How to design a formal living room – designer Emma Sims Hilditch's tricks for creating smart spaces

How to create a formal living room without it feeling uninviting? Here, interior designers give their advice

Rustic living room with large ottoman and open wooden shelving
(Image credit: Emma Sims Hilditch | Maple Photography UK)

A formal living room is the one room in the house that you might keep the kids and pets out of, where you're unlikely to indulge in TV dinners but are very likely to invite guests into for smart soirées. Designing a formal living room follows a number of formula that are easy to translate – but how to do so in a way that makes the room feel welcoming as well as beautifully curated?

If you have been browsing formal living room ideas, you will likely have noticed that they have quite tight layouts, that furniture is neatly upholstered and that drapes are sumptuous. But how to add that magic touch that will make the room feel welcoming, despite its elegance? Here, interior designers that specialize in both formal and informal spaces advise.

Interior Designer
Emma Sims Hilditch
Emma Sims-Hilditch

Founded in 2009, the Sims Hilditch design practice has become one of the most trusted and respected in the industry. Its couture approach combines interior architecture, interior design and procurement management within one concept-to-completion, fully bespoke service. Creative Founder, Emma Sims-Hilditch is passionate about her belief that good design can transform not only how people live but also how they feel. By creating characterful, beautiful and intelligent interiors, Emma and the Sims Hilditch team empowers clients to radically improve the quality of their lives.

How to design a formal living room

You might start the design of your formal living room by considering various iterations of traditional living room ideas

'These will have many of the elements of a formal living room, including a nod to the period and architecture of the room; decorating with antiques will also bring you nearer to a look you will find timeless yet characterful,' says Lucy Searle, Editor in Chief of Homes & Gardens.

Below, interior design experts offer their advice on formal living room design that is elegant yet cozy.

1. Give a formal living room an everyday purpose

Living room by Sims Hilditch looking towards window

(Image credit: Sims Hilditch)

'For me the biggest challenge of a formal dining room or drawing room is decorating it so that you want to use it more often than just high days and holidays,' says Emma Sims Hilditch, Creative Director & Founder, Sims Hilditch (opens in new tab)

'The dining room – as we once knew it – has had to reinvent itself over the years as many people opt for open-plan and, more recently, broken-plan living ideas

'What is the point of a room that doesn’t have regular usage? Every formal reception room should have atmosphere. It should be a reflection of the owner, not a soulless room without personality,' advises Emma. 

Above, Emma designed a space inspired by home library ideas. The textures and colors of the books give this formal living space a more welcoming, characterful feel.

2. Add a fireplace

Cream sofas, blue cabinet, white fireplace

(Image credit: Sims Hilditch)

Formal living rooms need to be inviting all year round but if the space is cold and stark you won't feel encouraged to use the space. Fireplace ideas can reverse this.

'Adding a working fireplace is the easiest way to give a room atmosphere and make it inviting,' says Emma. 'We have a fake log gas fire in the formal front sitting room in our home in London and I know that if I didn't have this, I wouldn’t go in there.' 

3. Rethink window treatments 

Living room with antiques

(Image credit: Sims Hilditch)

Beautiful blinds, classic curtain ideas or custom-made shutter ideas all add to the overall atmosphere within a space. With some care and attention, window treatment ideas can be more than just for privacy or warmth, they can help a space to feel finished – an inviting area of the house to relax and entertain guests in. 

'If you have large windows and are looking for ways to stretch your budget, I would always suggest it is better to choose an inexpensive fabric, but don’t scrimp on the curtain making. Handmade curtains are a very worthwhile investment and we always opt for the heaviest weight interlining to make curtains feel really luxurious,' advises Emma. 

4. Consider where art may be placed

Country living room

(Image credit: Sims Hilditch )

'Don't forget to budget for artwork – the room is unfinished without it,' states Emma. 

Many interior designers use decorating with art as a starting point for developing color schemes or themes within a room. It's an easy way for expression and creativity. 

'A lovely way to add decoration to a wall is to buy antique textiles and frame them,' suggests Emma. 

'We are working on a Jacobean manor house in the Cotswolds where we have framed some beautiful crewel hand-embroidery from Chelsea Textiles (opens in new tab) as an alternative to a painting.'  

What is the difference between formal living room and informal living room?

A formal living room is one where you might bring guests, and it's often to be found near the entryway of your home. An informal living room is usually further into the house and this space might be one you search for family room ideas.

Lucy Searle
Lucy Searle

Lucy Searle has written about interiors, property and gardens since 1990, working her way around the interiors departments of women's magazines before switching to interiors-only titles in the mid-nineties. She was Associate Editor on Ideal Home, and Launch Editor of 4Homes magazine, before moving into digital in 2007, launching Channel 4's flagship website, Channel4.com/4homes. In 2018, Lucy took on the role of Global Editor in Chief for Realhomes.com, taking the site from a small magazine add-on to a global success. She was asked to repeat that success at Homes & Gardens, where she has also taken on the editorship of the magazine. 

With contributions from