Much has been said and written about how to make the most of living in a small space but it’s less common to find advice on making the most of a really grand scale house or room.
While the trend for building enormous homes has probably peaked for the time being, there are still plenty of grand scale rooms in need of decorating.
Have you experienced walking into one of the great Gothic Cathedrals of Europe and felt rather small and insignificant? Well, that was the point. The Cathedrals were built with the intention of glorifying God, not man. But maybe this is not the kind of experience you want in your own great room. For me, the most successful residential spaces strike a balance between being both cozy and expansive.
The Successful Large Room
Over the past weekend I had the pleasure of attending a casual dinner party in a beautifully designed home with one such large scale room that served as the living and dining room. I’d estimate that the room measured 30′ x 50′ with a 14′ ceiling. There were four door openings located at the corners of the long walls and a large fireplace dominated the central side of one long wall. Fourteen dinner guests were easily accommodated in the main seating area around the fireplace which consisted of three good sized sofas and a number of club chairs. Cocktail tables and side tables were arranged within easy reach for setting down drinks but not so close as to inhibit navigating in and out of the seating area. There were some very large console tables with outsize table lamps. The artwork was imposing and a seemingly enormous iron chandelier hung over the dining table but the scale was just right for the space: the room was really comfortable and looked well proportioned. Conversation was lively and the party was a great success – having the right space for a party always helps! What is it that makes a big space work?
A very large long room can often benefit from being divided into sections; implied divisions within the room will preserve the "majesty" of the space but also break it up into human-size proportions so that it will be comfortable. Rooms can be divided in a number of ways:
1. Architectural elements such as half-walls, columns, or level changes in the floor or ceiling, 2. Changes in flooring, 3. Distinct furniture groupings, 4. Change of color.
A further note: Some inexpensively constructed McMansions will use a meager "colonial casing" to trim the windows and doors and it looks disproportionately skimpy. Use substantial moldings for baseboards, doors, window casings and crowns. Combine and layer different profiles to make the architecture look solid.
High ceilings can confer a certain majestic presence but a huge flat expanse of unadorned ceiling overhead in a living or family room can rob the room of its spirit. So, if you’re lucky enough to have high ceilings, the classical solution is to build a beamed or coffered ceiling. Two sets of beams of differing sizes and depths running perpendicular to each other will create some real depth and interest on the ceiling. The beams should be planned so that the coffers mimic the shape of the room and if you have the height — again layer the moldings to create even more shadow and depth.
Another time-honored and less drastic solution for bringing a ceiling "down" is to paint it a dark color — but if it’s really large, a few courses of applied panel molding running around the circumference and painted in a contrasting color helps a lot.
To make a room more human scale, install a paneled wainscotting to bring the focus down to eye level. A three-foot high wainscot will ground the room and an eight-foot high paneled wainscotting will create the feeling of a room within the room. A double height foyer can almost always benefit from some kind of paneling treatment.
Once I was called in for a consultation specifically to find a decorating solution for a 20′ high wall in a narrow family room. While the woman of the house prided herself on doing her own decorating, this wall had her stumped; it was a flat plane of sheetrock with a fireplace in the center flanked by a pair of windows on the ground level and then had two identical windows "floating" about 12′ above them. It looked strangely unfinished. My solution was to cover the wall with applied panel molding in a grid of varying size rectangles and then create a further sense of depth by painting the recessed "panels" a somewhat darker color than the wall. Next I hung a single floor to ceiling curtain panel on each side of the wall which was pulled back with a tassel tieback to suggest a very large but casual swag and jabot style drapery. It was quite dramatic and served to unite the upper and lower windows. The wall was completely transformed and my clients were ecstatic that their problem wall had become the focal point it was meant to be.
Paint and wallcovering are a faster and sometimes less expensive option for treating the walls. Wallpaper borders can be used to form "panels" on the wall or faux panels can be painted on the wall. Another paint technique for a large room is to use a deep color on the walls with a high contrast color for the molding and woodwork: for example deep cobalt blue on the walls coupled with an ivory yellow on the woodwork. Any dark color will make a room seem smaller and highlighting the molding breaks up the plane.
In a large space, the furniture has to be scaled up; large-scale upholstered pieces will soften the space and should be a real presence in the room. Massive console tables and chests are called for; the furnishings should look substantial. If you like printed fabric it is a great opportunity to use some grand scale patterns. Be sure any lamps, sconces or chandeliers are also an appropriately large scale — nothing looks sillier than a tiny chandelier hanging in a cavernous room.
Large scale spaces can handle a big bold statement when it comes to artwork. Either a large scale piece or a large composition of smaller pieces are very effective. Be careful however not to weight one wall too heavily with artwork; the walls should be in balance whether it’s windows, large furniture pieces against the wall, or artwork. If you have a collection to display, maximize the impact by displaying it all together on shelves or in a cabinet. I once designed dramatically lighted cases to display a collection of gemstones for a financier who had been a geologist in a former life.
Don’t overlook trees, plants and flowers. They can be a wonderful way to cozy up a barn-like space. In the right location, trees or houseplants can last forever and perennials can last up to six weeks. Although they don’t last long, cut flowers are always a welcome addition for color and fragrance.
In conclusion, if you are lucky enough to have a large space, it’s a grand opportunity to be bold.
Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY