A brief history of living rooms and their televisions

Once upon a time there were no televisions.

For thousands of years living rooms and their precursors were focused inward—inhabitants interacted with people or things within the space. There was no connectivity to the world beyond. Furniture layouts were arranged around warmth (a fire), towards conversation (other people), or towards privacy (a chair turned away from the rest of the inhabitants). Rooms were simple and flexible. One didn’t need to face the fire to be warm. One didn’t need to always have the person speaking in the same location at all times.

Then, right before televisions, radios appeared. AM broadcasting arrived in the 1920s and FM took off after WWII (1). Big cabinet radios populated living rooms. The focal point of the room became a box emitting sounds from beyond. The radio unlike a phonograph, piano, or other musical instrument brought entertainment in from a distance and commanded attention.

Televisions arrived en-mass around the middle of the 20th century. The exact date doesn’t matter, though my dad remembers when his family got their first TV, and he was born in 1942. I was born 39 years later in 1981 and TVs were something everyone had (though we still had to walk to the TV to change the channel; we couldn’t yet control them on our yet-to-exist smartphones). Well everyone but one family I knew had a TV—they intentionally didn’t have a TV so that their kids would learn Russian before English. And while a wise move for a bilingual family, it was scandalous among the children in our school. Needless to say, when these children visited our house, ALL they wanted to do was watch TV.

The first TVs were like the radios before them: big boxes, like miniature curios or high boys. The screens weren’t huge, but the volume of the TVs were bulky. They were pieces of furniture. Living rooms adapted. Architects were compelled to design spaces that contained big boxes that people wanted to look at. We resisted of course. TVs are an inconvenience to design around.

Between the first TV that my dad remembers and the TV I bought in 2001 as a junior in college, the screens grew in size faster than the boxes to the point where a coveted TV in 2001 was basically a 26″-30″ cube with one face that was almost entirely a screen (doesn’t that description sound suspiciously like the evolution of smartphones?). These CRT behemoths were what I first dealt with in my early career as an intern (architect in training). We would design cabinetry that had a compartment deep enough for a TV; a space that increased in depth as it got taller and wider. From the advent of television to the time I started my career (about fifty years), architects went from designing a spot to place a piece of furniture to finding a wall where we could put a giant square hole in a cabinet.

2006

My wife and I bought a house in 2006 in Minnesota. It had a classic example of this square cabinet hole. Miraculously the TV I bought five years earlier fit with fractions of an inch to spare. For years the space with the TV in our Minnesota had a couch on one side and a TV on the other. It was a classic living room as theater. But over time we  realized the room wasn’t really a living room, but a TV/music room. And it sucked as a theater—the room was too bright, the viewing angles were off, it was completely open to the rest of the house. The space evolved into one where kids played and watched TV at the same time, or a limited number of people piled onto an oversized beanbag to snuggle and watch a movie.


Within a few years of my graduation from architecture school in 2005, televisions began to transform again. They flattened out and stretched. They still needed a space in a cabinet, but that space was a thinner rectangle. The depth of the cabinet was no longer controlled by the TV but by its accessories. A VCR was a standard depth. So was a DVD player. And if a client had a stereo system, that quickly became the determining factor.

Over the past ten years TVs have continued to get thinner and thinner. Now they are hug on walls or placed delicately on low entertainment stands. From an architectural standpoint, they have become two-dimensional planes. We no longer worry about depth, just wall space. TVs are treated like prominent paintings. This can lead to some disasters like the TV over fireplace solution—let’s never do that again, okay?

Furthermore, the accessories have all but vanished. With each passing month more of our media lives remotely in digital format. Most of us still have blu-ray players and game systems, but that’s about it. And those accoutrements are a fraction of the size that they once were; they easily fit in a 12″ deep space. I’m sure the next generation won’t even bother with these accessories.

My wife and I have a sizable collection of DVDs and blu-ray discs, most of which date from 2001-2011. Our library of physical media is smaller than it once was; the VHS tapes are all gone and what DVDs and blu-rays remain are mostly kids stuff. Because that form of media is something that is rugged enough to be handled by a five year old. Or more to the point, that’s media we care so little about that we’ve been letting our daughters handle them for years.

Along with the decreased need for accessories, wires have also become less important. You’ll see in the image below that there is still a digital Cthulhu of wires below my TV. But they really all go to one powerstrip. And if I were more conscientious, they’d be pretty much hidden. The important point is all those cords are connecting the system to itself and then to power. If it were just a TV, it’d be one power cord and nothing else. All the content arrives wirelessly and in fact more and more of the accessories are also going wireless, which means they can sit away from the TV, tucked somewhere out of the way.

2016

Very recently we moved our TV out of our living room and put it in our laundry room (our current home in Seattle, not our previous home in St. Paul shown above). Okay it’s a poorly designed space in our house that has a couch, a washer, a dryer, and needs to be walked through to get to our bedroom. It now has the TV and it’s great. My daughters use the TV to watch shows and play the Wii. This room has much more space to jump around in. It doesn’t have a Noguchi Coffee Table or giant window for them to fall through. Because of the advance in technology, it’s important for the TV to be in a space that allows dancing. Once again, we separated the TV from the living room and put it in a space focused on active engagement.

My wife and I hardly use the TV now. The only live TV we’ve watched in the past few years are the Super Bowls that the Seahawks made it to and the presidential debates. That’s not to say we don’t watch things. We just use an iPad or a laptop. Both are portable and can be set up wherever we are: at the table while eating, in the backyard while lounging, on the kitchen counter while cooking, on the couch, in bed… The resolution on those screens are super high and the effective viewing area of an iPad or 15″ Macbook Pro a foot or two from your face isn’t much different from a 46″ TV on the other side of the room.

Our living room still needs some rearranging and updates, but with the TV removed it has been transformed. It is once again a place for sitting alone or conversing with others. Of course, those others might be on the other end of Skype—via an ipad, phone or laptop. And odds are we have music wafting in from the Alexa sitting a few feet away on our kitchen counter. The living room without a TV in 2016 is still a connected room. It’s still a room for passive and active entertainment and communication. But it’s not subservient to one technology, to a television. There no longer is a giant black void quietly whispering, “Turn me on. Watch something. Submit to my presence.”

These images clearly show the struggle I’ve had in my own life to find the right place for a TV. Whether a giant cube or a big, flat rectangle, our typical homes don’t have great layouts for mini-theaters. I’m sure this struggle isn’t unique to my life. Think back to all the houses you’ve lived in. How often has there been a truly good place for a TV? How have you compromised spaces for yourself and your clients to get the box or plane of a TV just so.

I’ve designed houses where we placed a giant cube in a cabinet; I’ve designed houses where we’ve left a space on the wall; and I’ve designed houses where we pretended TVs didn’t exist and just left it up to the client to figure out a solution. I wager that very soon a client will say don’t bother placing a TV anywhere. Actually I stand corrected. On the backyard cottage I sent off to permit a few weeks ago we already did that. We know where a TV could go, but we all know there’ll never be one hung there. And in fact the space where the TV could go assumes that TVs will evolve a little bit more before one is placed there.

Technology evolves unfathomably fast. My dad remembers his family’s first TV, I remember my family’s first computer, and yet my daughters don’t remember a time before laptops, smartphones, tablets, or near ubiquitous WiFi. My brain breaks when I try to think about the technology available to my father’s parents when they were born in 1908 and 1909. They probably remembered their family’s first radio.

I was reading The Economist this past week and I saw a stat that it wasn’t until 1912 that cars outnumbered horses in New York City. And the last horse-drawn streetcar wasn’t retired in Manhattan until 1917. My father’s parents were alive for the transition from horses to cars. My daughters might be the last generation that needs to learn how to drive. Or they might be the first generation since my grandparents were born that doesn’t need to learn. It’s similar with TVs. My father was the first generation where owning a TV was the normal thing. With the increase of portable screens and the merging of televisions and computers, my daughters might not bother with televisions and theater living rooms. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back and owning a TV will once again be abnormal.

2026

Prognosticating the future is hard, but let’s gamble. If televisions don’t vanish, I foresee them going from two-dimensional planes on a wall to just becoming the walls themselves. Imagine having an entire wall of a house that is a touch-screen TV. No. Don’t. That’s actually a stupid idea, unless every surface could be a screen. What benefit would there be to replacing a giant flat screen that can be moved around the house with an even larger stationary screen. That’d be a mistake. That’d be repeating the sins of the past when we filled our houses with useless wires. But that’s getting into an idea for another post.

Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. For more thoughts on similar topics check out: my computer never forgets my birthday, my house is full of wires I don’t need, and to be a better architect, learn how to talk to computers.

10 Comments

  1. Andy Kilanowski December 5, 2016
    • Jared Banks December 6, 2016
  2. Mark December 6, 2016
    • Jared Banks December 6, 2016
  3. Mark Wallace AIA December 23, 2016
    • Jared Banks December 23, 2016
  4. Melissa Burn January 12, 2017
    • Jared Banks January 13, 2017
  5. Mike McLaughlin January 23, 2017
    • Jared Banks January 23, 2017

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