(Right at Home)
At some point, the previous owners of my house decided to take down the wall separating the living room from the dining room, creating an open space that, in theory, was a good idea. But in reality, it seemed to me, it didn’t make any sense.
The dining room felt like an awkward, disjointed extension of the living room, not quite private enough to be its own space, but not fully integrated, either. And with the living room missing a key wall, figuring out how to logically furnish it was no easy feat.
And so, about a month ago, I hired a carpenter to restore part of the wall. By partially closing off the space, I aimed to create a separate dining area with its own mood, and to restore the original dimensions of the living room.
When I told the carpenter what I wanted, he stared at me blankly, like he’d heard me wrong. “But people like the walls open,” he said.
In the weeks before the work was done, I avoided telling friends, worried that they, too, might think I was nuts. The few I did tell mostly seemed confused. In the age of open-concept design, who builds a wall?
The trend toward an open-concept floor plan — where few, if any, walls separate the spaces where we eat from those where we lounge — has become so commonplace it’s hard to imagine an alternative.
The idea of togetherness drives the design, creating a setup where a parent can simultaneously make an omelet and watch the children play in the living room because, apparently, no one wants to be alone. Or guests can move freely from the giant kitchen island to the living room sofa, unencumbered by obstacles like doorways. The design style has become the liturgy of home-improvement shows, with HGTV stars like Joanna Gaines catapulting to fame largely because of her uncanny ability to transform rundown farmhouses into loftlike showrooms.
In the city, that ethos translates easily because space is tight and lofts are a genuine home style. Remove the walls in a galley kitchen and suddenly a tiny cooking space can feel larger and lighter. With an island instead of a wall, you might actually have a place to sit. New developments are invariably designed with open floor plans, a trend that’s reinforced by ever-shrinking apartments. Without any walls, a prospective tenant might not realize how small the space really is.
Developers claim the tenants like it. “Many new renters and buyers are embracing the open concept,” said Chris Schmidt, a senior vice president for Related Companies who oversees the developer’s rental portfolio. “It allows, certainly, the flexibility for entertaining and cooking.”
Schmidt pointed to millennials in particular as a “generation who crave that social interaction,” and so “are going to crave that open concept versus walling everything off.”
Owners of older apartments also see the potential in a sledgehammer, with an enthusiasm fueled not only by HGTV, but by home-improvement design websites like Houzz, which features endless images of Instagram-ready open living spaces.
“People walk into every space, regardless of the condition, and want to make an adjustment,” said Sydney Blumstein, an associate broker with Corcoran. People “feel like they must personalize a space to make it theirs, and that goes beyond home décor.”
And what better way to personalize than to make yours look like everyone else’s?
The fixation with openness extends to the suburbs, where buyers eagerly take down walls in the kitchen and living room, and widen doorways. “People are definitely looking at the floor plans,” said Judith Daniels, a sales associate with Prominent Properties Sotheby’s International Realty, who works frequently with first-time buyers moving from the city to Summit, Short Hills, Maplewood and South Orange — New Jersey towns with large, colonial homes that weren’t originally designed to look like lofts. “They’re looking for openness that’s already there or the ability to do it, just by opening the wall.”
But do we really need so much togetherness? That fabulous dinner party where guests wander endlessly from the kitchen to the living room feels far less glamorous with everyone staring at a sink full of dirty pots, or smelling the burned soufflé in the oven. Sure, the idea of watching your children play while you make dinner sounds great, but only until you’re trying to listen to Terry Gross on NPR while an episode of “Peppa Pig” blasts from the other side of what used to be a wall.
Then, of course, there are all those Houzz pictures. None of them show what it’s like when you haven’t tidied up in a week and you’re left staring at the living room clutter while you eat breakfast. With no walls, there’s nowhere to hide.
“It went so far about opening everything up,” said Jade Joyner, the chief creative officer of Metal + Petal, an interior design firm in Athens, Georgia. “There’s something nice about privacy and having your own space.” In the last year, she’s noticed the beginnings of a pushback against the doctrine of openness. Clients have been asking for media rooms, libraries and playrooms set off from the main living area. A quiet den means you can come home from work and not immediately join the family, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It’s been indoctrinated that walls are bad, but they’re not,” Joyner said.
A home designed for entertaining does not necessarily take into account that most of the time you’re not entertaining. Mostly, you’re just living there, trying to read a book while your son practices the piano.
It also can be difficult to decorate an endless expanse of space. “My biggest issue with an open floor plan is lack of wall space. Where do you hang things?” said Abbe Fenimore, a Dallas-based interior designer who otherwise embraces open concept.
After the carpenter rebuilt my wall, I painted the dining room a deep teal, and the living room white. The two spaces, which once felt like they competed with each other for attention, now seem more defined. If the children’s homework is spread out on the dining table, I don’t have to look at it from the sofa anymore and wonder when it will get finished.
As for my friends, when I had a few of them over for dinner to celebrate the redecorated space, no one even noticed the wall. It was like it had always been there.
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