Open-plan living is great, but how do you divide up a space to create more intimate zones without losing that airy feel? Shannon Vos of VosCreative shares his favourite solutions.

“Remember the days when each room in the house had four walls and a couple of doors? With the trend towards open-plan living, we’re now challenged to define our spaces in different, more creative ways.

Of course, walls are the easiest and the simplest solution to mark out a space – even better, they hold up the roof – but they’re also enclosing, restricting flow and taking away that open feel we love so much. While there are some rooms that call for privacy (no-one wants a toilet behind a shoji screen), we spend most of our lives in the living area/kitchen/dining area, which means it’s not great design practice to shut all these rooms off from each other. Here, I’ll look at a range of elements and options that can characterise a space, create a mood and give a sense of purpose to an area without excluding it from the rest of the world.


Open shelving

Traditional freestanding bookshelves are a bit ‘has-been’ in design terms as they generally look cluttered and can be tricky to place. However, a smart room divider that can double as a storage unit or a bookshelf is an effective and inexpensive way to break up zones in the one area. A smaller unit can be moved around easily, if you feel you need to change it up every now and then, but be careful not to clutter the shelves with too much junk; it needs to look good from both sides. With a considered design, open shelving can also be an architectural feature.

This unit was designed by Nest Architects to separate the study from the dining space.



Similar to shelving, adding a screen to break up a room is easy and inexpensive. In those connected spaces – where you don’t need privacy – a feature timber installation can be the ideal solution. Just like a good shoji screen, a timber version can be a simple yet sophisticated application in a living/dining area for instance (as seen in the DTDA project below), where you need that something extra to divide the space.



Another smart treatment is to install curtains or fabric on a sliding track to create two spaces. Choosing this option can add tonnes of softness and a luxe feel to a space, while also giving the room a sense of charm. You can use heavy drapes if you want privacy, but I think the use of sheer fabric in this curtained-off dining area  works beautifully to give a sense of intimacy without the coldness of a solid structure.


Sunken floors

I think a sunken floor is the sexiest thing going around (in building terms, that is), but it’s one of those things you’ll need to talk to your architect or builder about before construction begins. A change in flooring level not only defines a space while maintaining an open feel, but it also creates drama. A good place to start is often just a small step – it can make all the difference. Choose another flooring option in a contrasting finish to make the most of the separation of zones. A variation in levels can also visually mark out a smaller area in a larger room. Playing with ceiling heights and bulkheads to reflect what is going on on the floor will add even more of a dramatic feel (but more on that later). Be sure to keep the drop in the floor level to less than one metre, or building inspectors will insist you install a handrail.


Dropped ceiling

Applying the same principles to the ceiling as you would with the sunken flooring treatment will give the same effect. Though it’s not as obvious as stepping onto a different floor level, a lowered ceiling will still zone off a space while retaining an open-plan vibe, as seen in this kitchen. Changing the ceiling finish is an easy way to emphasise the structural change.”

Interior design: William Street apartment by Katherine Wills Interiors


Want more? Try:
>> spare room solutions from Shannon Vos
>> bedroom layouts: design tips from Shannon Vos
>> open-plan layout tips form Shannon Vos