Last edited 28 Jan 2021

Living room

Even the earliest dwelling, whether a cave or a hut, provided an area for living, whether part of a central space or subsequently, an area that was sectioned off. A combined area for eating, sleeping and talking, the earliest living areas eventually became separate entities known today as the living room (or sometimes sitting room or lounge).

In the Saxon hall house, one central area functioned as a space for socialising, sleeping, cooking, eating and entertaining. With time, one end of the house would be sectioned off as a raised sleeping area; the other end might have separate areas for service rooms such as for working or storage, or for a pantry or buttery; the large space in the middle remained the central living area.

In the medieval Wealden house, the living area was first called a chamber or bower, subsequently a ‘parlour’ – a name derived from the habit of monks in monasteries to receive guests in a special room where they could talk (French: parler).

In Renaissance Italy, the living room was often located on the first floor – the ‘piano nobile’ (or noble floor) – above the din and smell of the street. However, in England the parlour was more often located on the ground floor, with the upper floors reserved for sleeping and washing. This tradition would continue through Georgian and Victorian times and beyond, extending even to the present day.

Throughout these periods, with the separation of cooking, eating and washing functions, the parlour became a space for relaxation and socialising, a term which the Victorian lower middle classes would continue to use; the upper middle class had their own term to reflect the activity that would sometimes be carried out there – the drawing room. These rooms, which today would be called living rooms, usually housed the family’s best furniture and most valuable belongings, perhaps even a piano.

Some Victorian parlours would be highly decorated – every surface covered in elaborate patterns – flock paper on the walls, highly patterned furnishings, intricate carpet, and even tapestries, perhaps made by the lady of the house. The focus of the parlour or drawing room would have been the open fire comprising a cast-iron grate and fire surround which could be plain or elaborate.

The Garden City movement, whose roots can be discerned in the late 1890s, brought a new approach to the parlour – or sitting room as it was also called. One of the key aims of the designs of this period, which included the housing at Letchworth, was to allow maximum natural light to penetrate the house – in stark contrast to the often-gloomy Victorian interior. One way of achieving this was to introduce an early form of open planning – by removing the divisions between font and back rooms on the ground floor, a living room/kitchen with windows at both ends was created. This idea that the home did not necessarily have to be divided into a series of small, dark rooms was to gain momentum in the ensuing years and would have a huge influence on the modernists of the early 20th century.

Given the highly varied stock of architectural house styles that can be seen throughout Britain, a living room or living area is likely to be a well-defined room or a larger open-plan area which includes kitchen and dining areas. What it has in common with the past periods is that it will very likely contain a family’s most expensive items whether in the form of furnishings, paintings or entertainment technology. In terms of style, an uncluttered simplicity with plain-coloured surfaces has become popular, largely thanks to the influence of design features in magazines, the internet and on television.

The terms parlour, drawing room, sitting room and reception room have been almost completely superseded by ‘living room’; these terms are still seen in estate agents’ sales literature which often tries to evoke the grandeur of bygone eras.

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