Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong
For decades, the open floor plan has ruled the real estate market, a favorite for new homeowners and renters alike for its airy feel and inviting atmosphere. Typically a combination of the kitchen, dining, and living areas, the open floor plan can be a way to make a small space feel larger or a grand home feel friendlier, and it tracks with a longtime trend toward more casual entertaining. "We really started seeing open floors plans in the mid-century, when it no longer became the expectation that Mom would walk out of the kitchen holding a platter," says Jessica Davis of Atelier Davis in Atlanta, Ga. "These days, we expect to be socializing even as we're preparing for guests."
But after a year of the pandemic, it's clear that navigating work, school, play, and everything in between all from the same room is wearing thin. "I don't think the appeal of the open floor plan will go away, but I can see new homeowners looking for more separation going forward," says Davis. We asked five interior designers about the pros and cons of the open floor plan-plus how to create more privacy and separation in the open floor plan you already have.
Open Floor Plans: The Pros
They create a sense of community
"I love that in this incredibly busy world, a family can all be doing separate tasks-homework, dinner, work emails-but still be all together," says Allison Lind, principal of Allison Lind Interiors in Seattle, Wash. and New York City. "You can stay connected, even though you're separate."
You can keep an eye on the kids
Especially for young families, the open floor plan allows parents to multi-task: cook dinner while the kids play nearby, for example, or keep an eye on homework while wrapping up a Zoom meeting. Plus, it invites younger ones to learn: "I love that my 3-year-old can wander in to learn how to crack an egg," says Lind. "I would hate to see that go away!"
They're great for hosting
"The kitchen is the heart of the home, so people will gravitate towards it, regardless of size," says Meg Lonergan, a Houston, Texas-based interior designer and principal at Meg Lonergan Interiors. "It's nice to have enough space to entertain." And as the pandemic eases, Lind expects we'll come to appreciate that again: "Especially after being in isolation and quarantine, we crave being around people. I can't wait to open up my home to family and friends!"
Open Floor Plans: The Cons
They're basically always messy
The open floor plan can be a stressor for neatniks. "Whether you're entertaining formally or casually, it's impossible to hide your prep space," says Davis. "The mess is there for everyone to see." From dishes to mail piles to craft projects and more, a kitchen island is a magnet for clutter. "It just looks messy all the time," says Lonergan.
There's no sound barrier
Particularly for partners, roommates, or families who share a space during work and school hours, there's no sound barrier-even from across the room. "When you suddenly need to do a lot of things besides living there after work or school, not having walls is challenging," says Decorist celebrity interior designer Noz Nozawa of Noz Design in San Francisco. "And it's pretty much impossible to block the noise with an open plan."
They're a pain to decorate
It's just more fun to decorate rooms to feel different from each other," says Lonergan. "The open plan limits you, unfortunately." Nozawa, who has an open floor plan in her apartment, agrees: "Not only is it hard to make a lot of different spaces feel cohesive, but I've often wished that I had a proper dining room or living room to paint another color!"
Cameron Jones of Cameron Jones Interiors in Raleigh, N.C. notes that clients often underestimate how large (and expensive!) furniture needs to be to work, scale-wise, with an open plan, and that even decorative touches like ambient lighting and window dressings can be hard to figure out. "I'm a big proponent of feeling cozy and comfortable in your home, and that's really hard to do with an open floor plan," she says.
How to Create Privacy and Separation
With so many homes and apartments that incorporate an open concept floor plan, sometimes you just have to work with what you've got. Here's how our designers suggest making an open floor plan function better for working and learning from home.
Remember: furniture can move
"I'm a big fan of rearranging things periodically," says Nozawa. "It's fun to look at rooms with an open mind and think, what else could go here, or how else could I use this space?" says Lonergan, who wants to remind folks that even if you invested in something, it's OK to sell or donate it to make room for something new that'll help your space function better. "Be open to change, and if you buy things you love, you can always move them around and use them in different ways," she says. "The key is to have flexibility," agrees Davis.
Even within a larger room, you can regroup furniture and rugs in different ways to create new zones within your space. "Think of the big room as individual smaller spaces," says Lonergan. "I mean, it doesn't matter how big a room is, you'll still want to sit close to someone on a sofa to have a conversation."
For work and study, consider non-traditional desks
A favorite trick of designers: stick a console behind the sofa. Not only does it divide up spaces-"It creates that clean delineation between dining and living," says Lind-it's just enough space to work off a laptop. "It's a great way to create a tiny zone within an existing footprint," agrees Nozawa. A coffee table with a pop-up top can become a desk surface when you work on a couch, and a small wall-mounted desk can offer just enough space to work.
Add in flexible barriers like screens and plants
"Screens are having a moment right now!" says Davis, and it makes sense: using a screen is a quick way to create both a visual barrier and sound barrier to help with focus. Similarly, a group of potted plants can provide just enough privacy to run a Zoom call, and you can easily move them around when you start going back to the office.
Give your desk the executive treatment
If you expect to work from home for a while-and have just a little bit of space-set up a true office area. "Rarely does someone who truly works from home set up at the kitchen island," says Jones. "Working from home involves chargers and pens and paperwork and files-you need space for those trails of stuff." Jones suggests investing in a real desk that works with your decor. She's a fan of vintage desks, which can blend in style-wise with existing furniture and typically include storage space.
While you're at it: place your desk in a primo location, like the area with the best natural light, or the space that used to be your favorite spot on the weekends. "It's a morale booster! It's important to carve out a space, and to also have some differentiation," says Nozawa. "Even though it's all one big room, I sit at my desk on weekdays-but if I open my computer on the weekends, I sit on the couch." She suggests orienting your desk facing out (the "executive setup") if you can: "It creates a nice sense of boundaries when you see the back of your computer screen, instead of your unread emails, from across the room while you're eating lunch."
Upgrade your electronics
"I'm a firm believer in super nice headphones, regardless of whether people are in the house," says Nozawa. "In an open space, sound control is nearly impossible, and if others are in the room, they can be a distraction." Additionally, she notes, it's worth it to invest in the same kinds of tools that you'd use in a cubicle, like monitor stands and privacy screens, to keep your work life to yourself. "Even if you have nothing to hide, even if it's just your partner or your kids, no one likes that feeling of somebody being able to see what you're up to all the time," says Nozawa.
Close off a nook
On the whole, the interior designers don't recommend construction-level fixes to the open floor plan. "I'm not a fan of building out permanent solutions for temporary situations," says Nozawa. But if you have any little nooks-say, a bump-out for a breakfast nook, or a little-utilized closet-consider that an opportunity to create a mini-office. French doors with glass insets can create separation while still keeping your sight lines clear, or a sliding barn-style door can create a barrier over an existing entryway without having a custom door fitted.
Reconsider other rooms in your home
Take a look at how you're using other spaces in your house: could your new HQ take over a formal dining or living room that you never use? Is there a space that could be carved out of the garage or basement? The guest room is another logical spot to set up a desk. If you foresee working from home for a while, it might be worth swapping that queen bedframe for a sleeper sofa so you can roll in a comfy office chair. "Now's the time to reclaim a space that's been underperforming so it's actually working for you," says Jones.
…And if it seems like a hot mess right now, just remember: it's only temporary
"Sometimes, there's just no solution," says Lind. "If you truly need privacy and there is no other option, get a cushion and sit on the toilet with a laptop desk!" It just may be that for a few more months, you have to live with a desk in the bedroom or laundry room, or that your coworkers will become super-familiar with your toddler's snack preferences. "But we can choose our mindset," says Nozawa. "If everyone is home and healthy and on top of each other? Yes, it's a major inconvenience. But you're OK. You're getting through it. Just hang in for a little while longer."