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5 Tips from Emily Henderson For Dividing up an Open Floor Plan

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"If you live in a studio apartment, and you are not a morning person and do not usually make your bed," the sentence begins, putting me a little on edge because my bed goes so very un-made in the morning that it seems to spill into my living room even though there is a wall between them, "then maybe it is a good idea to create some separation between your dirty unmade bed and the living area your guests see."

This expert—though simultaneously hard and absolutely important to hear—advice comes to me from Emily Henderson, interiors expert and style blogger extraordinaire.

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A "floating" seating area in Emily's living room.
A "floating" seating area in Emily's living room. Photo by Tessa Neustadt

I reached out to Emily to get some advice on making mini spaces within large ones, since trends in architecture (and high real estate prices, resulting in studio living) mean many dwellings these days are loomingly open rather than divided up. It's very Scandinavian of you to have rooms that bleed into each other, rather than a house full of tiny enclaves, but what does that mean practically speaking? How do you arrange the furniture? Is there a way to make a nook, a cozy corner, a harmonious arrangement of chairs and sofas, out of thin air?

"Divisions in your spaces should totally depend on how you live," Emily explains, going on to offer five tangible tips for creating separations in a living space even when you start with none. Without further ado, here they are:

Vignettes of furniture and accessories keep a room visually interesting and can also be high-functioning. Photos by Jess Isaac, Laurie Joliet

1. Use rugs to create spaces.

By grouping pieces of furniture within the edges of a large area rug, Henderson explains, you can create distinct a mini-space within the overall floor plan without putting up any walls at all. "If you don't have the budget for a large oversized awesome rug," she says, consider layering: "Maybe opt for buying a large rug in sisal or seagrass and then layering a smaller (or already existing) rug on top of it to create texture."

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2. Float furniture.

"It's a big myth that your furniture has to live up against your walls!" Henderson says, tapping into that very common urge to line a room with the furniture you own and leave a little space for unrolling a yoga mat right in the center of it all. In fact, she says, bringing pieces inward can actually make a space feel larger. "Create a floating seating area in your space by pulling the sofa out from against the wall and placing two chairs opposite it," she instructs. And if the seeing the back side of your sofa makes you cringe, "you could put a sofa table or small long bookcase behind the sofa... which will only continue to help your cause of a space within a space."

Floating furnishings can actually open up a space.
Floating furnishings can actually open up a space. Photo by Tessa Neustadt

3. Create vignettes.

Just as our Art Director Alexis does on the open shelves in our office library, Henderson advocates arranging your furniture and art so they all interact with one another in interesting, functional clusters. A decorative ladder with magazines flopped over the rungs, next to a pouf or a chair that you could settle down on to read, for example, would "do double duty as a useful space, as well as a distinct area within the larger room," Henderson explains. Whether you decide to turn a small console into a little vanity or a bar cart is, of course, up to you and the needs of your space.

A very zen little nook, and another designed to act as a vanity. Photos by David Tsay, Tessa Nuestadt

4. Pay attention to the architecture.

I asked Emily about visual dividers, like the common use of columns to set off a dining room from the rest of the house. "This is a tricky one, as random columns going through your space sometimes just makes it look disjointed... like an afterthought," she said. But if your home is in a classical or even postmodern style—if columns wouldn't feel out of place based on the design of the space—"they could be a good option for slightly separating the space between, say, a kitchen and family room, or a sleeping area and living area if you live in a studio." The important part is to step back and think about the overall look before springing for something permanent.

As an alternative, consider folding screens to act as partial walls, which come in a range of styles and can even be painted or upholstered to work with your space.

Within a large space, don't be afraid to create a number of distinct dwelling areas.
Within a large space, don't be afraid to create a number of distinct dwelling areas. Photo by Bethany Nauert

5. Don't be discouraged by a lack of room features.

Henderson tells me that it's very common for her clients to request "a little reading nook" or "a little nook for their kids to play" even if the space they'd like it in doesn't have any architectural niches. "The word 'nook' evokes a certain feeling, which is exactly why people are using it—it makes you think of a cozy and contained area that [has] a specific purpose." Creating one isn't dependent on having a pre-defined recess in the wall or a windowsill large enough to sit on, however.

"If you're trying to create a reading nook in an open floor plan or loft space," Henderson says, "start with a cozy chair and bookcase that work well together. Throw a rug vintage rug under it, add a side table and a small table lamp or floor lamp, and then fill the space with items pertinent to what the area's intended use is... a basket for magazines, a candle to set the mood, a plush throw to cuddle up under, and whatever else you need."

What's your favorite seat in the house (meaning, your house)? Tell the stories of your nooks in the comments.

Tags: open floor plan, floating furniture, spaces, nooks, home tips