The Secrets to the Coziest, Most Functional Family Den Ever, According to Pro Designers
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I grew up binging “Leave it to Beaver” — you know, that 1950s sitcom about a family of four without a hair out of place — with my Dad. Now as a frazzled parent myself, some elements of the series seem more than a little ridiculous. It’s not just the obvious — a complete absence of diversity, for one — but also how unfailingly pristine their house was.
Take the den where the father, Ward, would hide away with his newspaper as the mom, June, whirred like an apron-donning human machine in the background. Even within the confines of a TV set, and even for a faux Midcentury family, the space looked overly immaculate at all times. There were two growing boys living there, after all … where were the omnipresent toy jumbles and tracked-in patches of mud?
Historically, “the den appeared as a marker of a growing and upwardly-mobile middle class after WWII,” says Ellen Fisher, VP for Academic Affairs and Dean of the New York School of Interior Design. “More private and less formal than a living room, the den was a relaxing place for personal escape from the hubbub of family life and the outside world. Even the name, ‘den,’ connotes safety and retreat.” We often use it interchangeably with the term “family room.”
Today’s family den is decidedly more real — and has become the de facto place for many families to chillax in. Parents these days are fully aware that the den needs to put the fun in functional — a far cry from the impeccable dens of old sitcoms. “2021 is all about multi-function,” says Naomi Coe, the award-winning founder of Little Crown Interiors, and author of Your Perfect Nursery: A Step-by-Step Approach to Creating the Nursery of Your Dreams. “We’ve all spent most of the last two years mostly at home, re-evaluating how we want our homes to function (especially when it comes to kids).”
That’s especially vital in the rooms we actually live in, like the den. I interviewed designers, many of whom are real parents themselves, for their advice on how to maximise dens in cozy, sanity-saving ways. The upshot: make it live large, pairing surprisingly attainable luxe finishes with hard-wearing and wipeable comfy furniture, so your family can live their best lives, too.
The den as a one-stop shop
Creating a multifunctional space with separate areas for homework, crafts, and lounging together is key. “Most clients and friends I’ve talked to seem to have the same desire — they want separate spaces for the kids to play and do homework, and another space for gathering and spending family time together,” Coe says. “If this isn’t possible given the space, a large family den can be ‘broken up’ into more separate areas.” You could use screens to divide spaces visually, and Coe says just giving each child fabric storage bins that are devoted to keeping their belongings separate can assist. “Noise-cancelling headphones help everyone work undisturbed, and they make them for kids,” Coe says.
Quarantine life forced many broods to zero in on what they truly need — like a cushy reading spot for mom or separate desks for kids’ homework. Unlike in decades past, “The den of today is special because it invites everyone to spend time in the way they choose,” says Jessica Davis, a Nashville-based mom of two boys aged 7 and 8 and principal designer at JL Design. “We do just about everything in our den … watch television, have dance parties, do homework, play card games, sit by the fire, play with the dogs and eat … you name it.”
Kim Armstrong, a Rockwall, Texas-based, mom of two (ages 6 and 13) and principal designer at Kim Armstrong Interior Design, suggests investing in furniture pieces that do triple duty and beyond to make use of every square inch of your den. “I love large oversized ottomans that act as coffee tables — they are great for kicking your feet up on or playing board games around.” Her go-to: The Inside’s Cocktail ottoman, because they have a seemingly bottomless trove of upholstery options to choose from, from graphic prints to animalia. “If you are a homeowner, and looking for a fun ottoman, but don’t know how to get one custom built, The Inside is a great resource,” Armstrong says.
Find the storage superheroes
“Parents don’t have the time or energy to keep the main living areas organized, let alone maintain cute toy displays,” says Stephanie DeBrincat, San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Based designer of family-focused design firm Rockabye Mommy. “And let’s be honest, you have more important things to worry about anyway.” Investing in pieces that make storage easier is a must. “Look for pieces such as storage ottomans that are useful for storing toys and also doubles as additional seating, or a large activity table with integrated storage for a quick and easy desk transition.”
DeBrincat recommends Lulu and Georgia’s Hannah Cabinet , which she calls the perfect combination of style and function. “It has plenty of storage for books, blankets and toys, and I love the texture of the woven cane doors. No one will suspect that toys are hidden inside waiting to be played with.” Lauren Lerner, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based mom of a 6-year-old boy and principal designer at Living with Lolo, is obsessed with CB2’s Milos Baskets. “We love adding baskets like this to store toys or blankets so they aren’t left out but they are still easily accessible.”
Layer for luxury
Because the den is the first thing visitors see when they enter Armstrong’s house, “not only does it need to be comfy and cozy, it needs to look nice and stay tidy — because whoever walks in the house is going to see it front and center.” Adding texture through lighting and layered cozy touches make it a warm spot to gather.
Lerner agrees several sources of light are a brilliant touch in a den, and often installs multiple sources of light: pendants, floor lamps, table lamps and more. “We love layering in lighting in this space to create ambiance and coming up with unique ways to hide things that might be important to one person, like speakers.” She’ll put the latter in a basket or behind a faux tree, for example.
Focus on statement walls that also wear well
“Functional design doesn’t have to look like a Kindergarten classroom,” DeBrincat says. “Posh can be practical.” To that end, she oftens leans hard into wallpaper. One fave: Kravet’s performance vinyl, which is wipeable if, say, your toddler flings his spaghetti at it. “Elevate your den with a beautiful wallpaper,” DeBrincat says. “Much like a fresh coat of paint, wallpapering your walls can be quite a transformation. I love this paper by Kravet, which combines pattern, texture and color all-in-one and comes in several color options ranging from a soft subtle pearl, to a bold shimmering sea blue.”
DeBrincat’s clients are requesting wallpaper a ton these days, in part because it creates such a dramatic change. “This is a great way to breathe new life into your space, covering your walls in a lively pattern and fresh color that even your kids will enjoy — while still maintaining a high level of sophistication,” she says. Just remember to go for hard-wearing wallpaper in a family den. “While it’s easy to get carried away with the thought of an Italian landscape on your walls, it’s important to consider that the family den will get a lot of use, so durability remains a key factor in your paper selection. It’s not a matter of if your children will draw on your walls, it’s when. Be sure your selection can withstand a little soap and water to keep your investment looking its best.”
Select hard-wearing furniture
Davis cozies up dens with these WalMart floor pillows for kids, and often recommends this sectional for families. Davis says,“It’s super comfy, can be configured to fit your room, can have a performance fabric slip cover in a number of colors, can have a sleeper added, and is cost effective! Win, win, win, win, win!” If you’re looking for more tips on comfy, family-friendly seating, look no further.
Outdoor fabrics aren’t just for your patio, as these den designers will attest. “We are seeing big sectionals with performance fabrics that are kid-friendly,” Lerner says. Cozy comfort reigns. “The family room is a place that people want to look put together but also remain functional,” says Lerner. Underfoot, Armstrong often places ultra-durable rugs made from polypropylene recycled plastic bottles in family common rooms, “just because they get so much action. A great vendor for this is Dash and Albert by Annie Selke. They have great styles and colors that are so fun.” Bonus: they’re as washable as your socks.
Stock spaces with old-school thrills
“The family room den is evolving to be a very collaborative space,” Armstrong says. No longer just a vegging-out perch for TV binges, “when COVID hit and families were spending so much time at home and together, parents really started playing more board games, arts, and crafts, charades, etc., and a lot of this took place in the den,” she says. “As life moved back to normal, I think families realized how great this kind of interaction was and kept it as part of weekly family activity.”
Armstrong stores her family’s games in the credenza under their TV. “With today’s technology we don’t need a lot of the storage compartments for running the tv that we used to have,” she says. “So using that extra space for storing games is great! I also love a coffee table that has drawers in the family den. This is a great place to keep card games, or smaller game activities, that you can whip out for a spontaneous game of UNO, or King of Queens.”
Leaning on cozy accents for “Grand Millennials”
Even the “Leave it to Beaver” Cleavers would also appreciate this last modern touch. Because dens differ from playrooms — they can host during entertaining, for example, or be a quiet place for your fam to curl up with books — larger toys like kitchens and doll houses should be placed elsewhere. In their place, focus on Adulting-level style.
“We are finding the ‘grand millennial’ (grandma chic) style is in full force,” Armstrong says. “People are utilizing their parents and grandparents furniture and other antiques they find, in a modern way. That could mean reupholstering in a modern print or refinishing the wood in a great finish so good solid pieces stay in the family and don’t go into a landfill.” She believes the cozy look is trending as a reaction to the gray and white, tone-on-tone look that has proliferated in recent years. “It’s a look that is collected. Surrounding yourself with heirlooms and curated pieces that tell a story,” she says. “It’s a look that actually has ‘meaning’. I think people are wanting to embrace comfort and authenticity nowadays, and this style has both of that.” Best of all, inherited and vintage pieces typically aren’t something parents worry about if they get scratched. Cue the roughhousing!