Design a Great Room Around a Holiday-Inspired Focal Point

Neutral colors, a modern fireplace and a well-organized floor plan bring this great room to life.

Before: Missing Out on Holiday Cheer

In its original state this great room seemed off-balance and ill-proportioned. But not after the fireplace surround was transformed. To play up the room's soaring ceiling, a custom mantel was built along with a wall of stylish floor-to-ceiling tile.

After: Great for Gathering

With the holidays approaching, the owner of this two-story Atlanta house embarked on a two week great-room remodel, a project they'd delayed since purchasing the property in 2007. It was important for the homeowner to have a place for friends and family to gather comfortably. From the color scheme and finishes to the well-balanced space plan, every element was chosen for its casual, cozy qualities.

Fiery Focal Point

Fireplaces are used heavily during the holiday season when they often become the backdrop for family stockings and garlands. For ample hanging space for these seasonal trinkets, build your mantel at least 7 inches deep. With most stocking hangers measuring 3 inches deep, a ledge of 7 inches provides just enough space to keep the mantel from appearing cluttered.

Whole-Home Approach

The new mantel borrows from the existing architecture to blend seamlessly with the whole home. After removing the existing mantel, an 8x16-foot box was constructed from 2x4-inch lumber and covered with backer board, then clad with 18x24-inch porcelain tiles featuring a gray color scheme. To make the most of this updated neutral, the greenish-gray undertones were applied to the walls, ceiling and staircase railing.

Floating Floor Plan

To add symmetry in a great room many interior designers choose to float furniture within a space. This refers to placing the furniture in the center of the room and flanking the featured element. In addition to creating balance, a floating arrangement encourages conversation.

Lounge-Worthy Tips

When floating furniture around a TV, take the dimensions of furnishings into careful consideration. To allow the user to comfortably watch TV without straining his or her neck, a sofa or loveseat should be long enough to accommodate a person lying flat while viewing a TV straight ahead of them. Consider sofas and loveseats with arms to provide a place for the head to rest.

Harmonious Colors

Gray and cream tones seen in the floor-to-ceiling tile and walls coordinate with the sofa and throw pillows. By keeping the palette restrained and layering several shades of the same color, the space remains streamlined and understated.

Adding Interest With Accents

Think about the resale value when choosing materials for an architectural focal point. While high-energy colors add instant drama and personality, they can be overpowering for potential buyers. Originally this homeowner wanted a green color scheme for the great room, but after careful consideration, gray and cream were chosen to establish a neutral canvas that could be played up with green accents. Should a particular color fade from fashion, adding a few decorative accessories in a new color will give the space a fresh look without the need for costly remodeling.

Going Gray: Shades to Consider

Beige and taupe are the most common neutrals used in expansive spaces; however, these tones can come across as clinical, lackluster and even contractor-grade. A great alternative is gray, a neutral that comes in an array of tints and shades. From the greige and medium grays found in the fireplace tile to the silver-gray tone of the alder wood mantel, to the greenish-gray used on the walls, this great room is engulfed in layers of neutrals that read much more vibrant and up-to-date than beige or taupe.

Fireplace Construction

There are two different ways to build out a fireplace surround: attaching it directly to the wall or constructing a fireplace box. While the directly-to-the-wall method is quicker and more affordable than building a box, the latter result provides a tailored architectural look. To create a box column, have several strips of 2x4-foot or 2x6-foot lumber cut to size, then assemble them as separate frames, fasten them to one another and secure them to the wall with extra-long screws drilled through studs. Once the frames are secured to the wall, backer board is attached to the front and sides before applying mastic and setting the tiles in place. Once firmly adhered, the tile should be grouted and cleaned.

High-End Finish

A key design element separating store-bought mantels from high-end designer versions is the finish. For a timeless, high-end effect, this mantel was constructed of alder wood, and finished with a custom gray stain. After sanding, the mantel was wiped clean, and treated with three coats of the stain, using steel wool between coats to prevent any buildup. The mantel was sealed with a non-yellowing sealant in a matte finish.

Metallic Light Fixture

A soaring floor-to-ceiling fireplace can make other elements in a room seem ill-proportioned. Eliminate this effect by anchoring the space with lighting. If a fixture is overpowering, it can end up competing with the focal point. Having metallic accents high above the room helps to create harmony with the brass tones of the drapery hardware and accessories, while the clear glass globes blend seamlessly with the surroundings.

Stylish Wicker Storage

To keep a great room neat and tidy, incorporate clutter-taming solutions. An excellent way to add stylish storage is to choose a large-scale coffee table with concealed storage. In this space, two large wicker ottomans were placed side-by-side, providing a generous surface for laying out books and plants while hiding essentials such as blankets, pillows and sleeper-sofa linens.

Side-Table Solutions

End tables are excellent solutions for accommodating lighting and storage. Since end tables usually range in height from 24 to 30 inches, and sofa arms range in height from 28 to 34 inches, it's common for a homeowner to end up with a table higher than their sofa's arm. Before sourcing end tables for a great room, measure the sofa's arm height and choose an end table at least 4 inches shorter than the arm.

Choose Art to Scale

When displaying art in a large space such as a great room, scale is the most important factor. If the art is too small, the room will appear cluttered, detracting from its strongest feature. Likewise, if the art is oversized, it can overpower the focal point. Consider the graphic quality of the subject. Clean, graphic shapes work best, as they're easy to identify from far away, while muddied or busy images can read as visual clutter, adding no decorative value to the room.

Window Treatments

Window dressing can have an enormous effect on a great room, especially one with a strong architectural focal point. When sourcing fabric for draperies or shades, stick with solids that enhance the colors of the focal point. Alternatively, choose patterns with large-scale repeats that coordinate with the proportions of the focal point and surrounding art.

Layers of Pattern

Interior designers often recommend mixing different prints within expansive spaces to create a layered effect. The key to doing this successfully is to vary the size and scale of the prints, as well as layer different shades in the same color family, incorporating these into window coverings, pillows, throws and other accents.

Clever Use of Extra Space

Many new homes are constructed with niches, recessed areas or bookcases designed for displaying art and accessories. Spaces such as these can be repurposed as workstations by adding complementary wall coverings to enhance the room's focal point, then adding accents which coordinate with the rest of the room's furnishings. Here, a small and unassuming area opposite the great-room windows was transformed into a mini design studio where the homeowner can work while engaging with friends or watching TV.

Decorative Lighting

Most new-construction homes come with contractor-grade light fixtures. While these are practical solutions for lighting hallways or niches, they rarely provide any decorative value. By simply swapping out existing flush-mounts for higher-end versions — such as these oil-rubbed bronze fixtures featuring a Greek key motif — a practical lighting element can also add lots of style.