Around The House, Good Bones

As much as I love offbeat design and contemporary architectural inventiveness, I find there is something immensely satisfying about walking into a house that has a balanced layout and well-proportioned rooms.

Like a classical sculpture of the human form, such a house embodies an ideal of beauty, order and symmetry that has an irresistible attraction. But alas, many houses, like many people, are not blessed with such "good bones" and, like people, they can benefit from a cosmetic makeover (or major architectural plastic surgery in some cases) to make the most of their own unique character.

From generic post-war apartments to the McMansions of recent decades, almost all spaces can benefit from some cosmetic help. Often, a little molding can go a long way in compensating for architectural flaws. Let me share a few of the common problems and various "fixes" I have employed.

Ceiling is too Low

Unless you happen to be a star player in the NBA, an eight foot ceiling is perfectly adequate but, like everything else in life, a comfortable ceiling height is subjective. Recently, I was measuring a riverfront condominium with my friend and associate, David, an architect born and raised in England. While I remarked that the 8′ ceiling felt low and a bit cramped, David — who, in spite of the fact that he is a good six inches taller than I am — said that he felt perfectly at home with the height because he had grown up accustomed to a ceiling height of 7’6" which had been the prescribed dimension for post-war buildings in Britain. Conditioning defies logic!

In any case, whether it is because we Americans are big, or because we want our "breathing room," or we want the "majesty" of a soaring ceiling, many of us request ways to make the ceiling appear higher. I recommend a couple of strategies.

1. Put a substantial crown molding around the perimeter of the room and paint the crown and the ceiling the same shade of white. The molding can be a satin finish and the ceiling a flat finish but use the same color.

2. A standard but tried-and- true piece of advice: incorporate vertical stripes into the wall treatment — use wallcovering or a painted finish.

3. Do not use a dark color on the ceilng — always use a lighter color on the ceiling than on the walls.

4. If the room has a long rectangular shape akin to a bowling alley, consider "dividing" it into two or more sections by building floor to ceiling architectural elements such as half walls surmounted by columns or extra large door openings. This will de-emphasize the horizontality of the walls.

5. Mount window treatments as high above the windows as possible to draw the eye upward. This is easy and can be startlingly effective!

Room is too big

I recently re-designed a master bedroom that just seemed too big. It was a perfectly square room with a fireplace front and center which left no way to suggest a graceful division of space, so this is how we treated it:

1. To break up the large expanse of floor, we eliminated the wall-to-wall carpeting and used two area rugs to define the bed and sitting areas.

2. Rather than lining the furniture up in a four-square arrangement, we floated a sofa and club chair on a 45 degree angle in a corner of the room.

3. To scale down the vast expanse of ceiling, we applied parallel strips of panel molding with a semi-boxed corner detail about 24" in from the walls. Then we painted the band outside the boxed area a subtly darker color.

Ceiling too high

This is mostly a problem with the newer McMansion-type houses. A few suggestions:

1. Especially for a massive double height foyer: install a true paneled wainscotting with a substantial chair rail. This will both give the room substance and introduce a human-scale element. Also, don’t skimp on the size of the chandelier.

2. A coffered ceiling or well-placed beams can make a too-high space more intimate without sacrificing any of its "majesty."

3. Paint the ceiling a dark color — especially warm dark colors will "advance" seeming to lower the height.

4. I have encountered "mile-high" fireplace walls that have been brought into harmony with human scale by judicious application of paneling.

Ugly and asymmetrical features

I was privileged to work on a Mt. Kisco house this year that had oodles of charm and lots of quirky architectural details that included two ugly radiators on either side of the bed in the masterbedroom. It ruined the view of the bed so we solved the problem by building one long attractively paneled radiator cover behind the bed that also integrated some recessed panels in the wall above it. The formerly ugly view turned into an architectural asset.

Another house had an oddly located boxed column on one side of the family room fireplace wall. The asymmetry bothered the client, and, since we couldn’t demolish it without seriously compromising the plumbing, we actually made the box wider and then built a symmetrically shaped bookcase to mirror the shape on the other side of the fireplace. Although the structures aren’t identical, with a bit of applied molding, they look like a pair.

Composition is the secret

The secret to creating the illusion of "good bones" is in the composition. You have to think about the arrangement of the whole room, the whole wall, and how to create pleasing visual shapes that unify the space. As a general rule of thumb, you can’t go wrong with symmetry.

Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY, bsternau@optonline.net

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau