Trend watch: the great room

I was out for an evening stroll in Connecticut over the weekend and I found myself staring into newly constructed or renovated homes. The anthropologist’s work is never done, especially when people refuse to pull their drapes.

Most of these places had very large and open spaces on the main floor, almost as if people had constructed lofts in their living rooms.

Pam knew exactly what these were: “great rooms,” she said. Apparently, great rooms are a standing fixture of the suburban home. Or, in the words of a construction firm on line:

“Great rooms have become essential components of today’s home designs. Many families plan the rest of the home around the great room. It is where friends are made, games are played and families spend quality time together.”

Interesting. It feel as if the North American family is in the process of reinstalling the great hall of the medieval home. These were spaces in which many people, engaged in many activities, worked, played and mixed. The great room, by contradistinction, is not so much about allowing external diversities to assemble, as it is an attempt to accommodate the diversities within.

About 10 years ago, apparently, someone saw that if the family was to survive its new multiplicity of personnel and project, it would have to create spaces in which people could be alone together. Atomism was the only alternative. And no family, not even a post modern one, could survive that.

If the great room is a kind of great hall, it has lots implications for the ways in which the individual and the family define themselves, and once more we are looking at the rise of what the sociologists call loose boundedness. These spaces are designed to allow and forgive diverse activities, to make the self and the family more porous (or mutually accessible), to allow diversity to find their expressive beneath a single roof.

Loosebounded spaces are, in sum, emerging to accomodate, and so enable, loosebounded definitions of the family and the self. Once more, messiness is the structural signature of our age.

Any thoughts on whether and how these great rooms work as domestic spaces would be very much appreciated.


Clark, Clifford E. Jr. 1976. Domestic Architecture as an Index to Social History: The Romantic Revival and the Cult of Domesticity in America, 1840-1870. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7: 35-56.

Douglas, Mary. 1993. The idea of a home: A kind of space. Home: A place in the world. editor Arien Mack, 261-81. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Grier, Katherine C. 1988. Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors and Upholstery, 1850-1930. Rochester: Strong Museum.

Halttunen, Karen. 1989. From parlor to living room: Domestic space, interior decoration, and the culture of personality. Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America 1880-1920. editor Simon J. Bronner, 157-89. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company for the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.

Rybczynski, Witold. 1986. Home: a short history of an idea. New York, N.Y: Viking.

5 thoughts on “Trend watch: the great room

  1. Ennis

    You must have been in an old part of CT where they still had sidewalks 😉 In a gated community in other parts of the country, the local security would come by and ask who you were, and where you were going. I recall, but don’t have the cite for this, that there are towns in CA (California, nor Canada) were zoning prohibits sidewalks.

    People don’t draw their drapes b/c they don’t expect anybody to be walking by!

  2. Brian Hawkins

    I have mixed feelings about the great room. My family moved from a medium-sized split level into a large ranch-style house with a great room in the middle when I was 14.

    The design does enable families to be “alone together”…but it can make being truly alone rather difficult. Even though the new house was nearly twice as big as the old one (in terms of square footage), I had much less privacy. Which was kind of a drag from ages 14-18.

    What’s funny is that since I’ve moved out, it irritates me much more when I go home for a visit. If the TV or radio is on in the great room (or the kitchen, with which it communicates) there is almost no place in the house where it cannot be heard. As most of the activity in the house centers around those rooms, it is rarely quiet..I guess if you’re used to the noise, it’s OK, but since I’ve lived on my own for a long time, and now with a partner who also likes a quiet house, it’s hard to tolerate.

  3. lenore

    great room contemplater, please contact me. i’m a columnist at the new york daily news writing about the great room and gigantic houses in general, but on a tight deadline. so email soon! thanks — Lenore skenazy

  4. lenore

    great room contemplater, please contact me. i’m a columnist at the new york daily news writing about the great room and gigantic houses in general, but on a tight deadline. so email soon! thanks — Lenore skenazy

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