Elements of Design: Architectural Character
A room’s style is generally dictated by its size, proportion and detailing — or lack of these. Clearly, it would be incongruous to furnish a small, low-ceilinged and dark room with massive soaring furniture, or a large high room with delicate spindly pieces. And, although panelled rooms, or rooms with elaborate mouldings, can be furnished with entirely contemporary furnishings to interesting and idiosyncratic effect, the treatment needs a sure eye and a good deal of confidence. For most of us it is usually more effective, and certainly a great deal safer, to be sensitive to the general ‘feel’ of a space, and to design and furnish accordingly.
This does not mean that a poorly proportioned space cannot be altered in any way that seems feasible. Ceilings in cavernous spaces can be lowered at moderate expense, and this might also allow a more flexible lighting plan with a system of downlights, wallwashers and pinpoint spots. (Such light strategies can, of course, also change the look of a space at night quite significantly.) Any existing mouldings should be restored or replaced. If there are none why not think of putting some in? This may be expensive, but the overall effect should be well worth the cost.
Ceilings that seem too low can often be made to seem less oppressive by visual means. For example, you can paint them a much lighter colour than the walls, or you could have them in a slightly darker shade but put in a 30cm/12in stripe around the ceiling’s perimeter so that the central space seemed to be raised. Vertically striped wallpaper or fabric will make rooms seem taller, as willjudiciously placed in corners so as to splash light onto the ceiling.
Sometimes the simple expedient of blocking up a door and putting in a new one in a different part of the room can make a huge difference to the seeming proportions of a room; additionally, the resiting of a door can make a room a great deal more comfortable and elegant. Also, if there is more than one door in a room and they are of different heights, they can be equalized to make the space seem more harmonious. A room can be made to look considerably more gracious and effectively longer if you replace the built-in shelves and cabinets at one end with a handsome free-standing piece of furniture — for example, a bureau-bookcase with, say, mirrors or paintings on either side and perhaps an accompanying pair of chairs. Alternatively, a small characterless room can be made infinitely more appealing if you line it with bookshelves, maybe leaving alcoves for sofas.
Mirrored alcoves either side of a chimney breast can add inches to the apparent length and height of a room, quite apart from improving its light. You can get a similar effect by mirroring between a pair of windows.
Lengthening windows — or installing French doors in their stead if a room leads onto a terrace, deck, balcony or garden — invariably has a miraculous effect on the appearance of a room, provided, of course, that such windows do not look incongruous from the outside or spoil a carefully designed facade. In the same way, an additional window or two — assuming once again that they suit the exterior and you have the relevant permission — will vastly improve the sense of light and air in the room.
A final way to disguise poor proportions is to use a wood floor that is either much lighter or much darker; such a tactic makes an immediate statement. If the floorboards are in bad condition they may have to be replaced with new boards and parquet; or they could be bleached, stained or varnished.
All through history, interior architectural detailing —ceiling decorations, mouldings, pillars, columns, arches, chair rails, dados, wainscoting, panelling, door-cases, pediments and so on — has been considered an essential part of a room by those who could afford it. Although the Bauhaus movement in the 1920s resulted in a paring-down of such elements to rely on form and structure for decoration, rather than on embellishments, the more eclectic of the general public have never given up exploring antique shops, country sales, auction rooms, junk shops and demolition yards for decorative elements to incorporate in their homes.
The Post-Modernist movement of the 1970s and 1980s has, of course, put ornament, or an approximation of it, back into the mainstream. Now there is, too, a brisk trade in well detailed fibreglass, plaster and wood columns, mouldings, balustrading, niches, corbels and panelling as people attempt to add character and atmosphere to the plain rooms of new apartment buildings and housing developments. In the same vein, just as it was fashionable in the middle years of the century to rip out or cover up and fill in old beams, mouldings and all too often (alas) old fireplaces, in the course of ‘modernizing’ old houses it is now equally de rigueur to renovate and revive, to try to uncover, open up, and generally restore or replace all the former details.
It is interesting how even the simplest cornice (crown molding) can add elegance to a space and, of course, if a ceiling is sufficiently high, the more elaborate the cornice, the grander the room appears.
If, as in so many rooms built in mid-century and later, the ceiling is not high, it is still possible to add simple slim beading or, as an alternative, one of the many paper borders available; these now include well drawn architectural cornices and dados, as well as the more usual floral and geometric designs. Fabric wall-covering can always be finished off using polished, stained or painted wood beading, decorative braid, or even lengths of picture frame in gilt, silver or polished wood. Stencilled borders (available in kits or made yourself) look decorative on plain painted walls.
A good approximation of a dado or chair rail can be effected by simply applying lengths of 4-5cm/1-1/2in – 2in moulding to a wall at waist height and either painting or papering the space below in a way that contrasts with the general wall colour or finish. Painted panelling can be simulated by lengths of moulding applied in rectangles or squares. Lengths of moulding in various designs can generally be bought from goodor decorating stores.
A final sense of attention to detail will certainly be imparted by the room’s: the door handles, fingerplates, window catches, light switches and dimmers. All of these fixtures look handsome in brass, but light switches and sockets (outlets) can alternatively be effectively painted in with the walls to achieve a simple touch of character and style.