The Casual, Trendy, Absolutely Normative Postwar American Family Room

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The Casual, Trendy, Absolutely Normative Postwar American Family Room

If, as Tolstoy claimed, happy families are all alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, how to explain the mid-20th century convention of the family room? It sprung up sometime after the Great Depression as a hub for the communal needs of family members—a down-to-earth alternative to the stuffy, formal living room, which, at the same time, displayed and contained spoils of America’s expanding economy. Think of it as an incubator for the nuclear family. A trend and then institution, it was a symbol of middle-class familial harmony while being conceptually vague enough to allow for individual family customization—a suggestion that families could be all happy in their own way, at least superficially. The family room’s specific genericism was rendered into art when the architectural firm of Venturi and Rauch organized the “Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City,” exhibition in 1976 at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibit’s model family room, according to Newsweek, was “dominated by plywood paneling, a leatherette recliner, and oil paintings.” Homemade homey.

American homeowners had decided that they weren’t living right some time in the middle of the last century. The living room, typically a front-of-house showcase of the home’s best furniture and decorations reserved for formal entertaining, which succeeded the 19th-century institution of the parlor, just wasn’t cutting it. Middle-class families in the years after the Great Depression and World War II yearned for a space that would foster togetherness, allow for leisure pursuits, and generally embody the growing cultural interest in “casual living.” A living room that they could actually live in. Enter the family room.

The term “family room” was perhaps coined by George Nelson and Henry Wright in their 1945 book Tomorrow’s House: A Complete Guide for the Home Builder. The pair reported a few unrelated conversations with architects and a new homeowner who had all seemingly independently arrived at the idea of a sort of multipurpose room for the whole family. The chapter devoted to this innovation, “The Room Without a Name,” walked right into resolving the uncertainty of how to label this new den of miscellany:

Could the room without a name be evidence of a growing desire to provide a framework within which the members of a family will be better equipped to enjoy each other on the basis of mutual respect and affection? Might it thus indicate a deep-seated urge to reassert the validity of the family by providing a better design for living? We should like very much to think so, and if there is any truth in this assumption, our search for a name is ended—we should simply call it the “family room.” As a matter of fact, even without social theories, it is still a very good and completely accurate name.

And so it was. This “deep-seated urge the reassert the validity of the family by providing a better design for living” that Nelson and Wright described was hardly confined to the family room—if anything, the family room was a symbol of a larger cultural vision of the white nuclear family ruled by the father, whose throne was, in many cases, a La-Z-Boy recliner. The post-war economic boom fostered a cultural imperative of pursuing leisure both outside of the home (in the form of vacations, for example) as well as within, as the family room’s popularity suggested. In retrospect, the image of the family room looks something like the shell of a diorama displaying the prototypical perfect white family unit.

Image:Photo by Keystone/Getty Images (Getty Images)

According to James A. Jacobs’s 2006 article in the Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture journal, “Social and Spatial Change in the Postwar Family Room,” some five years after Nelson and Wright’s book was released, Better Homes & Gardens called the family room “the newest idea in home planning” in its June 1950 issue. That domestic bible followed up that declaration with an article in its September 1950 issue devoted to the family room called “Live Without Pretense.” “Somewhere, someone got the idea of bringing terrace living indoors so that this same type of easy entertaining could be possible year around,” read James M. Lison’s piece. “The idea caught on quickly and was adapted to suit family needs. The result has been a widespread development of family rooms.”

By 1965, some two decades after the term “family room” was coined, seven out of 10 houses that year had been constructed with a family room, according to a National Association of Home Builders poll quoted by Jacobs. By then, though, things had gotten too out of hand for some. Jacobs quotes a 1958 Washington Post piece on the Congress on Better Living, an annual meeting of women sponsored by McCall’s, during which family rooms were deemed having become “too many things to too many people.”

But that was always the idea—to break away from the stuffy standardization of the living room and carve out a space suited for the specific needs of the family. In 1955, American Builder (via Jacobs) called the family room “a catch-all for the entire range of family activities” and defined its key feature as informality, “which is characteristic of our whole way of life.” Nelson and Wright quoted an architect who said this as-yet-unnamed room was for “everything, practically…Ping pong, bridge, movies, dancing. The children can play there. Or you could cook in the fireplace. Good place for a dinner party, too.” A 1958 spread in the New York Times Magazine defined the family room’s original concept as “a place where all members of the family can entertain themselves without too much regard for the furnishings.” The aforementioned Better Homes and Gardens feature from 1950 posited the family room as a potential showcase for a women’s whims (“…The woman who has always wanted to do an Early American room, with hooked rugs, cottage curtains, and a big, circular dining table, has a wonderful opportunity to let herself go”), an opportunity for previously timid men to get their design on (“Most men don’t feel qualified to improve on a woman’s touch in the living room, but when it comes to a family room, a man is in his element”), and a haven for wild, sloppy teens as “a room where they won’t have to worry about spills and mars, where it’s easy to roll back the rug and spacious enough for a real hoedown.”

The family room offered the opportunity for the assertion of familial individuality—that is, individuality insofar as it was possible within the structure of rigid gender norms and white Judeo-Christian ideals—tucked away as it was in house plans that still thrust the living room to the front. During its initial proliferation, the family room was spacious enough to contain two seemingly conflicting ideals of middle-class capitalism at the time: conformity and standardization on one hand, and the promise that one’s individual consumer needs could be met, on the other.

As the less comfortable, less used living room still kept up appearances, the family room was not quite an emancipation from all pretenses of standard living, though. It was more a way to compartmentalize so as to live without pretense sometimes. Even in its down home, easy-chair kind of way, the family room kept up its own appearances. As Jacobs notes: “As houses grew in size and expense, differentiated space became a key sign of middle-class membership.” And yet, the living room, too, remained ill-defined for many families—as late as 2010, a Times piece wondered aloud: “What exactly is a living room? Is it a formal room for special occasions, or a casual space for everyday life?” Differentiating communal living spaces in a family home is not science—it’s a fuzzy, upholstered logic.

Yet the family room did have some standard components, according to Nelson and Wright: furnishings and materials “on the ‘tough’ side,” a certain ease of cleaning, and ample storage for family members’ leisurely inclinations. While Jacobs recognized that the family room was often cast as the informal answer to the living room’s formality, he cited a 1964 survey that deemed the family room “active” to the living room’s “quiet.”

The idea that the family room was actually the room people lived in (as opposed to the living room, where they played pretend) held. As interior designer Paul Bloom told the Hartford Courant in a 2015 article called “What Makes a Great Family Room”:

This is a place to sit, to read, to stare out the window with coffee or wine, to have a semi-formal meal with a small number of friends, to sit by the fire with or without grandkids. … Not for Architectural Digest — but home. Like a pair of shoes you’ve had for eight years and that you just like to wear around. Each object has emotional value.
What we imagine in a family room: comfortable snuggle seating, media space, uncluttered lines.

As media consumption became a cultural imperative, the family room became not just the media epicenter of the household, but the epicenter, period. Designer/architect Justin Riordan suggested this further distinguished the family room from the living room in an Apartment Therapy piece that ran earlier this year: “The family/media room does not center around conversation, but rather around the consumption of media, be it entertainment, video games, or internet. We use the family room to interact with screens and the living room to interact with each other.”

As our screens have multiplied and viewing options are no longer confined to a single television in a single room, it may seem like the family room has lost its relevance. A 2011 article in Communication Research Reports, “Television as a Social or Solo Activity: Understanding Families’ Everyday Television Viewing Patterns,” reported the results of a study (albeit one limited in scope, as only 30 families were observed) that found parents were more likely to watch television in common spaces and pair viewing with social interaction. In contrast, “children appeared more likely to watch TV alone, to watch in bedrooms rather than in common home spaces, and to pair TV watching with other leisure rather than in-person communication. Therefore, not only do children appear to watch more TV than parents, they also watch in more isolation.” If the family room is the TV room, does the family start to deteriorate when television viewing happens outside of the family room’s walls?

Not necessarily. The family room’s multipurpose nature is embedded in its concept. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many people to use their homes in ways they weren’t previously: Family rooms now serve as makeshift gyms, their couches can function as the work-from-home office. Additionally, as Apartment Therapy points out, the growing trend of open-floor plans means a breakdown in distinctions in general:

Because more and more homes have open floor plans, [Sherri Monte, interior-design/home-organizing firm owner] says the distinction between living rooms and family rooms is becoming less clear. “With open space floor plans taking over, both entertaining spaces have become so interchangeable that the main difference between a family room and a living room really comes down to how one actually plans to live life in their home,” she says.

Yet again, individualism rules, and this seems at least partially influenced by the conceptual opening-up of the home that the family room helped spearhead. After all, what is an open-floor plan that offers all things to all inhabitants but one, big happy family room? It seems no coincidence that just as the notion of the family has expanded in recent years (to include, for example, queer parents and their children), at least among progressives, so has the family room itself. The walls have come tumbling down, literally and metaphorically, and the family room is as on the nose and vague in concept as ever.

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