News & Politics

Tricks of the Trade

Have a bedroom that looks small? A big living room that could be cozier? How to fool the eye with paint and texture—and other decorating tips.

How to Make a Small Room Feel Larger

• Paint it a dark color. “People think you have to paint a small room light,” says Arlington designer Michael Roberson. “But I have a tiny library, about ten feet square, and it’s painted this old color from Duron called Sealskin. All the bookcases are painted dark. The shutters and ceiling and baseboards are white, so it looks crisp. You see the windows, but the walls just disappear.”

Small rooms and dark paint go together if the room gets good light. “If you have a room with no light or north light, then you do need to paint it a lighter color,” she says. “But rather than white, paint it a warm pastel. Don’t do flat white because it’s going to look cold. If you have no light, you’ll have no warmth.”

• Consider painting the trim and ceiling the same color as the walls. “You can’t make a dark room light and airy, so make it dark and beautiful,” says DC’s David Mitchell. “You’re enveloped in all that color.”

• Try to avoid busy patterns. “If there’s wallpaper, I take it off if it’s a smaller space and there’s a lot of pattern going on,” says DC designer Therese Baron Gurney. As with paint, a monochromatic look can make a room feel more spacious.

• Buy sofas and chairs with visible legs. “In a small room,” Mitchell says, “there shouldn’t be skirted upholstery. If all the furniture has legs, it makes the furniture float.”

• Skip overstuffed and oversize. “Ninety percent of the homes I go in, the scale and proportion of the furniture are off,” says Gurney. “In a small space, you want to scale furniture to that space.”

Mitchell says misjudging furniture’s scale is a frequent mistake. “In the store, the sofa looks so small,” he says. “But the store is 20,000 square feet.”

• Be creative with the space you have. “If it’s a living room, people often say, ‘Well, I need a sofa, a coffee table, and two chairs,’ ” Roberson says. “But maybe it’s a small room and it has a wonderful coffee table and four chairs. Don’t get locked into your mother’s idea of what a room should look like.

“If you have a dining room that’s small, put a smallish table in it that has leaves and can get large when you need to.” Always wanted a library but don’t have the space? Roberson would build bookcases around the dining room—with that small table, the room can do double duty.

How to Make a Dark Room Lighter

• Think twice about drapes and swags. “The most common mistake is the need that our mothers banged into our heads that we had to have drapery on our windows,” says Gurney. “Use a window treatment that has a translucent effect, that’s going to allow light in. I like cell shades from Hunter Douglas—you can pull the shade down to allow light in from the top and privacy on the bottom.”

• Consider furnishings that reflect light. For example, “painted or lacquered pieces, or glass,” says David Herchik of JDS Designs on Capitol Hill.

Paint colors can also give off light. In a windowless space at the Washington Design Center showhouse, DC designer Victoria Neale repainted a brown wall in shocking yellow. The room, she says, lit up: “People thought I was crazy. But some colors seem to have light.”

• Don’t forget the ceiling. As simple as it sounds, a dark room may just need more light—a combination of lamps, accent lights on art, and recessed or downlighting. An easy way to brighten a dark room, says Bethesda-based designer Skip Sroka, is to bounce light off the ceiling using torchieres or sconces. “You need to put light on the ceiling to get reflected light back into the room,” he says.

How to Make a Large Room Cozier

• Arrange one or more seating areas. In a big living room, says Michael Roberson, “you don’t have to have seating against the wall.” Instead, she says, pull sofas and chairs closer together into the center of the room or create several intimate seating groups.

• Think texture.
Whether you cover sofas and chairs with nubby fabric or the walls with woven raffia, it will, says Sroka, “make you want to go into the room. Texture creates coziness.”

• Try to mix in pattern and contrast.
Interesting fabrics and furniture shapes—such as curved backs—stop the eye and make the room seem less sweeping. “If you have a large room and do it monochromatic, it looks even larger,” Mitchell says.

• Keep it warm. Sroka says he’s painting the walls of one Potomac home amber, pumpkin, russet brown, and coral. “The real-estate agent had told the owner to paint it all white,” he says. “I walked in and said, this place needs warmth and charm.”

• Big foyer? Try putting in furniture. Designers say they often find entrances too empty and cold. “Those big entry halls so many people have? If they’re really large,” Roberson says, “put a big piece of furniture—a really great antique. Then stick a couple of chairs and a rug in front of it, and you’ve got a nice reception area.”

Smaller Budget? How to Make a Room Look Rich

• Color is one trick. Don’t have a lot of money to spend on a room? “Use a lot of color,” Sroka says. “Paint isn’t expensive. Even if you don’t have a lot of furniture, it makes the space feel finished.” As you buy nicer furniture and art, he says, you can make walls neutral to show off finer pieces.

“I agree about the use of color,” says Victoria Neale, who adds that it’s also a way to make simple drapes look elegant. “Let’s say you buy window treatments from Restoration Hardware—they have great treatments, and they’re lined. But they’re mostly solid colors. To make the room feel finished, let’s say you get aqua-toned drapes, then paint the walls the same color. You have a finished background.”

• Decorate with books.
Neale also suggests focusing on big pieces—a sofa or chairs—and spending less on, say, accent tables. “Put two or three art books on a cocktail table that’s not as attractive, and you can’t see the cocktail table anymore.”

• Think in threes.
“If you want to make a room look more done, group three things together—it makes it look fuller,” says David Herchik. “Cluster them by color. If you’ve got a pair of lamps, put red shades on them. You can put some red pillows and a red vase and some red books, and your room looks more glamorous and put together.”

Executive Editor

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986. She is the editor in charge of such consumer topics as travel, fitness, health, finance, and beauty, as well as the editor who handles such cover stories as Great Places to Work, Best of Washington, Day Trips, Hidden Gems, Top Doctors, and Great Small Towns. She lives in DC.