Unconventional Wisdom

Open floor plans are terrible for entertaining

You are being lied to by Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Unconventional Wisdom

Open floor plans are terrible for entertaining

You are being lied to by Chip and Joanna Gaines.

Challenging those faux-profound bits of knowledge so often taken for granted

Well over a decade into the architectural trend, it is obvious to me that, aesthetically speaking, open floor plans were a bad idea. Nevertheless, like any bad idea to which entire brand  strategies have been devoted, it is hard to kill; a quick browse of Zillow yields a sampling of apartment and homes whose formerly intelligible and attractive layouts have been sacrificed to the demands of house flipping.

Proof of the open floor plan’s tenacity can be found in one of its most influential popularizers: the HGTV show Fixer Upper, hosted by the preternaturally perky Chip and Joanna Gaines. Again and again, the Baylor housewife of the week leans in confidentially: “We love entertaining. So we really need an open floor plan.” Joanna nods. Joanna understands.

Open floor plans are for entertaining and entertaining is for open floor plans. Walls keep people apart, and so, Reagan-esque Joanna invites the aspiring hostess to tear them down. What’s left is a hearth, a central communal space, a private mead hall over which even the most prosaic homeowner may preside as its gracious Wealtheow.

It’s not an ignoble dream. But here’s the rub: the open floor plan is terrible for entertaining. The layout is not just mediocre, or generally bad, but terrible for the specific purpose for which it ostensibly exists. The open floor plan corresponds to an ideal of hospitality — a picture of constant togetherness combined with ample personal space — not to any of the conditions that make actually existing parties work. Indeed, it is actively hostile to several of them.

For instance, the open layout is a nightmare when it comes to the basic need to fill your party’s space. Nobody wants to feel like they’re at a poorly-attended party. Not the host, not the guests, nobody. It’s a downer. It wounds our fragile vanity, and sabotages some of the main reasons we go to parties: to meet new people, to see and be seen, to enjoy the peculiar possibilities that exist in a throng of acquaintances rather than a circle of intimates.

Neither do the brave souls who come to a party alone necessarily want to broadcast the fact. In a filled space, the edges of a group are not obvious, and an awkward or foolish moment melts into the general commotion. In an under-filled space, the ragged hinterlands of the party are painfully evident, as are their inhabitants. An unsuccessful effort to get the dance party started hangs in the air like a sentence of communal shame.

Thus, for the first hour or so as people arrive, the host must count on their party being a bit of a drag. For rooms built on a realistic human scale, this preliminary awkwardness is over quickly. Once surmounted, the well and even over-filled party creates the ineffable quality of energy. Energy is the end to which every principle of party-planning is directed. You want people’s temperatures slightly up, their voices slightly raised, their drinks flowing freely, the primal joy of movement and action flooding the scene, extending the normal social boundaries. It is energy, not sledgehammers, that actually remove the walls between people.

An open floor plan, on the other hand, is designed to maximize the floor to person ratio. This means that in practice you must only throw parties large enough to occupy the entire ground floor of your house. You cannot, as with differentiated floor plans, throw smaller parties in one room and larger parties between rooms. And since even the most social people rarely throw a party of this size more than once or twice a year, the result is not endless blowout bashes. It’s chronically under-filled parties, with a totally respectable number of guests nevertheless murmuring and clinging to each other like teen comedy prom rejects, clutching the kitchen island in an attempt to orient themselves in space.

The open layout is a nightmare when it comes to the basic need to fill your party’s space.

Open floor plans also violate the principle of free movement. When you throw a party, you are generally inviting into your home a variety of people, with different interests, conversational styles, and often, deeply-held beliefs. What you want to avoid at all costs is for your guests to get stuck talking to someone who bores or infuriates or incompetently flirts with them — or just stuck in a conversation that has naturally run its course. The solution is flow, which relies on plausible visual deniability.

To have a party where people can move without inhibition you need at least some terminating lines of vision. No one escaping a Burning Man buddhist wants to be seen, not heading off to refill her drink as she said, but flagging down a more interesting guest. Partially closed off frames also provide a tiny thrill of exploration: When you can’t see what might be happening around a corner or behind a doorway, you’re tempted to go and see.

The possibility of movement is necessary on an individual scale, and helpful at the general level as well. Part of this is about filling space: if a party can move from a smaller space to a larger, and then back to a smaller as it winds down to friends and stragglers, you can let the party develop organically without suffering mismatches.

But it also satisfies a human desire for novelty. Variegated spaces offer several different theaters of action. When one plays out, another takes its places and injects new life into the proceedings. Has the conversation on the porch or in the kitchen begun to lag? No need for desperate attempts to produce interesting topics; merely announce that it’s time to move into the living room for food or dancing or more cocktails or what have you.

Open floor plans, again, militate against this variety. The better an event is, the higher the chance that at any given time two guests will want a more intimate conversation, whether amorous, professional, or polemical. The smallest of nooks can provide an opportunity: a door, a corner, a hall. But it’s precisely these irregularities that open floor plans tend to avoid.

The last complaint against unwalled space is a comparatively trivial one, but just as likely to ruin an evening. A party’s energy depends on its music to a significant degree — it should be upbeat, and without making conversation futile, just loud enough to make people raise their voices a bit. This delicate balance is much easier to achieve without fighting off the echoing tendencies of space unhampered by cozy, cushioning walls. A version of hell for lesser sinners is probably a too-large room where you and precisely seven other people listen to The Chainsmokers played just too loudly, forever.

In a cynical mood, you might guess that the open floor plan is a permanent excuse from entertaining. Having purchased such an expensive and widely recognized signifier of sociability, it hardly matters whether you actually throw any parties. In a less cynical mood, you might say that the open floor plan is an attempt to enforce family closeness in a hyper-segmented moment of man-caves and laundry rooms. When so many of a house’s “desirable features” depend on separation by age and gender, the open-floor plan becomes a balancing monument to the importance of spending time together. You might say that it’s an attempt to create a privatized commons in the cul-de-sac. Or you might say that it’s an essentially arbitrary trend that happened to get noticed by the right people at the right moment. Just please, for the sake of all our social lives, stop saying that it’s “great for entertaining!!”

Clare Coffey writes from Idaho and throws uniformly excellent parties.