Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Design Dilemma: We Need Furniture That Won't Make Our Living Room Too Dark and Heavy

More Ways to Waste Time reader Heather writes, "My fiance and I recently moved to Los Angeles, where I'm attending grad school. We scored a beautiful apartment in a 1928 building that has all the original fixtures and details. It was so gorgeous I almost didn't want to put anything in it -- except I did, and now I have a problem.

See, I bought this desk. It's a great desk, and it looks great in the living room. But now it needs a chair. As I discovered upon bringing the desk home, along with the TV cabinet below, the finish is very close to the finish of the window frames, beamed ceilings, and other woodwork. So to add a chair in a dark finish would be putting another piece of heavy-feeling furniture in a room that doesn't have much else (aside from a white sofa). I worry that the space is beginning to veer dangerously close to 'stodgy.'

Can you suggest a desk chair that will keep the vintage spirit of this room alive, or something that will liven up the place without looking, well,
out of place? We're also agonizing over what to do about a bookcase. All of my books need to get off the floor!

I absolutely love this apartment, but it's got a very specific look and I'm not sure how to maintain that and still make it young and fun. Any suggestions would be much appreciated!"

First, Heather, the apartment is gorgeous! You totally lucked out on that one. Still, it's a tough nut to crack in terms of decorating.

Like you, I love vintage architecture -- and I especially love vintage homes that maintain their original features but are decorated with modern furnishings. But that dark stain on all the woodwork makes it a little tricky. In magazine spreads featuring modern interiors housed within classic spaces, all of the woodwork is usually painted the same chalky white or charcoal gray as the walls. I wouldn't recommend doing that here -- not just because you're renting, but because it disrespects the wonderful Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of your new home.

Top photo from Domino magazine; bottom photo from House to Home

The way I see it, you have two options for decorating in a way that will make the space feel younger and a bit more lively: Go with the old-world vibe of the place but take it in a sort of rich, bohemian, "souk-chic" direction -- using white and jewel-toned furnishings as a base and layering on lots of details like filigreed metal and exotically patterned textiles.

Photo from Point Click Home

Or go for contrast and keep everything but the woodwork light, bright, and a bit more modern -- which would provide a clean palette that lets the dramatic woodwork be the star of the show.

Your white couch is a great start for the light-and-bright option. Follow suit by swapping out the desk for a white one, painting it (if you don't think that would ruin the piece), or leaving it as is but partnering it with a light-colored chair. You could give a nod to the historic style of the room in a surprising way, for instance, by splurging on Philippe Starck's Louis Ghost Chair ($410 at Design Within Reach). It has a simplified Rococo form but is rendered in crystal clear plastic, so it won't add an ounce of visual weigh to the space.

Alternately, Restoration Hardware's Martine Chair in white linen ($495) has more unabashedly traditional styling, but the light upholstery keeps the look from getting too heavy and old-fashioned. For a less-expensive option, pick up a traditional-style occasional chair at a thrift store or garage sale and spray paint it glossy white.

As for a place to stash those books, you can't go wrong with IKEA's white Expedit Bookshelves ($199) in any kind of space -- modern or classic -- because they're simple, clean-lined, and affordable, but have tons of storage and display space.

Finish off the room with simple, creamy curtains (I love IKEA's Aina Curtain Panels, $50 a pair, in white or unbleached linen); a light-colored rug (a sisal, white flokati or felted shag, or even a graphic cowhide would be great); and possibly some streamlined modern light fixtures. (Just be sure to carefully disconnect and store the original ones you have now so you can reinstall them before you move out.)

Readers, any other thoughts on how Heather can honor the vintage architecture of her apartment without veering into the realm of heavy, dark decor -- as well as specific desk chair or bookcase suggestions? If so, please post a comment and share them!

(P.S. Have a Design Dilemma of your own? Send it in, along with a snapshot or two showing what you're dealing with, and I'll put it up here for a communal brainstorming session.)


Anonymous said...

I believe the desk and tv stand that you have recently purchased are both from World Market. If so, I'm guess that the store is easily accessible to you .. and so maybe this chair (in mushroom color, though white would be great if available)? http://www.worldmarket.com/Furniture/dining-room-furniture/chairs-benches-barstools/Lauren-Upholstered-Dining-Chair-Set-of-2/lev/4/productId/7489/Ne/1100001/Ns/TOP_SELLER_INDEX|1||CATEGORY_SEQ_3042|0/N/1100188/Nty/1/view/10000/perpage/0/index.pro

virginia said...

i would start with a rug to anchor the space, and there are several listed on this site that would work.

above found via craigslist los angeles, shows all kinds of pieces.

dark wood bookcase, but not massive in feeling:

Anonymous said...

If you're going to keep the woodwork dark, I would start putting in some industrial fixtures and metal furnishings. Not Eurway metal, but historic 20's/30's metal.

Maybe this:

Or something like this:

Leah said...


Oooh -- I like the suggestion to go '20s/'30s industrial a lot.

You can find stools similar to the one shown in your first link really easily on eBay; just search "vintage industrial stool."

And DWR sells repros of those vintage metal bistro chairs.

I've seen iron and wood factory shelves that would look amazing in Heather's space, too. As I recall, though, they were prohibitively expensive. And now, of course, I can't find them ...

Everyone else, any other ideas in the vintage-industrial vein?

Anonymous said...

Wow -- thanks to all of you for your great ideas!

22209 -- yes, it's World Market...very observant! It's our closest store that would let us take something home right away.

Virginia -- I *love* that bookcase. In fact, I love the whole collection.

Erin -- I love that drafting chair! Yes, we have to keep the woodwork dark. Our downstairs neighbor just painted hers fuschia and I don't want to be there when our landlord sees it. ;)

Leah -- Were the shelves anything like this?
They also have some wood ones which are nice but indeed prohibitively expensive.

Thanks everybody -- I'm loving your suggestions. Keep 'em coming!

Anonymous said...

this might also be a good desk chair option - a bit more light-hearted than the desk itself, but with the dark wood legs to tie the pieces together!


Anonymous said...

my husband and i purchased the same ikea bookshelf about a year ago, but in a darker tone...best furniture purchase of our life. we were very wary of it, but it is fabulous, it is our bookshelf and divides the kitchen and living areas for us while not being really heavy! for sure get that, it is super cheap and i haven't seen anything comparable


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