be in comparison to my couch” or “how big should my rug be if my living room is blank big” or maybe “where should I hang my TV”?

In case you need more design rules, check out: Bedroom Design Rules | Dining Room Rules

Today we are talking living room layout, planning rules and all the basics so that you and your living room feel pulled together.

Furniture Placement:

Brady Tolbert Design Emily Henderson Living Room Eclectic Pavillion Grey Farrow And Ball Brass Coffee Table English Roll Arm Albini Masculine Traditional West Elm Souk Flokati Leather 41
Photo by Zeke Ruelas for EHD

RULE: Give 30″ to 36″ of a walkway between large furniture pieces (if your living room allows for it) if not then at least 18″-24″.

This rule specifically pertains to the large pieces of furniture in your space and is here to help you avoid overcrowding your living room with too many large pieces which will have you and your guests trying to squeeze between pieces. There’s a lot of pretty furniture out there but when designing a room you want to make sure have enough space to walk around it. Bruised shins are a bummer as is having your space feel too crammed with stuff and having to shimmy in between a sofa and another large chair. If your room is on the smaller size then opt for pieces that are more small scale which will give you the negative space you (and your shins) need.

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Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: Make sure there is no less than 3.5′ and no more than 10′ of space between seating.

This rule helps you to space out your seating for maximum enjoyment. We’ve all been on that awkward date where said date leans in WAY too close to ask you questions and talk to you during dinner. It’s an invasion of privacy and just too close for comfort. So it goes with your living room layout. This general rule helps make sure you aren’t too cramped or have so much space that you end up shouting to the person across from you.


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Photo by David Tsay for EHD

RULE: If possible sofas should never be flush to a wall. Pull it out 3-5″ and give it some breathing room.

While this rule can be tough when you have a small space and you need to make every inch count and it may sound contrary, it does help the room feel less crammed together if you can spare a few inches to get your sofa off of the wall.

Coffee Table:

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Photo by Bethany Nauert for EHD

RULE: Your coffee table should be at least half the length of your sofa.

Scale is key in making any space cohesive. Making sure your coffee table is at least half of the size of your sofa will ensure that the two pieces look great and belong together.

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Photo by Ryan Liebe for EHD

RULE: Your coffee table should be no more than 4″ higher or shorter than the top of your sofa seat cushions.

To avoid the awkward visual of having your coffee table too high or low in relation to your sofa’s seat cushion use the 4-inch rule. There is no reason to have your coffee table feel like a high countertop or have it so short that you hurt your back bending down to grab a drink.

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Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: 16″ to 18” is the ideal distance between the sofa and coffee table.

While every room is sized differently you don’t want to have your coffee table so far from the sofa that you can’t reach your drink or put your feet up after a long day (depending on your house rules of course). Keep them at least 16″ apart so you can walk around it but not have to get up to walk over to it.

Area Rug:

Emily Henderson Living Room Rules Spacing Pics 2
Photo by Sara Tramp for EHD

RULE: Your area rug should be large enough for at least the front legs of the sofa and all chairs to rest on top of it.

Rugs that are too small for a room are like trying to fit into your jeans from high school. Sure, you may be able to squeeze into those pants but wouldn’t you look and feel better in a bigger size than one that doesn’t allow you to properly breathe? The short answer is YES pants and YES to your rug. Most living rooms need at least an 8×10 with most needing larger. Don’t try and ‘stretch’ a small rug into the room and then have all the furniture floating around it.

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Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: Allow about 24″ between the wall and the rug in a large living room, and between 10″ to 18″ in a smaller one.

We are talking about the need for negative space and breathing room. Your rug is not wall to wall carpet, so don’t make it look like it. If you follow this rule it will immediately make your living feel airy and light while giving a defined seating area to your space. This will also help any furniture (aka console, upright pianos) that are against the wall from being unsteady in a half on half off thick rug scenario.


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Photo by David Tsay for EHD

RULE: Make sure the shade of your floor lamp is covering the bulb when you are sitting down.

Nothing is worse than trying to have a relaxing evening on the sofa and having a harsh light in your eyes every time you look over at your lamp. It is said that the ideal floor lamp height is 68″ but that all depends on the seat height of sofa or chair. When you pair a lamp with your seating make sure that the lamp isn’t so tall that a bare bulb is glaring down at you or so short that when you go over to turn it on the light blinds you from below. Ideally, the light should be at around eye level when seated, which brings us to our next rule.

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Photo by Sara Tramp for EHD

RULE: For a lamp sitting on a side table the bottom of lamp shade should always be at about eye level.

It’s the same concept as the floor lamp rule. You want to have the light enhance your living room time not make it uncomfortable with harsh light in your eyes. Take the seat height of your cushion, side table height and lamp height to figure out what is going to be the best option for you and your home.

Brady Tolbert Citizenry Emily Henderson Living Room Refresh 9 Edited
Photo by Zeke Ruelas for EHD

RULE: Place wall sconces between 5′ to 6′ up from the floor.

A sconce hung too low or high not only looks strange and won’t give you the right kind of ambient light you are looking for. Putting them at least 60″ above the floor is a good rule of thumb so you can easily avoid this potential issue, and cast a nice glow into all corners and areas of the room.

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Photo by Sara Tramp for EHD

RULE: There should be 3 – 6″ between a wall sconce and the edge of a mirror or piece of art it’s next to.

Much like how your furniture needs space to breath and looks it’s best, so does your sconce. By keeping your hanging art and wall decor at least  3″ to 6″ away from the sconce it will give both pieces the space they need to shine…. pun intended.

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Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: For determining ceiling light width: Multiply your ceiling height by 2.5 – 3 to get the recommended measurement in inches. So if you have a 10 ft ceiling you would multiply it by 2.5 giving you 25″. That should be your approximate hanging ceiling light width.

Another way you can calculate the right size light is by using the room size. Just measure the length and width of the room. Then add those two numbers together and convert the total into inches. For example if your room is 12 feet by 16 feet, your ceiling light should roughly be 28 inches wide.

These handy formulas will give you a starting place for the proper size you will need for your living room ceiling light. Ordering the wrong size is the worst and very annoying so hopefully this will take the guesswork out of light shopping and will help you in the process.

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Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: In an open space where people are walking, 7 feet is the minimum distance the bottom of a hanging light fixture should be from the floor. But for ceilings over 8 feet just add 3 inches of hanging height per foot. So if your ceilings are 10 feet tall, the light fixture should be about 8.5 feet from the floor.

As we stated before, bruised shins are a bummer but so are head injuries. This rule (unless you live with a VERY tall person) will keep you and your loved ones safe from hitting your heads on a ceiling light. It will also make your home look more spaciously aware and feel proportional.

Side Table:

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Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: No deeper than the depth of sofa.

This is kinda a no-brainer but just in case, make sure your side table is no deeper than your sofa. It’s an awkward look have a side table that looks too big for a sofa.

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Photo by David Tsay for EHD

RULE: Keep your side table close enough to set down a drink with ease. Which is typically 2-3″ from the height of the arm.

Another no-brainer. A side table is meant to be used by the seat it’s next to. You want to be able to set that glass, book, or whatever else you are holding down with ease.


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Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: 12” is the ideal minimum depth of a bookshelf (or 15” to fit oversize art books).

To easily avoid a ‘book overhang’ crisis make sure any bookshelves purchased or custom made are at least 12′ deep. Your books and “shelfies” will thank you. And if you don’t have a bookshelf that is that deep than try to steer clear of displaying any books or items that will hang out from the shelves.

Accent Chairs:

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Photo by Sara Tramp for EHD

RULE: You want around 42” (size of your room willing) between a set of living room accent chairs to be able to fit a small table (or vintage trunk in this case) in the middle. For a smaller room just place chairs side by side.

Do you sense this theme of giving enough space in between pieces of furniture? 42″ is a great standard to give you the right amount of space between your side chairs.

Living Room 4 Revised 006
Photo by Zeke Ruelas for EHD

RULE: When pairing a sofa and accent chairs choose seat heights that are within 4″ of each other.

It helps to have similar seat heights in a living room so that when your family and friends are all sitting in the same space no one is awkwardly at a very different height. Plus it just visually looks better in the room.

Sofa Console Table:

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Photo by Bethany Nauert for EHD

RULE: Make sure your console is the same height or a few inches shorter than the back of your sofa. It should also ideally have about 6″ of space on either end.

It just looks strange to have a sofa console table that’s taller or wider than your sofa. Keep it a few inches shorter and style away with your favorite keepsakes.


Emily Henderson Design Milk Modern Pink Black And White Jaimie Derringer Living Room Reveal 4 With Frame Cropped
Photo by Tessa Neustadt for EHD

RULE: An optimal height for the center of the screen is 30 inches above the lowest seat height in the room.

Give your neck a break and use this rule to avoid hanging your tv being hung too high on the wall.

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Photo by Genevieve Garruppo for EHD

RULE: The distance between TV and sofa should be about 7′.

We all have different preferences when it comes to how close we like to be to our beloved televisions but a good rule of thumb is 7′. Your eyes will be very happy, and you won’t feel like you are either in the front or back row of the movie theater.

Phew… we made it out alive. As mentioned before these are all guidelines and some of these rules can be broken and the room can still work cohesively together, but hopefully these will give you a good foundation for your living room layout. Let us know if you have any questions below or if there are any rules that we left out that you want answered. Now what room should we tackle next? Let us know your burning questions below.


Check out the rest of our design rules: Bedroom Design Rules | Dining Room Rules

Fin Mark


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Thank you!!! This is so helpful!


So ” is inches and ‘ is feet. Right? Aussie here


Yes! 🙂


This is soooo helpful, thank you so much! Our living room is also our dining room (but not in a cool, open concept way), I’d love a round up of layouts that make it look more intentional than necessary.


Holy cow, this is useful. Premium contender for best post ever. Thank you!!


Ooh this is great! I’m going to be measuring the distances between all of my furniture…


Wow, that is such a helpful post and will make buying/planning so much easier in the future. I’m really fussy about furniture/picture/rug placement (“Just a fraction to the left, oh, no, now just a fraction the right”, etc), and my family thinks I’m nuts but now I know there are good reasons so thank you!


This is very helpful, thanks Emily 🙂


Super helpful, I’d love to see a bathroom one! Dimensions in there are tricky!


Very helpful – thank you!

Your statement “42 is a great standard…” reminded me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: answer to the ultimate question of life, universe and everything else.” 🙂

For TV’s, how high should they be (when on a console)? Eye level, slightly below eye level or slightly higher than eye level? My husband and I have been going round and round about this since we got a new TV and console.


I’m sure I’m in the wrong somehow, but I can’t get the ceiling light math to work out as stated in the post. If lights should be 7′ above the floor, then add 3″ per foot if the ceiling is higher than 8′. Shouldn’t 10′ ceilings put the light at 7’9″ above the floor? (starting at 7′ + 9″ for the 8th,9th, and 10th feet up) I’m down the wrong trouser leg somehow.

Lisa Hamel

Your math is correct based on the formula she provided. In the example, 8.5′ hanging height would be 6 inches per foot about 7 feet. I am not sure where the error lies, though–in the formula or in the example?


I must be a bit confused also. Based on her example of a 10′ ceiling, I interpret a fixture height of 7’6″. If the rule is 3″ higher for every foot OVER 8′, then I would add an additional 6″ (for the 9th and 10th feet up).


interesting rules-I can’t help but notice that in your living room, the coffee table is so far from both sides of seating (couch side, chair side) that how do you ever really use it? And the scale always seemed off in pictures, is it half the size of your sofa as the rule mentions?


I agree. The room has come along so nicely, but that coffee table has never worked. It is the wrong scale and also does not relate to any other design choices in the room. I know Emily loves that her kids can play on it and clean it easily, but there are many other options that could achieve that as well.


Absolutely agree…this entire room has always seemed “off” to me. It’s just trying too hard to be a mix of trad/mod that doesn’t have a good rhythm. I have loved all other ehd
staff spaces, but this one needs a do-over, beginning with the coffee table
which breaks the ehd rules of size and function within its surroundings.


Agreed! So frantic and haphazard looking. Emily, please please ditch your idea that this room needs to be pigeon-holed into a certain look and get back to your own style! Your other living room was beautiful and successful because it reflected YOU not a projection of a different style.

I understand wanting to be true to the style and period of the house, but you’ve always seemed so unsettled with the decor (and of this room in particular). I’d love to see a post about houses with traditional architecture and modern decor, I think the two can peaceful co-exist!


Yep, that coffee table is not functional! Gosh, the kids have their own rooms, a ‘play room’ AND they need to play on the living room coffee table?!
The entire living room would be SO much better without that coffee table (even using the trunk as the coffee table with a nice tray on it), losing the awkward Target chairs and the misfit chaise, plus, ditch the credenza…too many ;clunky’ bits ‘n’ bobs. Streamline the room with big pieces like the sofa and some comfy to-scale arm chairs.
Emily, most of your ideas are great, but really, listen to the people who give these opinions with love and try some out. Sometimes, one can get too close to things to see them as they actually are.


I almost spit my coffee when I read “…who give these opinions with love.” love, my eye! geesh!


This has always driven me so crazy too! It looks tiny, floaty and like its of absolutely no use to anyone!


I’d like to believe coffee table is much closer to couch in real life and is just centered for photo. Drives me crazy.


Awesome! Love EHD rules:) I remember the pilot show “Design Crimes” on HGTV. Very interesting and helpful.


Em, this was a fantastic post! Not only was the information invaluable but the accompanying pictures were gorgeous. Thank you for this and all the other content you share with us readers.


I sense a best-of contender! Thanks for the great tips.


Brady, you are like the college professor of design. I love your voice, humor, and confident straightforward approach. These rules are all hugely helpful and I was mentally scanning my room, saying “check, check, check”. Yay. I wonder if there are other folks out there, like me, with a formal dining room set up as such and only used a few times a year. I often wonder how I could change it up to be more functional most days but still have my big table for those special occasions. I have an eat-in kitchen and this suffices and is actually preferable for most dining needs. ie I’d rather have my grandchildren eat at the table with a floor I can mop vs. potentially having to send my antique Persian rug out for cleaning, haha.


how about lining the walls of your dining room with bookcases brimming with your favorite literature or art books, a cozy armchair or two, a reading light in the corner, it would have a double function which would draw you in


Thank you, Tess, that is a lovely idea that I’ve actually done before in a rental. Luckily, my current situation also includes a library but I think bringing in a couple of wingback chairs and putting the dining chairs in the basement unless they’re being used would add a ton and make the room more useful.

Régine from The 256 Project

For the record, our dining room also has chairs, bookshelves, a side table, a record player and our bar, and those are the only reasons why we use that room regularly. I know that set up is not for everyone but I think the point is to add a reason for using that room.


This is so useful! Thank you so much for sharing. Could you do a sofa table roundup? Having so much trouble sourcing one for our living room.


This comment is irony in action!!


one of the best posts ever! bookmarking!! Thanks EHD


This is awesome, thank you! One question regarding keeping 24″ or 10-18″ of space between walls and rug: What if there’s so much furniture stuffed into the space (tiny Brooklyn apartment here), that you can only really see an inch or two of floor between the bottom of the furniture and the rug? Would it be best to pull the rug back a bit? Ideally I wouldn’t have so much furniture jammed in, but such is city living with two kids!

Julie P

Great post! Especially useful to point out to spouses why a particular thing “looks right” to you. ? I’d love to see a similar post on bedrooms including all sorts of things like end of benches, bedroom seating, bed height, headboard height, how to make a mattress with box spring not look horrible, dresser placement on walls, art above or around the bed etc..


Yes, I second this! Bedroom layout and spacing is so tricky, especially in smaller spaces and kids’ rooms. How do you avoid having all kid furniture crammed against walls? please do a similar post!


Great post! I’ve been struggling with the rug rule as our formal living room is long, but narrow (13 x 20) and open concept to the kitchen, so only 3 walls. We have apartment sized 79″ sofas facing each other floated in the middle of the room. I’ve been trying to explain the rug rules to my husband, but he says no bigger than a 5×8. What would you recommend for a long narrow space?

Burning question: speaking of long and narrow…window treatments for long, narrow windows!


I have a long narrow living room with long narrow windows also. Would love some advice on that, too!!


OMG – this is AWESOME! Thank you from a very novice DIY home decorator, from the bottom of my heart.

On rugs, what do you do for your second seating area in a large living room? One rug that reaches under both areas? Or a second, smaller rug for the smaller area? or can the smaller area (2 arm chairs) go without? Wonder what professionals do most often.

Lisa Hamel

My head started to swim from all of the numbers, BUT the explanations helped it all make sense by putting it in “big picture” terms. 🙂


This is amazing!! Thank you SOOO MUCH!

We just moved into a new house and I thought it’d be “so much fun” to design it all at once with all new furnishings, but turns out I’m just completely overwhelmed. I keep bouncing from item-to-item, room-to-room. I feel a whole new sense of respect for you designing and furnishing (and fixturing?) TWO houses FROM AFAR at the same time!

Alex E.

This is so helpful!

I’m at my wits end trying to figure out what to do about our long living room/entrance (12×17) in our small ranch style home. It is currently also the playroom for our 6month old son. We recently pulled our coffee table out of the room to allow more room for a play pen that’s 5×5 and butted against a wall that peers into the kitchen/dining area. The whole middle of the room is an open space, so I’m thinking about getting two storage ottomans to serve as side/coffee tables. Ugh – it’s just terrible and awkward right now.


Ours is the same dimensions!! With a doorway on 3 of 4 sides! ?. It’s open in the middle which is not ideal but works for now for play. But I have it in sorta zones. A TV viewing area (the seating is arranged such that it’s at the end of the room. TV on a long wall, couch across from it if that makes sense), a piano area on the opposite end of the room in once corner with the a reading area in the other corner on that end.


This is great stuff to keep in mind but as was stated in the intro “design rules can be broken and things can still look good”. There’s a bunch of examples of that right in this post – i.e. sofas up against walls, coffee table out of scale and placed out of reach of the sofa, side tables that are deeper than the chair they reside next to (just to name a few). Design is definitely more art than science which is why it is so hard to create hard and fast rules.


The comment that floor lamps should be 68″ high makes me realize that I am right and all of the floor lamps I find in stores ARE too short. It’s so frustrating!


Any “rules” on occupying dead space??!?

Bettye Rainwater

Ohmygosh more wonderful RULES!!! I am going to save these as a file in my phone so I have them with me always!



How many inches above the sofa should you hang the art ??


This is AWESOME! Thank you!

Angela N

Great post!!


I love that you chose a pic with the black and white print on the fireplace. It adds design to enhance it, but doesn’t take away from it in the same way as the blue. I’m sure I’m in the minority with the black and white, but I love it! It’s an awesome print….I want it. 🙂


Love this post. Very helpful.


OMG I think i need this as a pdf for reference. I love all the beautiful photos, but in instances like these I do wish there were “do” AND “don’t” photos to go with the descriptions.


Any thoughts on how to deal with a TV when the only option is to mount it above the fireplace? We just moved and everything about the new house is great but it has soooo many windows the only option seems to be above the fireplace. How awkward is it going to be to have it way up there? How do you style something like that? Help!


I second that!


Just here to say – I am bookmarking this for the future! I had known some of these rules on a gut feeling level, but having them written out and with actual numbers… holy moly, that’s useful.


This is really helpful. What are your thoughts on fireplaces/stoves? I have a very long living room with an off center fireplace that would need significant modification to work. Our seating is based around it. I’m thinking about adding a wood stove to the far side of the room to bring a focal point to that side of the room to bring functionality to that side, as well as the heat source. But, can I have a fireplace and a stove in one space? It’s a conundrum.


Maybe a reading area – shelves + cozy chair/lamp/end table combo? Our old house had a similar situation and that’s what we did and it worked fairly well.


Whew!! This is a lot to take in but thanks so much for the guide.


I love the idea of pulling the couch off the wall, and I think it could work in my living room, but the biggest issue that I would have to work around are all the plugs… any suggestions would be welcome! (also, before the comment of “put an outlet in the floor” comes along, that’s not really an option I would consider ~.^)


This is so helpful – thank you! I’d love to see one of these on bedrooms (especially: what do you put across from your bed when there isn’t room for a piece of furniture – only about 3-4″ of space). Or maybe a post about what to do with awkwardly shaped rooms (e.g. long and narrow, strange corners, strange door/window placement, etc.) – this is something I’ve run into a lot in rentals!

Thanks! 🙂


Source for that John Paul II painting? I <3 it!


Yes. The JP two painting with the dove is great. Source for this would be appreciated. Thanks

Vicki Williams

Google it, if you haven’t.


Very helpful. We have to compromise on some the distances based on eye level. He is 6’3″ and I am 5’0″. Compromise and appreciation have been our by-words for a long time.


Awesome, useful post. I have a coffee table question, though — we’ve ordered our first-ever sectional sofa, and need some guidance about choosing a coffee table to go with it. Any ideas?


Oh my goodness EHD, this is the best!!!! Looooooongtime every day reader and this may be my favorite post of all time. So helpful and concrete! I know design is anything but concrete, but “rules”/suggestions/guidelines like these are incredibly helpful to those of us at home trying to assess whether the sofa and coffee table and chairs will work and fit on the rug in the room! THANK YOU (and thank you for all your posts, but this one is just helpful beyond measure!)!


This post is brilliant and so helpful. Built our home 2 1/2 years ago. I designed it and and am so very please with 99% of the decisions. But we still sit on folding chairs and a pathetic loveseat bought off the internet to help sell our previous home (worked!) with broken springs. We warn people NOT to sit on it. I’m not indecisive, but we have so many factors to address in our greatroom/living room furniture, and you really helped with some of this info. First of all, we have NINE people in our family. Currently, we have five teens and two 12 year olds but come June one leaves the teen years behind. We have a lot of local family and friends and many have large families. Trying to meet our daily needs for the furniture (homework, reading, game playing, talking) along with guests (enough seats!!!/comfortable layout) is just tough! This isn’t the TV room, but we have huge windows and wonderful views and a beautiful fireplace with builtins as a focus on another wall. Just tough, but this is helping me rule out some chairs b/c of the height difference to the sofa(s) – (down to two… Read more »


All great tips! In your living room now and in Brady’s living room, it looks from the photos that the coffee table is way more than 16-18″ from the sofa. Is this just an example of how it’s okay to break the rules? Or was that more to add symmetry to the photos (by putting the coffee table in the middle of the room)? I’m seriously struggling with this in my own living room where I have two chairs across from a sofa and the coffee table is about 17″ from my sofa but waaaaay too far away from the chairs to use. If it put it in the center, no one will be able to reach the coffee table, but my eye, which prefers symmetry, will be happy. Ha – it’s a no win situation!


this is so helpful! Would love to see a second post with rules around decor: art placement, height, what to with dead space, focal point, etc.


Generally I think this info is helpful but it’s a bit perplexing because the photos seem to break many of your own rules. For example, at least 3 of the sofa’s shown above are pushed up to the wall breaking the 3-5 inch breathing room rule and your own coffee table (shown in one of the photos above) floats in the middle of the room making it impossible to comfortably set your drink down or put your feet up. I understand there are always exceptions to rules but it might be helpful to acknowledge when the rules were broken and explain why or make sure to only use photos that comply with your rules. Just an observation from a loyal fan. 🙂


Great post. The art piece above the sofa in the second lighting photo – source, please!


Yes. I’d love the source as well, please.


Emily, these are great guidelines!! Two questions. How tall should the side table be compared to the sofa? Also, when you are measuring the ceiling light, do you measure ONLY the living or dining room length and width, if the two rooms are combined as one?

Great post!!

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