How to Design a Home That’s Great for Entertaining

Most of us can feel it when we’re in one, yet can find it difficult to identify the specific elements that make a home great for entertaining. What gives a space its warm, inviting ambiance? Is it the lighting? The size of the space? The availability and arrangement of seating?

To get to the bottom of what makes a space ideal for hosting, we asked several home building and design experts to share their insights with us. Whether tackling a dining room, kitchen, living room or outdoor space, here is what we discovered about creating a space that begs to be filled with guests.

 1. Creating a Home That’s Great for Guests is Not One Size Fits All

A Scott Byron & Company-designed outdoor space at a home in Lake Forest. Photo credit: Scott Byron & Company
A Scott Byron & Company-designed outdoor space at a home in Lake Forest. Photo credit: Scott Byron & Company

The first step in creating a home that’s ready to host is to determine what a homeowner’s entertaining needs are.

“[A great space for entertaining] should be a space that matches your entertaining style,” Tony Perry, architect and president of A. Perry Homes, says. “Some people love elegant cocktail parties in larger spaces, others like a cozy space that exudes comfort. I prefer having rooms that can change the seating arrangement easily to accommodate the event’s needs.”

Jeannie Balsam, interior designer and owner of Jeannie Balsam LLC, and her team ask new clients everything from where their extended family lives to the age and number of their kids, as all of these factors influence the number of guests a family usually hosts and the type of entertaining they do. Empty nesters have different at-home entertaining needs than young parents, for example.

Joe Tominaro of Scott Byron & Co, a landscape architecture firm, asks new clients: “What are you looking to accomplish with your outdoor space?” as a means of determining whether the space will be used for relaxing, entertaining or a combination of the two.

2. Scale Matters More Than Size

It’s a misconception that having an entertaining-ready home means it needs to be large. In fact, designers advise that it’s the scale that matters more than the size. Think about cartoon dining rooms where two people are sitting, usually uncomfortably, on opposite ends of an epically long table. This is not the environment most of us want to create when hosting guests at home.

“Homes become less comfortable when the scale is out of proportion,” Balsam says. “You can have just as much fun or more when you are close together.”

Perry agrees. “It is about the right amount of space and scale for your needs,” he says. “Rooms that are too tall feel cold and uninviting.”

3. It’s All About Flexibility & Multifunctional Use

“Flexibility is the single biggest change in design in the last 20 years,” Perry says. “Homes need to be designed to accommodate a large party, a small intimate gathering and sometimes just two people.”

Formal dining rooms have become less popular in recent decades, as homeowners instead opt to create an expanded take on a breakfast nook within their kitchens. And the open floor plan trend means a kitchen space often also includes a comfortable seating area and fireplace as well.

A Mick de Giulio-designed open plan kitchen, dining and living space in Winnetka. Photo credit: Trends Publishing

“Sometimes we are foregoing a formal dining space and making the breakfast room into a sunroom with an eating area,” Perry says. “It often has the prettiest view and is best suited for people who entertain casually. By putting out the fancy china and fine linens, this space converts to a dramatic, gorgeous dining space that often can seat many more than a dining room.”

Mick de Giulio, of de Giulio Kitchen Design, builds many “expanded” kitchen spaces in lieu of formal dining rooms.

“In my own kitchen, I have a fireplace, soft seating and great views from a big window that provides lots of natural light,” he says. “It all relates to the idea of an open plan—having that space include more than just the kitchen and cabinets.”

Balsam makes it her mission to get clients to use all the rooms of their home—from living rooms and dining rooms to studies—by making them inviting and multi-functional. A kitchen is no longer just for cooking; it’s also for socializing, entertaining and spending time with family. Dining rooms, if large enough, can have side seating along the walls, in addition to a dining table, in order to encourage family and guests to move about the room and use it in different ways.

She recently designed a “keeping room” (see image below) just off of a client’s kitchen that features a space for dining, reading or playing games as a family as well as hosting guests.

A combination family room and kitchen is Perry’s personal favorite space for entertaining.

“I casually entertain often, and my home was designed for the family cooking competitions that we like to host,” he says. “We need lots of counter space, places to read our recipes, internet research spots and lots of prep-work space. The adjoining and family room is comfortable and open, allowing for people to spread out.”

The multi-use trend extends outside as well. Outdoor kitchens are becoming increasingly popular, in part because they serve to keep guests and hosts together.

“With an outdoor kitchen, you’re able to have a wet bar, as well as built-in ice machines and refrigerators, so there’s no going back and forth for condiments or beverages,” Tominaro says. “The new designs allow you to enjoy the space with your guests.”

Tominaro also says that more and more clients are incorporating oversized sliding or folding doors that—when open—essentially eliminate the wall between an interior room and exterior space.

“People want a good amount of free flow between the interior and outdoors,” he says—and these flexible walls are a great way to achieve that.

4. How to Think About Seating

A Jeannie Balsam-designed keeping room in Lake Forest. Photo credit: Nick Johnson

Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to seating, too.

Balsam says she incorporates flexible seating into the first floor designs for a home wherever possible. Think console tables or coffee tables with ottomans or benches tucked underneath, plus well-placed occasional chairs.

This strategy eliminates the need to be dependent on folding chairs for guests—although for clients who entertain a lot, she does recommend investing in Chiavari chairs, which can be stacked and stored when not in use.

“Err on the side of being just short of what the total count might be and have some chairs within easy reach,” Perry advises. “A mix of sofas, chairs, benches and ottomans will give everyone an option.”

De Giulio says he incorporates a comfortable seating area and counter stools into nearly all of the kitchens he designs.

“People want to be engaged,” he says. “And not feel like the kitchen is separated into a work area while everyone else is in another area of the house.”

Offering up a mix of seating types and areas encourages people to feel comfortable in different spaces both inside and outside of a home.

Tominaro recommends a combination of seating types to clients planning outdoor spaces. Even for city-dwelling clients finding solutions for small terraces, he recommends one space for sitting and lounging, and a separate space for dining.

5. Setting the Mood

Music is one way to bring energy to a party and to tie several different spaces together, so the designers recommend investing in a sound system that connects rooms inside and outside.

An A. Perry-designed kitchen with seating area in Lake Forest. Photo: A. Perry Homes
An A. Perry-designed kitchen with seating area in Lake Forest. Photo: A. Perry Homes

Perry notes that lighting is an often-overlooked element. “A balance of direct and indirect lighting with dimmers can achieve a multitude of desired effects,” he advises, noting that homeowners should not forget to use outdoor lighting to set the mood al fresco as well.

All of the designers mentioned the importance of having ample space to store items used for entertaining, such as platters and serving ware—either in a separate room like a butler’s pantry or within a sideboard. Nothing can put a hitch in plans to entertain like an overwhelming sense of clutter, and that’s where having the right kind of storage throughout the house can help.

De Giulio notes that many projects now incorporate a layered kitchen design with two distinct but connected kitchens: one that is part of the living space, and another behind it that’s not necessarily seen by guests and can be used by caterers.

Layering is also important when it comes to the design details of a space.

“It’s all about layering to make it inviting,” Balsam says. “Mixing soft fabrics with leathers, adding mirrors and metals, and finding the right mix of all that. Layering draws people in and makes them feel comfortable and invited.”

Most importantly, Balsam notes, is for homeowners to create a home space that gives them the confidence to entertain, even at the last-minute, so that they never miss the opportunity to create beautiful memories with family and friends.

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