Monday, June 6, 2016


In medieval times, the "hall"
is where everything happened.
In the small California town I grew up in, we had an elderly Oklahoma-born neighbor who always referred to her living room as “the front room”.  To me, this always conjured up visions of an old wind-beaten farmhouse in the midst of the prairie.

Today, it seems, the familiar term “living room” itself is beginning to fade away. For the past forty years, living rooms have been shrinking steadily, while family rooms have grown ever larger.  This is partly due to the fact that few people actually use their living room—it’s just become a sort of showcase for their most expensive furniture.

In light of this, many modern homes are doing away with the living room altogether.  In a recent trade journal featuring popular floor plans, a fair number of them had no living room at all—just a large family room. So it’s likely that in the not-too-distant future, the family room will assume the role that the living room has played for the past century.  It’ll still be a living room; it just won’t be called that anymore.  
The Victorian parlor was the direct
precursor of today's 'living room".

The room-name game is nothing new. Actually, we’ve gone through quite a few different names for the living room since the Middle Ages. In medieval times, the large room in which the well-to-do lived was known as the “hall”. It was the central (and often the only) gathering place for the family. It wasn’t furnished in the conventional sense—it was more like a place to camp out. People lived, ate, and slept in the hall. Furniture was designed to be movable—in French it’s still called mobiliers—so that it could be moved around to suit the room’s multiple requirements.

Since the hall was the main room of the house, you had to pass through it to get to other rooms. Today, that great medieval hall has atrophied into the tiny little room at the center of your house—the one you pass through to get to the others.

Rooms began to be specialized according to their use in seventeenth-century France.  The French salle became the modern equivalent of the medieval hall, except that now it was no longer used for cooking or sleeping.  For the first time, these functions were assigned to their own special rooms.
Far out, man—here's the ultimate earth-toned
living room of the 1970s.

In fashionable Georgian homes of the late seventeenth century, the “drawing room” became the major living area. Its name is a corruption of “withdrawing room”—the room where ladies were expected to go while the men smoked cigars and drank brandy at the dinner table.

By the late Georgian period the “parlor” had replaced the drawing room as the main public room, and the drawing room became a less formal space—somewhat like our modern concept of the family room.

Is this the "centrum" of the future?
I sure hope not.
The term “parlor”  survived through Victorian times.  By the end of the nineteenth century, however, there was a growing backlash against the bombastic architecture of the Victorian period. The perceived stuffiness of Victorian ideas fell out of fashion, right down to the room names. The term “parlor” was declared old-fashioned, and the more populist-sounding “living room” succeeded it.

During the last four decades a number of would-be replacements for the living room have been suggested—“great room”, “centrum”, even “parlor” has been exhumed on occasion. My bet is still on “family room”, though, because it’s already familiar.  Anyway, I’d feel dumb saying, “Come on in, Joe, have a seat in the centrum.”

1 comment:

  1. Is the Living Room Dying ? Is that rhetorical ?
    Even your esteemed colleagues who claim to be resurrecting styles of the '20s and '30s simply cannot resist a "great room" the size of small barn and "open plan" kitchen as well as the 12x12 "living room"
    And leave us not forget the absolute must: a powder room next to the dining area or the front door so everyone can hear you peeing during dinner
    Alas, which ever you twist it, house styles really haven't improved since the 30's