It can be downright baffling to pin down the difference between two seemingly identical concepts. In the epic clash of living room vs. family room, is there really a clear distinction? As a matter of fact, yes.
Just as we discovered when exploring the nuances between modern and contemporary design, there's a lot in a label. While plenty of people use the terms "living room" and "family room" more or less interchangeably, they actually aren't the same thing — larger homes sometimes even have both — and it all comes down to how you use the space.
Along with the kitchen, the living room is the main common space in most family homes, but the exact nature of how to use it has been mysterious for a long time.
According to Joan DeJean, writing for the, living rooms started out as formal display spaces for welcoming guests in the 17th century, but slowly morphed into the more casual gathering spaces that we know today. In some contemporary homes, the living room is totally relaxed, but in others, especially larger homes with multiple common areas, the living room retains its more formal underpinnings.
As DeJean explains, "Some homes have a grand living room that gets only occasional use, while ordinary social activities take place in a smaller room with another name like family room or rec room. And in many homes, people socialize in the kitchen, while the living room, even if it’s not intended to make a design statement, gets almost no regular use."
The family room serves a similar function in the home to a living room: it's a gathering place for everyone to convene and relax together at the end of the day. That said, there are some differences. Family rooms are more relaxed spaces, and tend to be more kid-friendly. It's also a newer concept that dates to the mid-century.
In their book Peeking Through The Keyhole, authors Avi Friedman and David Krawitz note, "In the years following the Second World War, new spaces were created to accommodate activities unsuited to a formal living room or parlour," among them, "the family room, outfitted with a television and with furniture that could actually be used by children, an informal place where people could relax and spread out."
Is there really a difference?
At the end of the day, it's up the individual to define what a living room or family room really is for their household. Got lots of space and need to clarify what's what? Use both labels to denote how formal the room is. But if you live in a smaller space with one main gathering area, call it whatever you like — life is short, and the living room should be for living.