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What's Up Magazine

The Family Room Redefined

Oct 04, 2011 09:44PM ● By Anonymous
A casual room, when located near the kitchen, it is often referred to as the great room. The great room had its origins during the colonial days when homes were heated by one large fireplace. Called the “Keeping Room” in New England, everyone would gather in this great room to keep warm and comfortable.

Then as the residential building industry changed, homes became segmented, with the kitchen in the back of the house. If there was a family room, it was separate and a little more formal. Now, because so many families spend time in and entertain in the kitchen, the family room has become an extension of it, bringing back the great room concept.

“Great rooms are now standard in many new homes,” says Summer Baltzer, interior designer and host of HGTV’s Design on Dime and TLC’s Unhinged. “People are moving away from formal living. Since square footage is so valuable and families live in a different way now, they want rooms that they can actually live in instead of rooms they only use on special occasions. People with older homes are knocking down walls to develop one room.”

And, that’s exactly what award-winning artist Joan Essex Johnson and her husband, Walker, did after they purchased their Annapolis home in 2003. The Johnsons loved the view from their family room; however, the design of the room did not take full advantage of it. There was a huge stone fireplace blocking the vista. While the fireplace was beautiful, it just didn’t work in that space. And in the kitchen, there was a very isolated view from a small kitchen window, so the Johnsons opted for renovation.


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The Johnsons worked with an architect and consulted a structural engineer before doing the renovations, but they knew exactly what they wanted—to create an inviting space where friends and family could gather. The newer windows are similar to what they were before the renovation, except that they added windows above and below to create a wall of glass.

The Johnsons also opened up the kitchen by removing a wall. This created one large room so that the view could be enjoyed at all angles. They added a kitchen island and a wall of appliances and cabinets that coordinate well with the expansive family room.

“We renovated mainly for the view; the house was very claustrophobic,” says Johnson, a graduate of the renowned Schuler School of Fine Arts. “Taking out the fireplace and moving it to the eastern wall has opened up the house and made it much lighter and nicer to be inside. I love standing here at the kitchen and looking out. Now, everywhere you are in the room, you are always looking outside.”


The open high ceiling and woodwork in the family room provide great display space for paintings and sculpture.

Many of Johnson’s favorite oil paintings and sculptures decorate the room. A mini wine cellar and tasting area are tucked away in one corner, and the addition of a butler’s pantry is bedecked with a wall of glass tile. The furnishings are traditional and warm, with touches of personality and conversation pieces.

Adding Personality and Cohesiveness If your family room is similar to the Johnson’s—open to the kitchen—you will need to coordinate both rooms in décor. The easiest way to coordinate both rooms is to paint them the same or variations of the same color and add accent colors with the furnishings or with accessories. Beyond color, HGTV’s Baltzer recommends coordinating the two rooms—kitchen and family room—with similar molding trims and furniture finishes.

“One of the big trends in kitchen design right now is to paint the cabinets,” Baltzer says. “Since painted cabinetry has really come into fashion, we are seeing painted furniture in the family room, too. Also, you can coordinate with the metal finishes. For example, details such as your cabinet knobs can coordinate with the finish of your lamps.”

Baltzer also suggests using window treatments to bring together and warm up the rooms. “Hang window treatments as high as possible — within inches of your ceiling,” she says. “It not only makes the room cozier, it lends a more high end feel. I also suggest expanding your window treatments to 18 inches on both sides of your windows, if possible. It richens the wall and adds warmth.”

Floors can also keep the rooms harmonized even if there is a small separation between rooms. Use hardwood in both rooms and add area rugs in coordinating or matching colors to bring an intimate and relaxed feeling into this expansive area. And, that’s really what the room is all about—relaxing and being together.

The family room in contributing editor Renee Houston Zemanski’s home is adjacent to the kitchen, and she is now taking these tips into serious consideration.