Drab Home Interior: 8 Problems and Solutions

living room

Builder spec home? Dated colonial? Simple but not sweet?


Turning drab interior architecture to fab is easier than you think. With the help of experts Orren Pickell and Thomas Kearin of Orren Pickell Designers and Builders, architect Richard Becker AIA of Becker Architects, and designer Kathleen Nelson of NuHaus, we’ve got simple solutions to building in character.

Before you pull out your nail gun, first get the advice of an expert to ensure you get the best look and quality for your buck (and to navigate any building codes that might apply). And embrace the style and architecture of your home. Nothing is more jarring than a mishmash of styles as you move from room to room.

Problem: Boring drywall
Millwork can add heft and depth to drywall. It can also balance awkward architecture, add symmetry and visual interest. From chair rails to crown molding, box beams to paneling, your options and styles are endless. And it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, as many retailers offer stock molding in a wide variety of styles.

Problem: Bland architecture
Built-ins add depth and character to a room that lacks definition. Says Becker, “They can take elements that seem out of place (like a floor-to-ceiling fireplace mantle or oddly positioned window) and tie them to the space.”

But don’t be boxed into built-ins. In many cases, Nelson says you can find furniture, new or antique, that provides the look and fit of a built-in, but can go with you if you move. For example, retailer Room & Board sells five completely customizable storage and cabinet lines that can be ready in as little as 2-3 weeks.

Problem: Ugly fireplace
Refacing your fireplace or swapping out your mantle are relatively easy improvements, if you leave the firebox and chimney as is. For one client, Kearin designed a Craftsman-inspired mantle and bookshelves, and refaced the dated brick with granite slabs. Another homeowner swapped a builder spec model for an antique marble mantle. And because the fireplace is often the focal point of a room, this upgrade will definitely deliver long-term value.

Problem: Low ceilings
There’s not much you can do structurally to change low ceilings, but there are a few tricks that offer the illusion of height. If there’s already crown molding, find a compatible trim and attach it to the ceiling and paint all trim the same color. The ceiling trim heightens the crown visually. You can also use paint to trick the eye.

Problem: Overwhelming vaulted space
Ceiling height is good, except when it leaves you feeling dwarfed and craving a cozy corner. To compensate for too much height, Pickell recommends adding visual texture to draw your eye to manageable proportions. Tricks like adding beams or beadboard pull the ceiling down. Or visually break up a two-story wall with trim and paint, defining a lower room wall and upper ceiling/vaulted space.

Problem: Cheap doors
Hollow-core or cheap doors can easily be swapped out. Most door sizes are standard, so you’ll have plenty of stock options to choose from to match the style of your home. If your doors are painted, Pickell recommends high quality Masonite or MDF doors that won’t expand and contract but still offer comparable heft to solid wood doors.

Problem: Cheap hardware
Many high-end decorative hardware manufacturers (Baldwin, Schlage) now offer quality made (solid brass), classic designs at reasonable prices and beautiful finishes. Changing out a doorknob takes little more than a screwdriver, as long as you find compatible mechanisms.

Problem: Too much wall-to-wall
Carpet works great for basements and bedrooms, but anywhere else it hints at decades past. Rip it out and replace it with new hardwood floors or refinish the hardwood sleeping underneath. Not only does the wood grain and patina add warmth and texture, but you cut down on the allergens, pet fur and whatever other nasty things get absorbed into carpeting.

Lead photo: Windows draw the eyes down and out in a vaulted room. Photo by Thomas Kearin.

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