Designing a room around Dark Furniture: Part I

One of my good friends and her husband just bought the most AMAZING dining room table from Restoration Hardware.  It’s actually this one (or very very similar to this one), and it’s absolutely stunning.

Now that it’s been delivered, they are in the process of making room for it in their apartment, and have very cleverly decided to split their huge living room, so that half is for the dining area, and half is for the living room.

The old floor-plan looked something like this:

I only know the general details of how the room is being split up, but I imagine the new floor-plan will look similar to this:

Genius, right?

By flip-flopping the room, you now walk into the “dining room” from the hallway, and in general have a good flow for entertaining.

What else is changing from the old layout?  Well the ottoman is going to be way too big to transfer over to the other side of the room, so that needs to be replaced.  By replacing it with a smaller coffee table, and eventually downsizing the TV stand, they will have room for living and dining spaces in the same room.  I LOVE this. City living at its best.

The challenge?  Designing the rest of the room around dark furniture (ding ding ding, the title of this post!)

The new dining room table is made of reclaimed oak – which is so incredibly gorgeous but the stain on it is a dark brown.  Their existing sofa and club chair that will live on the other half of the room are both made of dark brown leather, which means there is a lot of dark brown happening in this space.

The walls of the room are a very light taupe color, the crown molding is white, and a beautiful bay window that lets in tons of natural light. Oh, and the space still has original hardwood floors.  It doesn’t get better than that! The room has good bones, so it will be an easy task to use what they already have, and turn it into a complete and cohesive space.

Here’s where the room stood last week after the table was delivered.  Excuse the iPhone picture – it’s a little grainy here:

The knee-jerk reaction to having lots of dark furniture is to compensate with lots of light colors everywhere else.  On one hand, yes, bringing in light colors around the dark pieces (ie: light pillows on a dark sofa) do help to lighten the space, but the real magic needs to happen in the space at and above eye level when you walk in a room.  Think about it for a second… dark furniture sits below eye level when you walk into a room, so if you have light walls, and light curtains, and light art (or worse, no art), your eye goes straight down, and visually the space just feels smaller.  Adding interest through color and pattern at and above eye level, creates a feeling of balance, and so the “challenge” of dark furniture, sort of isn’t a “challenge” anymore.

Trust me, it will make more sense as you see it come together.

Ok, moving on… so what’s the plan in here?  Since the above picture was taken, my friend already ordered a natural fiber rug to go under the dining room table.  Good call girl.

The rug is going to define the dining space, and separate it from the living room.  Also, massive area rugs are SUPER expensive, so to even think of getting a rug to cover this entire room, we’re talking serious money.  No thanks.

Why else was it a good idea to go sisal?  It’s neutral, it’s easy to clean (it’s going under a dining table after all) and it’s mainly covered  up with the table anyway, so the focus of the room will be elsewhere.  Any pattern would go mainly unseen here with a huge table on top of it.
My friend also said that the curtains need to be replaced because they can’t find the same ones anymore, but she likes the blue so isn’t opposed to something similar.  
Sweet.  Perfect place to jump right in…
Here’s what I think needs to happen on this side of the room:
Minimal changes my friends.  
First, they need chairs.  They obviously know this.
Then, I think that filling that back wall out is priority #2, so that your eye doesn’t stop at the table. 
Oversize art will help… like OVERSIZE.  I always find that it’s hard to find large scale art… it seems so big when you buy it, but once you get it on an empty wall like this one, it’s like an island in the middle of an ocean.  My point?  We need to find massive, beautiful, and not ridiculously expensive art.  
What else?  A bigger lamp that takes up more visual real estate will help.  And plants.  I LOVE bringing in larger house plants to wake up an empty corner.
I started playing around to test out different looks, and at first, I went more “traditional”.  I think the table is so amazing – it’s a little rustic…. a little french-y feeling……… I loved the idea of adding Louis XIV chairs with it.  
Here’s the first look I came up with:
I love love LOVE these chairs – that dusty blue linen is so pretty, and I was thrilled to see it on two complimentary sets of Louis XIV chairs.  The blue fabric and lighter wood on the chairs surrounding the table will immediately bring life into the space.
LOVE.  
I also thought it was nice to have the taller rectangular chairs at the head of the table, and mix in the round backs in the middle, but again if you like the look of one over the other, you could certainly stick with one type of chair.
I should also take the time now to call out the fact that the wood on the chairs is NOT the same color (or even same type) as the wood on the table. 
That’s on purpose my friends.  
Some people are weird about mixing woods, but it doesn’t bother me!  I like the look of different woods in a space, because it looks “collected” instead of “we bought the set”.  If it will drive you nuts, the good thing about wood is that you can stain it, but I like the different wood tones.
Moving onto the art, I am SO into botanical art right now – you literally see it everywhere, from shelter magazines to the blog world.  These oversize prints from Ballard are SO GOOD.  They are massive – each one is 42″ high, by 27″ wide.  With prints this large, the frames should get pretty close to meeting the picture molding that runs around the walls, which will naturally draw the eye up, while taking up almost 5′ across that wall. Mission accomplished – these would meet the goal of filling the blank space out, without making it feel super busy (the way that a gallery wall can sometimes do).
The floor lamp has a bent bronze neck (shaft? stem? base? what IS that called??) and I like that this also helps fill out the space on that wall.  I also like that having the bent shaft makes it different than a standard floor lamp.  If the wall was still feeling empty once all of this was in the room, my recommendation would be to have two identical floor lamps similar to this flanking either side of the buffet.  I also can’t remember the overhead lighting situation in here, so they might actually need the extra light.  Boom. Kill two birds with one stone.
The fiddle leaf fig stands on the other side of the buffet in this mock up, but really any sizeable green houseplant would do in the corner.
And finally, the curtains… I thought that with the blue linen chairs, blue curtains might be a bit much, so I mocked this up with grey linen.  I think I like it.  The lightweight fabric will feel visually light (as opposed to a heavy fabric like velvet), while the grey still has enough of a color presence to draw the eye up to the ceiling.
Overall I like how this all came together, but I didn’t stop there… I swapped a few things out and came up with another version of this room:
What changed?  Well the chairs are a slight variation of those first ones, this time in a sandy linen.  With the sisal rug and all the wood, it feels like a lot of brown on brown, and so the accessories need to change.  I did a dark blue (almost navy) curtain, and swapped out the art, for a symmetrical gallery wall of… wait… what is that… more botanical prints!  Holla!
I told you I’m crazy for botanical prints right now.

These ones have a super saturated inky blue background with that green… I love it.  I think with the navy curtains, it looks awesome.  I’m still half and half on the chairs though… is it too much brown or are they ok with the art and curtains?  I think I need to see the color of the linen in person to tell if its more brown than cream.

My friend mentioned that they do like the vibe of West Elm, so I wen on to put together a third, less traditional, more modern version of this space…
…so another mock-up was born:
The starting point for me in here was the curtains.  I think these are so cool, and the pattern will definitely succeed in drawing the eye up, and bringing some color to the room.  The floor lamp also got switched up for an aged bronze pharmacy lamp.  I like alternative floor lamps, and these just look cool, although take up less visual real estate than the floor lamp with the drum shade.
I’m loving the color that these chairs bring to the space – I also love the detail of the individually hammered nail heads around the edges.  It just makes it a little more special.
Some of you might be thinking… If you’re trying to lighten up the space, why are you putting dark blue chairs with already dark furniture??  And I totally hear you… but the point I’m trying to drive home is the need for balance.  
The challenge is not how to bring as much light colored “stuff” as possible around the dark furniture, but rather in balancing the darkness with other rich colors at or above eye level.  So while these chairs are upholstered in a darker peacock colored fabric, the shock of color paired with similar colors in the art, and yet another variation of the color echoed in the curtains balances things out.
Even if none of these ideas make it off the cutting room floor and into real life, this is a good starting point for visualizing this half of the room…
Next up, I’ll be tackling some ideas for the other side of the room… the living room side.  Working on integrating accessories that accent their dark leather sofa, club chair, and some ideas on how to style a cohesive space to pair with their new dining room…

6 thoughts on “Designing a room around Dark Furniture: Part I

  1. Happy to see you posting again! This is seriously such great advice, I cannot tell you how many times I've had to design around this “challenge”. I really love the first design, but I'm also partial to a more classic look. So looking forward to seeing the other half of the room 🙂

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  2. I don't know what your paid “real life job” is but you should just do this for a living. You have a really good eye. Keep up the good work missy – your talent is recognized.

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  3. These are so pretty, I don't know which is my favorite! I think I like number 1 and 2 best, but the chairs and art in number 3 is really nice together.

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  4. Just was looking back at one of your older posts…..thought you should know “flamenco” is a type of Spanish music. You posted an article and kept referring to the pink birds in your pictures as flamenco; they are “flamingos.”

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