Entrance hall in need of makeover is an opportunity to have fun

  • Art glass and trompe l'oeil painting set this entrance hall apart from a bland, confined corridor.

    Art glass and trompe l'oeil painting set this entrance hall apart from a bland, confined corridor.

Published2/28/2009 12:01 AM

Most of the decisions involved in designing an interior - choosing colors and textures, for example - are based on established principles for achieving balance and contrast. But those considerations don't apply as much when a designer faces the common task of camouflaging an unsightly element or an entire space. It's a more free-form process. And that's why camouflage qualifies as one of the most challenging and creative things we do.

Q. Aren't entrance halls supposed to be welcoming? That's not at all the case in our new but traditionally designed townhouse. This narrow space with a staircase on one side consists mostly of doors. One leads to the garage, another to a powder room, and a third (under the stairs) gives access to the basement. There's also a door at the end of the hall opening onto a room that we plan to use as a home office. How can we make this hall look attractive and inviting? The floor is made of black-and-white marble tiles and everything else is painted "builder white."


A. It sounds like you're describing one of the row houses typical of East Coast cities. They usually have brick exteriors and marble steps along with what's known as a racetrack hallway. Today's version of the row house is more elegantly designed than the original. But the architecture still imposes limitations - such as the dimensions of the entrance hall and the doors that lead from it to other rooms. The photo shows how my firm responded to the challenge of making this sort of entryway appear both attractive and welcoming. The design may not be to your taste, but the principles applied here could likely be transposed to your own situation.

This narrow hall also includes doors upon doors. Its only focal point was - guess what? - a pair of wooden doors at the far end of the hall. Establishing a point of visual interest is important in these circumstances because it will help make the hallway appear less confining while also diverting attention from the many doors along the sides. Our client wanted a turn-of-the-century look similar to that of an Edwardian townhouse in London. And that required me to take on the role of camouflage artist and impresario. Since the staircase was made of cherry wood, the doors and all the millwork were replaced with matching material - only more detailed. We meanwhile had the walls painted in a pale terra cotta.

Ellen Kardell, a Washington, D.C., glass artist, was then retained to design Art Nouveau-inspired inserts for those double doors at the end of the hall. As you can see, they now act as a lovely focal point, whether lit by daylight or by the lighting in the room on other side of the doors. A door on the side of the hall was camouflaged by means of wood detailing as well as by the brush of a faux-style painter from Valley Craftsmen in Baltimore. The door was made to look like a shelving nook filled with a collection of books and whatnots.

As for your own setting, I recommend using the black-and-white marble floor as the basis for a new color scheme. Of course, you can choose your favorites, but consider painting the walls, doors and door frames in eggplant, deep red or charcoal. You might then treat the door at the end of the hall in a way similar to what's shown here or perhaps in a more simplistic design either with inserts of art glass or in faux-style painting.

Whatever your approach, the outcome will be better if you view the process as an opportunity rather than as a chore. So don't be afraid to have fun!

Readers with general interior design questions for Rita St. Clair can e-mail her at rsca@ritastclair.com.

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