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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Allende

This week on The Woof! Who's the elephant in the room?

If you live in a city like Washington, DC, where several of my clients live, you probably know that abundant space is not a given. We can dream of a Texas-size home as much as we want, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to get it. Just outside DC is a whole different thing... It's hard for some people to accept that at least 40% of their space will need to be occupied by nothing. Flow is the elephant in the room we just want to ignore.


When it comes to furnishing a space, almost any space: kitchen, living room, dining room, or any other, people often make the mistake of purchasing items without keeping the negative space in mind. What is negative space? Simply put, it is whatever space is not occupied by actual physical items. It’s the empty space between furniture pieces, or between furniture and a wall, or even between décor elements.

Negative space is actually important because it allows for the different elements in the design to shine and stand out. It's also psychologically pleasing. But one of the fundamental reasons we cannot allow ourselves to forget about it is flow. If we cannot easily reach a seat in the living room, it becomes a space one doesn't really want to go to. Imagine squeezing through chairs and side tables to sit on the sofa after a long day of work when just want to relax. Or if we designed a bedroom with a wardrobe only to discover once it has been installed that you can’t open the door… I’ve seen this happen and it’s painful.


Transitional living room with kilim rug
Negative space allows for movement in the room

Negative space can be used in different ways, but here we’ll be talking only about negative space for the purpose of flow and moving around. Things not only need to fit or look good. There most definitely needs to be flow. For a space to have good flow, the walkthrough and in-and-out space needs to be a certain size. It’s as technical and simple as that. For the rest of this blog I'm providing my readers with mostly measurements for you to consider for your space. A tad dry but important when it comes to designing a space. So go find your old tape measure and make your space great to be in!


Living room:

Make sure you have between 16" and 18" between your seating and the coffee table. Not enough space for your legs is uncomfortable. Too much space is too! Imagine having to get up every time you want to reach your glass of wine or grab that snack? (I personally despise those beautiful living rooms in which the chairs sit like islands, looking “cool” but totally floating in their own space like a moon. Zero inviting. If your space is large, then maybe create smaller groupings that will allow for that more comfortable, inviting use of space.

Transitional modern living room
Living room with good flow

Make sure you have about 36” of walkway space in your living room. You need to comfortably get in and out, so do consider areas that will be used for the purpose of actual traffic. That is a part of your design. If you’re working with a very small space, you can squeeze it down to 24”.



The use of space here will depend a little on how many people usually use the space for working at any given time. If it’s only one, then 36”-42” on average is enough. If it’s two, then ideally you would have 42”-46”, and at the very least stick to your 36”, considering there will be two work spaces and people passing each other.


To place your bar or counter stools, you need 36” – 48”, between the back of the stool and the furniture, counter or wall behind them. You want that space to pull them out and walk around them. 

Kitchen island with counter stools
Photo: Anthony Masterson

Finally, the passageway or space between the kitchen and the next room should be a minimum of 36” and ideally 48”.


Dining room:

The last room we’ll consider this time around is the dining room. Flow in the dining room is key, you will have your table and possibly a sideboard and the chairs. Things will vary a little more if you use a rug in the dining space too! There needs to be at least 24” between the back of the chairs and the back wall or side board. Ensuring 30”-36” is ideal. Similarly, between the edge of the table and the edge of the rug there should also be a minimum of 24”, but actually hopefully, 30”-36” so that the chair legs don’t come off the rug when pulling out.

And as usual, for a walkway between this room and the next, you’ll want ideally 48”, but at least 36”.

dining room with modern art
Dining room correct walkway space

Keeping these, sometimes, fastidious rules in mind will allow that design element--flow--to actually go from an annoying set of rules I need to follow, to the design element that will make my space the best it can be.

Give that elephant some more room!

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