Friday, February 22, 2013

A Funky Old Pre-Raphaelite Screen

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young artists who worked in England, beginning in the late 1840's. They were rebels, the bohemians of their day, who favored a natural approach, instead of the stiff, formal, artificial look that they said began with Raphael. Their subjects were drawn from poetry, myth and history, and often were placed in natural settings which they detailed with great care. The founding members of the group included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, who later were joined by Edward Burne-Jones and others.

It was a work of Burne-Jones, "Love Among the Ruins" based on a poem by Robert Browning, that lead me to discover the Pre-Raphaelites. The painting was used in one of the posters for an exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, DC on "The Treasure Houses of Britain", that was opened with much fanfare by Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Because of my interest in British design and art I was desperate to go, but there I was, stuck at the office in San Francisco, or so I thought. Then I had an incredible stroke of luck. Several of my clients were public rail systems, and on occasion I would go with them to the risk management section meeting of their trade group, the America Public Transit Association (APTA). One day I got a notice that the next meeting was going to be in Washington during the time of the Exhibition. So I got my wish and was able to see everything, including "Love Among the Ruins", which is how my love affair with the Pre-Raphaelites began.

Over the next ten years as I made frequent trips to England to find insurance for my rail transit clients, I would add vacation time and explore. I visited as many museums and stately homes as I could manage, and bought postcards of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings I saw. Eventually, it became a large collection, sitting in a box. One day I decided to do something with the postcards so that I could see and enjoy them, so I decoupaged them on to three panels of an old screen that I first covered with wrapping paper in a William Morris design, since he was their frequent collaborator. Then I affixed the postcards with Mod Podge and put the panels back in the wooden frame. The result was my funky Pre-Raphaelite screen, never a great art project, I admit, more of a memento that I kept in my office. When it was time for a change, I removed the Pre-Raphaelite panels, repainted the screen and moved on. Today I still have two of the panels, but they're very much the worse for wear. The other day I found them in the closet under the stairs and decided to bring them out for old times sake. 

For the time being they're in the hallway outside my office, and I'm enjoying them again, funky, old and tattered though they may be.

There's one more chapter to the story of "Love Among the Ruins".  After the Exhibition it went back to Wightwick (pronounced whit tick) Manor in Wolverhampton, home of the Mander family, and now a National Trust property renowned for its Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite works. I'd always wanted to see the painting in its intended location, so when I was in England about five years ago, I decided to drive up from London. It isn't a long trip as the crow flies, but with the horrible afternoon traffic I wasn't able to do it in a day, and wound up spending the night in Warwick. 

The next morning I got to Wightwick at opening time, only to find out it was closed to the public that day. When I told my sad story to a woman at the gate, she took pity on me and my profound disappointment, and phoned one of the current family occupants of the house, Anthea Mander Lahr, who very kindly gave me a personal, though naturally abbreviated, tour.  The house was breath-taking, and to a pre-Raphaelite aficionado, a mecca because everyone's work is there, including art, stained glass, fabrics, tile, tapestries and more. And there in the Great Parlour was my old friend, "Love Among the Ruins", looking as haunting and beautiful as I remembered, and very much in its rightful place. 

PS- Later I learned that at the time, Anthea was married to John Lahr, son of Bert Lahr, the cowardly lion in the 'Wizard of Oz'. When she died in 2004, she was described in her obituary as "much beloved". If she was as kind to others as she was to me, I can easily understand.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Give Your Hallways The Attention They Deserve

Hallway with a Focal Point
Most of us take pains to create an attractive entryway for our house, but the hallways usually receive much less attention. However, when you consider the importance of hallways in terms of function, as a design element, and especially when you consider how much time we spend going back and forth, they present an opportunity that shouldn't be overlooked. 

Not only does a hallway take us from one space to another, it also can serve as a thread to tie differing elements of the overall design together, while adding personality of its own. One example is a house where every room is a different color. If the hallway is painted in a color that works with all the other colors, it creates a rest for the eye, making it possible to move seamlessly from color to color, creating a coordinated whole, rather than a group of unrelated, or clashing, rooms. 

How to Add Pizzazz to Hallways

Although hallways often lack windows and many aren't wide enough for much, if any, furniture, it's still possible to add considerable pizzazz using paint color, lighting, trim and accessories, all without being a design genius or breaking the budget. 

Study Your Hallway

Begin by studying what you have to work with. 

  • What are the dimensions of the space? How long is the hallway, how high is the ceiling? 
  • What kind of flooring do you have? Can you add area rugs for color and to break up the perceived length?
  • How many openings are there, and where do they lead? 
  • Does the hallway have attractive, generously proportioned crown molding and baseboards?
  • How many openings are on each side? Is the number fairly even, or are the openings concentrated on one side?
  • Is there room for furniture?
  • Are there walls with gallery potential on both sides? Find a balanced way to drawn the eye down the full length of the hallway and avoid a lopsided design.
  • When you're planning what will go on the side walls, remember that people will seldom stop to appreciate these details, so they should look attractive in passing. 
Plan to treat the wall at one end as the focal point, and make it worthy of the attention. Don't create a focal point at both ends because the result will feel claustrophobic, like being in a box. 

Ways to Add Style Without Bulk:

  • Use an accent color on the wall at the end. Not only will the color add spark and interest, a darker color will visually shorten a long hallway and make a narrow hallway seem wider. Repeating a color used elsewhere in the house will help unify your design.
  • Study the doors. If there are many doors that open on the hallway, be selective about which ones you treat as trim, particularly when there is significant contrast between the wall and trim colors. I usually recommend accenting only those doors that lead to a space for people, rather than closet doors or furnace doors. 
    Wainscoting Transforms a Hallway
  • If you want a subtle look, consider painting all the doors in the same color as the walls, but in a satin or semi-gloss enamel, creating texture rather than contrast. This is a good solution for narrow hallways, or hallways where most of the doors are on one side, or for doors of standard or poor quality, so that you don't call attention to them.
  • Use a special color on the ceiling.
  • Add a medallion to ceiling light fixtures.
  • Install trim in the form of crown molding, baseboards, chair rail, wainscoting, etc.
  • If the existing trim is skimpy, use tape to extend the size and make it look more generous, or paint it in the wall color to avoid calling attention to it, and to visually heighten the ceiling.
  • Use masking tape to add a band in an accent color to the ceiling where it meets the crown molding, or use a stencil. You'll be seeing it from a distance, so don't make it too narrow. Try a few designs on paper and tape them to the ceiling to see how they look before you commit.
    Borrowed Light
  • Instead of relying solely on ceiling fixtures for light, use wall sconces too. And speaking of light fixtures, flush mounted ones can look institutional, so I often suggest a fixture with a small drop, or a small chandelier or pendant. 
  • Install wallpaper, but make sure it's durable, especially if the wall gets a lot of traffic. As an option, paper only the focal wall, or frame wallpaper samples for an inexpensive display. 
  • Create art with painted designs on the wall. Draw freehand or create a design with tape. 
  • Display art or collections, but avoid two common mistakes: hanging things too high and choosing accessories in the wrong scale, usually too small for the space.
  • Use carefully placed mirrors (or mirror decals) to borrow light from adjoining rooms and bring life and sparkle to dark hallways.
  • Don't ignore the floor. Add area rugs to break up the runway or bowling alley look and add color and warmth. Be sure they're not going be tripping hazards. 
Display Shelves Are Versatile
  • Install narrow display shelves and change the contents with the season, or as inspiration strikes.
  • Hang empty frames as another display opportunity. Use removable hangers like Command strips for the display items so there are no holes in the wall and the frames are attractive, even when empty.
  • Place a table or narrow bookcase at the end of the hallway and change the display periodically. 
  • If you have enough space at the end of the hallway, create a small reading area with a table, lamp and chair.

For more inspiration, visit the hallway section on 

There's a great deal of untapped design potential in most hallways. Analyze the ones in your house and see what you can come up to make them more attractive. The solutions don't have to be expensive.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Adding Texture With Paint and Color

Textured and Glazed Wall

 "The glamour of texture is the invitation to touch...surface texture sings a siren's song."

- Jamie Drake, New American Glamour

What Is Texture?

Texture in design refers to the way a surface feels, or is perceived. Occurring in both man-made and natural objects, texture can be produced by repetition and variation of form, colors, value, patterns of line, etc. All surfaces have texture, whether it's coarse or fine, rough or smooth, shiny or matte. Texture can be used for comfort, beauty and interest, or for practical purposes, like a rough finish on a stone walkway that prevents falls. 

Emotional Impacts of Texture

  • Rough texture suggests informal, warm and natural design, and often feels heavier. 
  • Smooth and shiny texture suggests more formal, cold, glamorous or modern design, and often feels lighter. 
  • Combined coarse and smooth texture, such as a  silk wall covering with coarse slubs, has an edge of heaviness, yet is quite elegant. Texture is versatile.

How Texture Affects Paint Color

Texture isn't limited to fabric, wallpaper or natural materials.  Texture also can be added with your paint and color choices to enhance style and add impact. 

When it comes to paint, texture plays a crucial role because it determines how much light and color is reflected, and how much is absorbed. A color in a high sheen paint (smoother texture) has a greater reflectivity, intensity and richness than the same color in a flat sheen paint (rougher texture). The downside of the higher sheen is that every little surface imperfection is more likely to show.  A flat finish paint absorbs more light, and the remaining light is refracted back in many directions, making the color appear darker. When you have an imperfect surface, a flat finish paint is the best choice because it makes the imperfections less noticeable. 

Adding Texture With Paint Techniques and Color

Here are just a few of the many ways to create texture with paint techniques and/or with the way you use sheen and color. 
  • Use a variety of sheens from flat to high gloss. The most common way is by painting the ceiling and walls in a flat paint and using a semi-gloss for the trim.
  • Combine sheens to create a decorative finish, such as by painting stripes in a gloss finish (paint or varnish), or using a sponge dipped in a gloss finish, to create a pattern on a matte wall. Use the same color as the base for a more subtle effect. For inspiration,      Striped wall designs on 
  • Add glaze in layers using one or more coordinating colors. This is especially good for damaged walls because the imperfections become part of the finish, and for cabinets, trim and furniture. 
  • Buy ready-made texture paint in a special finish, such as sand, stone, marble, suede, etc. Or, add texture to regular paint.
  • Use different colors for the ceiling, walls and trim.
  • Use accent colors in special areas, such as the back of bookcases, an accent wall or on a mantle. Depending on the look you want, the colors may, or may not, be subtle.
  • Use joint compound with stencils, then paint. 
  • Use two or three paint colors with similar light reflectance values (LRV's) to create a subtle texture. 
  • Apply any of the hundreds of painted finish techniques, from strie to rag-rolling, color washing, trompe l'oeil, a mural, etc.
  • Create your own design with masking tape, stencils, wall art appliques, by drawing, or with a combination of these and other techniques. 

Stenciled lattice
Texture is often overlooked as a component of interior design, but when you consider how much texture adds to the beauty and enjoyment of a space, it's a good idea to be conscious of it, and look for ways to make it work for you. 

A word of caution: if you're an amateur, a subtle and simple approach with low contrast colors is best. There's way too much really bad faux finishing and other misguided efforts out there! You can always add, but it can be much more difficult to subtract if you go too far or do it poorly...