Here's how to cut a cavernous room down to size

July 08, 2006|by ROSE BENNETT GILBERT/ Copley News Service

Q: Our huge living room has 14-foot ceilings that dwarf all the furniture we moved in from our previous house. I added a big chandelier and bought the largest painting I could find for over the sofa, but still we don't feel comfortable sitting in there. I'm guessing the answer might be a giant armoire or tall bookcases, but we are more strapped than we expected after the move. What else can we do to cozy-up this space? Paint stripes on the walls or what?

A: Nix stripes, unless you paint them sideways, going around the room horizontally. That would lower your sights and keep the center of attention more or less at eye level.

Otherwise, you are right on the money with that big chandelier and large painting. Big spaces call for beau gests on a heroic scale - like the huge harlequins on the wallpaper (from York, in the room we show here. Oversized, but not overbearing, thanks to their soft coloration, this is nonetheless a pattern for the brave, especially those like you who are blessed (or cursed) with soaring ceilings.


Author Mary Ellen Poulson ("The Trim Idea Book"; Taunton Press) has another good suggestion: Use wood trimmings to break up all that wall space. She suggests chair rails at mid-wall height, or plate rails higher up on wainscot panels, with deep crown moldings to top it all off.

Mary Ellen also offers a fresh take on the old-fashioned picture rail so beloved by the Victorians. "Whether or not you actually hang pictures from them, the high rails are a nice way to bring the ceiling into context with the room," she says.

What with today's preoccupation with McMansionesque huge rooms and high ceilings, more and more homeowners are struggling to fill voids overhead, as well as acres of surrounding rooms. Only time will tell if the rising trajectory of energy costs will bring them back down to human size. That is, If the sheer bewilderment of filling so much space doesn't.

Q: My grandmother was telling me about the star designer of her day, Dorothy Draper, but it's not a name I know. As I don't Google, can you enlighten me? Who was she and what did she do when?

A: Dorothy Draper was the star interior design of the mid-20th century. Tall, beautiful and to the manor born, she had been nicknamed "Star" by her father, and by the 1940s all of America seemed to agree. It was the height of fashion to be "Draperized"; that is, submerged in overblown, cabbage-rose-strewn fabrics and wallpapers, floored in sleek, dramatic, black-and-white vinyl checks and surrounded by antiques that may have been cut down or painted white to suit Draper's unorthodox vision. "We have no respect for old things," she famously told Edward R. Murrow during an early TV interview. "We cut legs off, chop doors, paint things as we need to."

Indeed, Draper's unbridled brand of English baroque bordered on the surreal. But she enjoyed real and total fame in booming post-war America, designing car interiors for the 1952 Packard, redoing apartment houses (the Hampshire House in New York), top hotels (the Drake in Chicago) and resorts (the elegant old Greenbrier in West Virginia). And everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Bing Crosby and Rose Kennedy came to admire.

Lesser folk, too, could read and learn to "Draperize" from her columns in Good Housekeeping magazine and her syndicated newspaper column, "Ask Dorothy Draper." In fact, that column - and her design firm - are still going strong, only now in the hands of her successor, Carleton Varney.

I predict a reburst of interest in cabbage roses and over-the-top explosions of color: An exhibition of "The High Style of Dorothy Draper" is knocking visitors' eyes out at the Museum of the City of New York this summer (through Sept. 10. For information, go to

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