Before and After: How To Get a Playroom in Your Living Room without Sacrificing Style (and Everything Else)

published Jun 24, 2024
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Cluttered living room with white walls
Credit: Jenny Davis

In New York City, where space is limited, many parents have no better choice than to have playrooms in their living room. What was once a clean, beautiful, and restful sanctuary quickly becomes a chaotic pit where everything seems to go but nothing seems to exist. Toys trip you on your way to the couch, yet your child can’t seem to find a single thing to play with. (I live with my husband and three kids in a one-bedroom NYC apartment, so I know all about this.)

Recently, a family on the Upper East Side hired me to address this very issue. My client was ready to give the entire living room to her twins because their toys were overrunning everything and she couldn’t imagine being able to have a formal living room. My goal was to turn the cluttered room into a spacious, manageable, and intentional space for the entire family. Parents don’t have to sacrifice everything. In fact, I believe they can have it all. Here’s how:

Credit: Jenny Davis
Credit: Jenny Davis

1. Identify and map out zones.

My design process starts by learning about the family and how they use the space. I’m looking for what there’s too much of and what they need more of, like a store manager taking stock of inventory. For example, a family may have a massive couch that was once functional, but now is just a glorified laundry rack. Or the parents may like to have friends over, but haven’t in a long time because they lost that inviting, comfortable setting to socialize and unwind in their home. (Good luck trying to adult with Elmo staring you in the face. )

Then comes the fun part for me: I use the information I gathered to create zones and arrange them in a way that increases flow, function, and fun. Here’s how to do it:

  • Create scaled paper cutouts for the furniture: I’m a very tactile and hands-on thinker, so instead of using computer software, I used laminated graph paper and double-sided tape to map out zones and layout options. I created scaled paper cutouts for each piece of furniture, which I moved around until I found the best arrangement. Simulating furniture arrangement this way is really accessible and something most people can do today. 
  • Split the room into a grownup zone and a play zone: For this client’s multi-purpose space, I designed one side of the room to be the sophisticated grown-up zone where the parents can rest after work and hang out with friends (pulling out the ottoman and chairs from the adjacent dining room for extra seating as needed). On the opposite side is the play zone with sub-zones, including a toy hub, a reading nook, a dress up area, a play kitchen, and a play table. I created a large open center to make room for play, but also to make it easy to adapt the space between socializing, resting, and play. Mapping out zones focused my design efforts so I could optimize the space to the family’s values and lifestyle. 
Credit: Jenny Davis
Credit: Jenny Davis

2. Stick to a cohesive design style.

A playroom will naturally clash with the design aesthetic of nearly every other space. Just think about what you see and how you feel when you walk into a toy store versus a luxury boutique. The toy store is busy, colorful, and stimulating; a luxury boutique, on the other hand, is spacious, muted, and serene. 

So unless your design style is like that of a toy store, it’s important to make sure your playroom works with the rest of the shared space. Here’s how to do that:

  • Choose a cohesive design style: Having a cohesive design style doesn’t mean that everything matches, but rather all the pieces complement each other and offer a balanced and unified look. For the play side in this project, to create cohesion, nothing is too wild or bright. I worked within the overall color palette and found pieces with muted and earthy tones. 
  • Find something to anchor the zones: The beautiful ombre sage green wallpaper anchors and helps define the play side, and it adds depth and interest to the room overall. It’s a subtle and sophisticated pop of color that doesn’t compete with anything else in the room, but still makes it fun and engaging for the kids. The furniture and toys on display are neutral and earthy, and large bins help hide any toys that don’t work well with the vibe or color scheme. 
Credit: Jenny Davis
Credit: Jenny Davis

3. Set up a toy rotation system.

If your playroom is in your living room or any other shared space, a toy hub with bins is going to be your best friend. The toy hub will help hide the toys, keep clean lines from a design perspective, and make clean-up a breeze. And I promise your kids will have no problem finding their toys when it’s time to play.   

Now here’s something that’s going to make that easier and be a game changer for your playroom: set up a toy rotation system in a different part of your home. Here’s why:

  • Your play area shouldn’t be where you store toys: It should only host a minimal amount of toys that are actively played with. Anything that goes stale (but isn’t worth donating or throwing away) should be stored and swapped at a later time. Over the years, I’ve kept toys under my bed, behind my closet doors, in kitchen cabinets, or scattered around anywhere there’s a nook to spare. 
  • Toy rotation will give you a mental break while fostering your child’s development: Research shows that having fewer toy options promotes focus, creativity, and self-initiated and deep play, which is how kids learn. Just look at how preschools and classrooms are set up — these experts know the benefits! 

Homes are more than just roofs over our heads; they’re reflections of who we are and essential tools for living our best lives. With thoughtful design, any home can be transformed from a source of stress to a sanctuary of bliss.  

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