Americans now do their living out of the living room

February 14, 1993|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Contributing Writer

Stroll through almost any urban or suburban neighborhood in the country after sundown these days and you'd be hard-pressed to tell that anybody's home. If not for the street lights, there often are no lights at all. At house after house, darkened picture windows face the street. Have you wandered into a ghost town? Has there been a blackout? Where has everybody gone?

To the family room, that's where. Or the "TV room" or the "spare" bedroom cum den. It is in these back-of-the-house spaces and not in front-of-the house living rooms that Americans now live by day and by night.

Motel Six may leave a light on for you, but your neighbors won't. A lighted living room is now the exception rather than the rule. You can be sure if the lights are on, then there's a party in progress or, at the least, visitors on the premises.

Over the past 20 or so years, Americans have forsaken the living room in droves. And for good reason. The family room or the TV room is, frankly, more comfortable. It succeeds precisely where the living room fails. Typically, it's furnished with casual goods and hand-me-downs: slouchy chairs, sink-into sofas, bookshelves and coffee tables that one is allowed to put one's feet on. It's where the television and the stereo are located. It's closer to the kitchen. Often smaller than the living room, it is also cozier, more intimate and conducive to casual lounging and relaxation.

The family room or the TV room is, in a word, homier.

In contrast, living rooms are forbiddingly formal, arranged, rigid, constricting and less than user-friendly. They're often too big to be cozy, too nice to be truly comfortable, and too ill-equipped to cater to the needs of humans at ease.

So why do they still exist? Mostly out of habit. For hundreds of years, the living room has practically been a metaphor for home. It's where the hearth is. It is, in theory at least, the entrance to the house. It lives in our psyches in the same place as Norman Rockwell. And Donna Reed. And "My Three Sons" and "Ozzie and Harriet." And, in homes that have family rooms, it's just as fictional.

Since the advent of the family room, America doesn't live in the living room any more. Reserved for state occasions, holiday parties and visitors, the living room is practically off-limits to family members. It's as if there's a velvet rope around the room.

Money pit room

Ironically, though, the living room is still the money pit of the house. It's where the good furniture goes, along with the expensive window treatments, costly carpeting, the precious art, porcelain lamps, Oriental rugs and the marble fireplace. By comparison, the family room is poor second cousin.

But does this make any sense at all? Why have a living room if you're not going to live in it? Why have a living room 365 days a year, if it's only occupied on special occasions six times a year? Given the cost of home construction, the cost of mortgage money, the cost of utilities and furnishings, why build, buy, heat, cool and furnish a room that is, for all practical purposes, out of commission and out of bounds most of the time?

Downscaling

Apparently, more and more home buyers and builders are arriving at the conclusion that having a living room out of habit or convention does not justify the expense. "Downscaling" is the buzzword in the pages of newspaper real estate sections these days. Home buyers are beginning to express a preference for larger family rooms, great rooms and master suites. As a consequence, living rooms in newer homes are shrinking.

Yes, this is something of a perennial phenomenon. Every time there's a recession, the prospect of downsizing the living room is revived. When the economy improves, there's a good chance that those who can afford a living room and a family room (and, unfortunately, even those who can't) will want them. But maybe it's time we just resolve the issue and agree that, recession or no, the living room is passe, an idea whose time has gone.

Think how much more comfortable and accommodating the family room could be if you didn't have a freeloading living room to support. Taking some of the space that would have gone to the living room, the family room could be expanded. It could have a fireplace of its own. Instead of rickety shelves for electronics, it could have some library-looking built-ins. It could have higher quality sofas and chairs, furniture that's serviceable enough for the family and fancy enough for visitors. It could finally get its fair share of the decorating dollar and some nice carpeting, attractive curtains, good lighting and architectural woodwork.

If the family room looked better, and if its ability to cater to multiple needs were truly exploited, we wouldn't be ashamed to take strangers into it or be forced to maintain a showplace living room strictly for their benefit.

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