- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Big is difficult but it isn’t always bad, say interior designers who often are asked to decorate and furnish extra large rooms. “There is a trend of this kind on,” says Sarah Jenkins, whose firm is Sarah P. Jenkins & Associates in Chevy Chase. “We have had 8-foot or lower ceilings for so long and all of a sudden — or gradually — that has been raised up practically to the heavens.

“Builders in some areas are trying to outdo each other with ‘McMansions.’ We are talking tract housing on an upscale basis. People who gravitate toward it may not realize the problems involved,” she says.

Furnishing rooms of outsized dimensions — some of them akin to traditional rectangular ballrooms — is a challenging task, but need not be a daunting one, at least not for professionals trained to think in terms of scale, color and light. The trick, they say, is to coordinate all three elements in a harmonious way.

“If you aren’t careful, your furniture looks like doll furniture because it is so overwhelmed by the surroundings,” says Mrs. Jenkins. “I think less is more.”

Many antique pieces of furniture, along with tapestries and paintings, are useful in such rooms because they already come larger sized, she says, adding that it’s often necessary to put a horizontal element in somewhere, at least in window treatments.

Bright colors can shrink a space, but need careful handling, she says.

“You need a place where the color can stop. If it opens smack into the living room, it may look as though you ran into a wall.”

McLean interior designer Joan Polk knows about large spaces firsthand since she has a 2,000-square-foot ballroom of her own — part of an addition she and her husband, Warren Polk, put on their McLean house in 1989. The dimensions include an entryway and a ladies’ powder room.

“A ballroom of this magnitude is not like having a very large living room or dining room,” she says with understatement, pointing out that form follows function, whatever size is involved. “Everything is a matter of taste and knowledge and vision,” she says.

Rather than have six or seven separate ceiling fixtures to provide the illumination, she chose an 8-foot-wide Waterford crystal chandelier that she felt would center the room and allow the couple to have either an intimate foursome for dinner or 120 for a sit-down affair. She put a dusty rose silk fabric on padded walls that her engineer husband designed for acoustical purposes to accommodate musical groups when they perform. The couple also uses the room to host community groups and fund-raisers for organizations such as the National Rifle Association.

When designers talk about large spaces, they usually think in terms of high-ceilinged rooms and square footage that is a lot less than the Polks’ addition, but that still require special attention based on the homeowners’ lifestyle.

Often these days a home is built with no interior walls between a foyer, living room and dining room. Sometimes rooms are arranged in what designer Skip Sroka, of Bethesda’s Skip Sroka Design Inc., calls an “enfilade” — a French term referring to a string of rooms in successive order with doorways perfectly aligned.

“Big spaces are suited to wonderful color, depending on what the [owner] is doing with the house,” Mr. Sroka says, recalling a dining room he designed with cranberry red walls, gold drapes and blue chairs next to a living room done in softer, pastel colors.

“A 40-by-40-foot room never will be cozy, but it can be made psychologically inviting. What you do is layer the spaces,” he says. Decorative moldings also help make a space seem less vast and add charm, he notes.

He uses several sources of illumination in his own living room because he finds it more flattering — recessed spot lighting, sconces beside the fireplace and five lamps. “You are lighting what you want to see. The old rule is if you have a single source in the center, it washes out the room,” he says, agreeing with the suggestion that a person can learn a lot from looking at good stage sets in a theater.

“Most large spaces we break down into sections, so it doesn’t seem like a football field. Each area has its own focus,” says Justine Sancho of Justine Sancho Interior Design in Bethesda. She defines a large room as one that is at least 22 feet wide by 28 feet long.

Finding the right focus was the challenge in a Georgetown living room Mrs. Sancho tackled not long ago.

The lone window in the room looked out on a fire escape, so she turned the attention inward by covering the walls with nine large landscape paintings in gold frames 7 and 8 feet square. The subject of the paintings gave the room a country feel. Colors throughout were soft green, gold and copper, which she felt would remind people of nature. Space was broken up by installing two black iron and crystal chandeliers and two identically-covered sofas facing into the center of the room. Another sofa was placed on the diagonal.

Chandeliers lowered to between 36 and 40 inches — slightly more than usual — brought the room down. A huge area rug defined each section and left a pathway open for moving between the room and an adjoining foyer. Large-scale furnishings anchored the space. The whole was a meld of English, French and American styles, she says.

“Traditional ideas don’t always work in large rooms,” says Alexandria interior designer Aniko Gaal Schott. “It’s fun to work with them because you can be more flexible and less conventional. Also, in a large space you can more easily balance solidity with delicacy to help make a room comfortable. Say, you have a large secretary [bookcase] and you then put a tree in the same room for balance.”

Flexibility is key, especially when rooms must serve several purposes. That often is the case with embassy buildings that may use the same space for a dining room one day and a concert hall the next. With the limited budgets embassies often have, Mrs. Schott changes the draperies when she can’t change the walls. To make a large room less intimidating, she may repeat the drapery pattern in a new sofa, she says.

“When you deal with those McMansions, sometimes leaving them bare is a disaster,” says John Peters Irelan of the Georgetown firm in his name. “If it is a beautifully proportioned room, you can leave it alone. Quality of architecture is the first consideration. Good architecture lessens a designer’s work.”

He is particularly aghast at builders who create three-story entrance halls without including the mechanics for cleaning windows or lowering a lighting fixture to change the bulbs.

“If you have a well-proportioned entrance hall, it only needs one or two statements,” Mr. Irelan says. “House and Garden [magazine] once pictured an old house in the south of France with a glorious staircase in the hall. The only thing in the room was a big table off to the side and the only other thing in the hall was a glass vase filled with a massive arrangement of field flowers sitting on the floor.”

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