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Got a problem? Need some help? Just standing there shaking your head? Don't know what to do? You're not alone. Send us a link to photos of your design quandary and let the Desire to Inspire design crew help you .... that's you lot ... the readers! This week's problem comes from Jackie.


My hubby & I (and 3 children & 1 yellow lab) live in Reading, Mass about 15-20 minutes north of Boston. We've lived in our 1901 4-square colonial for about 4 1/2 yrs now.  We love it and there is so much potential with our home - but we don't know where to start. 1st off - all original (dark) woodwork throughout the home. The front hall is huge for a "hall" - its more like a greeting room so we don't know how to decorate it. We have pocket doors, 2 sets of stairs and a fireplace immediatly greeting you as soon as you come in.

We never see a house/woodwork like ours on any design shows and I am at such a loss as how to decorate with it all. Its very warm & beautiful but it can be so dark. Yet everyone tells me not to paint it - none of it. (including my husband). I look in a million magazines and email sites ... Nobody shows anything like our home. It seems woodwork is painted white 99% of the time. We have 100+ yr old woodwork we really don't want to paint (at least not all of it).

The house is a diamond in the rough. I love the home & most of our belongings - its just that I feel right now the house shows more like an older person's house & not a young couples ... I would call our taste Traditional but with a modern twist. Right now between the dark wood & all our antiques/wood furniture - I feel it just looks like Grandma's house! ;0 I want to funk things up...and lighten things up!  I have had 2 different ladies in here to help us & ...well lets just say those are long stories .

We are on a budget.  We plan on:

  • Fireplace:  replacing the brick around the fireplace. Maybe go with a deep high shine/gloss green subway tile??? We recently removed the top of the mantle & replaced the small rectangular mirror  w/ a HUGE wood mirror. But should we do art instead? Maybe a sea side sunset w/ pinks & purples in it & a candle or electric sconce on each side?   And  what to do for furniture placement by fireplace? We use the F.P. a lot in the chilly/cold months - but we'd use more if we had furniture by it!
  • Front door/Entry way - Paint the outside of the front door a high gloss color so when door is open it will look nice in the little entryway. I was thinking black w/ brass or pewter kickplate & new hardware/letter slit, etc. And I'd love to do some cool colorful wall paper in the little front entryway w/ only a narrow & maybe a tall leaning mirror in there?
  • Kitchen - Getting ready to do a small addition & entire kitchen/3/4 bathroom remodel in rear of house.  I'm thinking white/cream cabinets, a dark wood island, white subway tiles & wood floors.  
  • Dining Room - We have some beautiful Thibaut Damask paper for the dining room. I can't wait to see that up.
  • Staircase - Runner?  
Other then that - I'm at a loss. I'm OK w/ painting rooms again if you think our colors are wrong.  Hubby will NOT paint any woodwork

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Reader Comments (41)

Wow, you have an amazing historically significant space to work with. All of that woodwork adds a lot of character, though I can see you mean about it being dark. My suggestions would be to paint all of your walls on your main floor and up the staircase pure white. This will brighten it up and make it feel more modern. Paint out your radiator white as well. And I would also paint just the spindles on your staircase white, and leave the rail and treads wood.

Your plan for the black front door and fireplace surround will work well with this modern look. Good luck!

I concur; pure white paint on the walls. I don't think the stairs should be painted at all. However, maybe adding a newer might help. Maybe a brighter, more modern color and pattern? Old rugs are gorgeous but it doesn't help break up the darkness of the floors; the rug adds to that.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKC

I agree with the white walls. I also think you need some really bright and modern pops of colour in there. Like cushions, rugs or ornaments. Things that are simple in shape to contrast against the more intricate antiques. And some really big, bright paintings - abstracts with splashes of primaries!
If you replaced those rugs with more modern ones it would really help bring the feel of the place away from "grandmas house"

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEsz

I spent 6 years living in a 1909 house with a very similar staircase - or what should have been. A previous owner built a closet though the stairs and blocked off the lower passage to the kitchen, but the moment I saw your stairs I understood what it used to (and should still) look like. Your photos make me wish I hadn't had to move away - I'd love to get them looking like that again!

I could never live with white walls (just not my thing). I'd go for bold color, something like this: http://community.apartmenttherapy.com/contests/color/2011/entries/3998

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAZ

So, you can't paint the woodwork BUT you can paint everything else!!!

I like this bright look http://cdn4.olgerfallaspainting.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/DarkWood_Traditional.png and it's still traditional and fits the style of furniture you have. Put a nice wingback chair & ottman in front of that fireplace...at least someone can enjoy it. Also, think maybe white marble, white subway tile, or bright happy patterned tile for the fireplace. Dark green will just add to the dark feel and not compliment the wood.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIamShellyKelly

I agree - crisp white walls (and radiator). A lot of the dated look comes from the colors, especially in the couch area. I'd reupholster the sofa and chair in colorful, modern fabrics and add some equally colorful throw pillows. I'd also do things like a poloroid arrangement on the wall and at the least put modern art/prints with you have and hang it all in mixed clusters.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

Yep, that's a challenge! Your husband is right though, don't paint that gorgeous wood! Whatever color you choose for your walls (I would go with a soft, glowy satin finish off-white), paint the radiator the same color. Or, paint it something bright and fun! I love Kelly's suggestion o paint the spindles on the staircase. that alone will open up the space immensely and draw the eye upward.

Right now I think what's weighing you down most is the dated furniture and upholstery. Beautiful antiques like the ones I see tucked here and there throughout your rooms need to be contrasted with fresh, modern furnishings. The juxtaposition needn't be harsh...start by reupholstering the sofa and chair in something more contemporary and graphic, but still "traditional"...a chevron, perhaps, or a trellis pattern, something with a little geometry, to complement their curves. Then find a few light, delicate, beautifully designed modern pieces...perhaps a couple of side chairs and a console or demi-lune table, in blonde woods. Don't be afraid to mix wood finishes! Ditch that dark coffee table, or move it to another room...its weighing the space down. Try something mid-century instead, maybe marble or glass topped metal.

Have your art framed, and buy a big painting/print or two, something with fresh colors and clean lines. Find a few beautiful ceramic pieces to place on those pretty antique plant stands; if you're worried about tippage with small children and dogs, just use picture hanging tabs to secure the base of the bowl/urn/whatever to the table. Bring in a few light colored accessories, perhaps some crystal or lucite, or antique plaster figures, something to draw light into the dark corners, especially around the fireplace. For the fireplace surround, I would go with classic blue and white ceramic tiles. They look fresh and bright, go with anything, and are period appropriate to the house without being at all granny. Above all, new rugs! Bright or soft colors...no neutrals, no muddy "antique" colors.

When in doubt, less is more. Best of luck!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrose

I agree with rose not to paint the woodwork. But I do think you could funk up the place by getting rid of some of the large dated pieces. I would mix an uncompromisingly modern couch with your antique gems


The modern couch could be upholstered in a bright wool. Replace the rug with something ethnic rather than traditional.


Also a flattish (perhaps modern) chandelier would lighten up the hallway--more Auntie Mame than Grandma.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commenteracpgee

First, it is a privilege to have original beautiful woodwork and wood floors. I agree they are keepers. What I imagine is a more modern twist for all the rest. I would paint a joyous pale grey everywhere and then play with variations of the greys according to the use of each room. No more wood anywhere. No vintage granny furniture (or paint it or re-upholster). The furniture has to have some punch. No small objects dispersed here and there. I can imagine plain bold color modern sofa, glass coffee table, upholstered chairs with bold colour pattern, and touches of black (yes black).
I would paint the fireplace brick black. I would replace the small drab table at the entrance with a bigger, black one. For what I imagine, it is not necessary to buy all new furniture. You could re-use any vintage wood furniture but always repaint it so throughout the house, ONLY the original woodwork is showcased. Carpets, upholstery, wallpaper nooks would add zest if they are in modern bold motif.
What I imagine is seen often in houses in France, Belgium, England, Sweden. I see that often on european magazines and blogs.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLoulou Ste-Adele

Hubby is so right! And you agree with him, which makes it all copacetic. There's way too much to deal with in one post!

I think going super funky and bright in the entry and up the stairs is an excellent idea. Whatever you choose, as a responsible home owner -- go two steps further, because restraint is not what you need. White seems to be the obvious - there must be some reason you're avoiding it? Whatever color you choose, it should be pure, and you might want to go with a cool palette -- the wood is warm enough. Don't use flat or eggshell - semi-gloss will give you far more light. Definitely paint the radiator to match, and upgrade the switchplates either with color or a matching wood.

The first thing to do is treat the alcove as its own space -- the couch blocks the window and the fussy bits of furniture and art stuffed into it don't help; neither do the awkward bits of wall. Inside the alcove would be a good place for a satin or reflective print wallpaper -- the choice is endless, of course, from a modern foil print to pastel self-stripe -- with translucent drapes pulled back to both soften and define the zone, and make those awkward bits of wall disappear. A low daybed-style seating should fill most of the alcove, with excessive cushions -- I don't suppose you would consider going for a brighter, modern morocco feel? My other choice would be mid-century modern, clean lines, very easy to find and a good link between period architecture and modern deco. I love the chair, it just needs to be recovered in a brigher fabric. A small, taller coffee table, such as IamShelly's picture, would be a great replacement for the dark one you've currently got being all grandma-like. Leave air space in there -- don't stuff it with tables. Lose *all* the little trinkets and doodads in the room, and the dark rug - bring in brighter colors in a modern rug, and replace the little table by the stairs with a low coffee table, with a modern table lamp to offer mood lighting, and an oversized-for-the-space photograph or painting hung low on the wall above it -- maybe a family portrait? Change out for a less dated chandelier - maybe modern wood? - and add a mood-setting pendant lamp to one side of the alcove. Everyone will tell you that lighting is key -- that's because it is. Be very bold, and install dimmers.

LARGE picture or painting on the wall by the stairs/window. At least as half as large as the window. If you need more privacy from the window at the head of the stairs, consider using film, colored or white, or match the alcove's drapery. I think staircase runners are old-fashioned dust-catchers, not to mention hard to vacuum. If you want to break up the monotony of the wood, you might consider staining a figurative flourish or even just a graceful stripe on each step, to give a twist to the idea of a runner.

I wish you could take out that wall on the left side of the fireplace, and open the passageway into a more seating-friendly zone for the fireplace, but I suspect that it's a bearing wall. You might consider losing that closet door entirely and decking out the space as a decadent reading nook -- you could funk it up with the same wallpaper, run shelves up high, to the right and left, gather up favorite trinkets that make the house too 'grandma' and would otherwise have to go (including the 20 bits & bobs on the mantle -- no! no!), jumble them nicely, and then light the collection with a few small accent lamps. If you set the seat in high, it will look natural to have a low ottoman in front as a step up. Add a comfortable boudoir or papa bear chair (I'm going with the mid-century modern) and a velvet floor cushion that matches the tiles, and you have seating for four at least. Alternately, lose the table by the stairs and have a wheeled ottoman or the chair there.

Most importantly -- less, and larger. If you want a candlestick, get a 3-ft candlestick and set it beside the fireplace, don't throw four little ones on what should be a clear mantlepiece. If you want to draw the green of the fireplace surround into the alcove, don't be shy - have one large, impressive vase or ethnic hanging rather than a grandma collection of glasswear, little pictures and enamel boxes! I love the idea of blue and white (or turquoise or jade and white) it would be very fresh. But then choose your ethnic rug with care -- you want it all to come together!

Weird as it might seem, if I had the place, wallpaper that mimicked veined marble would be absolutely irresistible. Entry, reception room and right up the stairways. It would *so* balance out all that wonderful wood! I'm not recommending it... ;-)

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOregonbird

Or *not* a wood chandelier. Bad idea. Too heavy. Capiz shell? Be a light, modern touch for the pendant and table lamps. http://www.thefind.com/search?query=capiz+shell+ Oh, I love the art deco Dolce capiz chandelier!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOregonbird

Absolutely gorgeous place!! I agree on NOT painting any of the wood. White walls would look nice, it seems like the obvious for all that wood, but painting only one wall in each space with an intense solid color would give it a modern feel. (DArk blues look great with that wood color)
I also agree with the rest in that the rugs and the fabric on your couch add to the grandma look, that needs to be modern, to balance with the style of the house.

I just love your place!! Please, please sent after pics!!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCata

Your house is amazing!
My thoughts to improve its character and modernize its personality:

- Do NOT to paint the woodwork and wood floors.

- Go bold on your walls. My personal favorite are blue shades but aqua, orange tangerine and red strawberry and also very happy colours.
See AZ link from Apartment Therapy and also these links http://www.desiretoinspire.net/blog/2012/2/24/keith-scott-morton.html
- Accent colours here and there
For pops of colors in dark backgrounds get inspiration here http://abigailahern.wordpress.com/
And I would cover your sofa with some nice neutral and would get some color for the pillows.

And if you dare... go bohemian! Good luck!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMig

Hi Neighbor, (I'm from MA too)

First off it is a lovely space and as you said it has lots of potential, but I'm not sure your style is traditional with a modern twist. I'm going to be MA blunt here...I see no sign of a modern twist in the current decor, but if you truly want to go in that direction we can help get you there.

I would suggest looking at this Martha stewart house tour for inspiration:


The couple kept most of the traditional woodwork but updated the look with more modern furnishings. Obviously you can't or don't want to replace all your furnishings but this is what I would start with in your place....

Either paint all the walls white or consider the gray of the kitchen/dining area in house tour.

If you go white, I would go with a mostly black/white scheme to balance the wood and add pops of color. I would reupholster the couch and chairs in 2 related but graphic fabrics...it could be somewhat traditional such as a stripe or houndstooth but play with scale for a more modern look. Then add some bright pillows. Get rid of your current coffee table and thrift/re-purpose something with a more streamlined look. I would replace the light fixture with something modern. I wouldn't tile the fireplace, I would just paint the brick white....and style the mantel with larger more modern items...the mantel needs something tall like a candle or vase with branches. I would wallpaper the entry...I'd go really bold like Marimekko or Orla Kiely, but they may be too much for you, something similar to Albert Hadley's fireworks might be more your style.

If you go gray, i would re-upholster or slipcover your couch and chairs in white and add some graphic pillows...paint any remaining or new/thrifted/repurposed wood furniture white. Get a modern white light fixture and I would still paint the brick on the fireplace white. I also would still wallpaper the entry but I would probably do a graphic white and metallic/mylar print.

Not matter what you paint I would also add some lighting...table lamps or a floor lamp which would go a long way in brightening the place up.

Good luck and show us some after photos!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlongtime/firsttime

Oh, and roll-up your rugs for now until you can replace with something lighter/brighter!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlongtime/firsttime

Wow! I love your space. The woodwork is gorgeous. I think the contrast between modern furniture and classical architecture is a beautiful combination. That said, the only thing I'd keep is the chair - but it would need to be re-upolstered. Paint the walls white, but why not try a color in the alcove where the sofa is? Like a deep teal maybe. Get a white, low modern couch. A cool modern ceiling light. The only way to make rugs like you have look modern is to contrast them with ultra-modern decor everywhere else. You need to clear everything out, get a few statement pieces, and add back from there. I know what it's like to be on a budget - this is where Ikea is your best friend! :) Go for it!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie

So many good comments! I don't get a good sense of your dining area, but it looks as though you have a solid and beautiful dining set, but rather traditional and somewhat subdued upholstery. Changing out the fabric for something a little brighter or dynamic would update the set, and the project is a simple fix that you can do yourself with a screwdriver and staple gun. If the set seems too coordinated (matchy-p00), move the server to another room, perhaps an entry way or in the kithchen?
Good luck, and have fun. Good call on keeping the woodwork. The painted woodwork is beautiful as well, however, it is rare to have such a consistent wood in such good condition. By not trending on the bones your look will be timeless.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commentermichelle

First off I would take a look at Nicole's pictures (www.MakingItLovely.com) because her home has dark wood trim just like yours. Even though she is in the process of painting her wood trim, you can take a look at her older photos with the trim. She did some amazing things with her home.

I would start by taking it one room at a time. You see the whole house and therefore feel overwhelmed. By taking it one room at a time, you can focus more. Then go to places like Pinterest, Flickr, and whatnot for inspiration. Maybe make a list of what you want out of each room. But spend some time looking at other spaces. Even if you don't know what you want at first looking at other spaces will get ideas going. Chances are you'll stumble across a room similar to yours and see how they worked the space.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCristina

have similar style home although I've spent 12 years stripping woodwork and repairing walls.

some ideas:

paint your walls with COLORs - the muddy colors expected in old houses/victorians aren't period (it was layers of soot). I have a pale yellow living room (north facing with porch overhang, so little light); dark green library and dark red dining room. i also have a pale blue kitchen, and a hot pink back stairway. I'd invite you over to see that it makes each room a room and not a sea of walls - it doesn't sound great but I've had to spend years kicking people out (and helping them do the same style with their new old houses).

Orange, turquoise and kelly greens are great options

Your furniture looks like grandma furniture with a slubby teenager in sweats (that sofa). I have period and modern and ikea together and it looks amazing. scale, quality and details go a long way.

consider industrial - it's hip now but I've had people trying to nick my map files and old ads for a long time

it will take time - the first 5 years (lots of systems work), no one understood what i was doing

don't paint your fireplace or re-tile it until the rest of the room is done, it's great and you can spend the $ in better ways than fixing the not-broken

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commenterg

Hi - I have the same issue in our house, with rare gumwood. I painted the walls with light colors, brought in seagrass rugs, used white uphostery with black piping, and kept the other furniture neutral but brought color and funk in with pillows. To me, the thing that dates most rooms is "granny rugs" and seagrass is an affordable fix. Also, get rid of all that dark wood furniture. If it's special to you, paint it white or some fun color to create contrast between the wood and the furniture. I found a great dining set at a garage sale and had the whole set professionally sprayed for under $400. It's light, bright and hip and has held up for years. I also make a point to use modern lamps, primarily gourd style with round shades to make any antiques I have look fresh. Bring in modern vases and hip pillows and you'll be amazed at the difference.

Good luck. Your house is beautiful!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPamela

I love your home interior so bad!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commenterflorine foulon

DO NOT PAINT YOUR WOODWORK!!!!! It is your homes biggest asset! DO NOT PAINT YOUR WALLS WHITE! It detracts and competes with the woodwork making your environment a bit dull and sterile. I like the yell0w you used in one of the photos. You could paint that everywhere. I am also a big fan of the color sage with this style of workwork. This wood is supposed to be shown with color, not white. I would also have a radiator cover made. You husband can do it if he is handy with tools. Just make sure it is heat safe. if not, you need to paint it. It looks dull and dirty. Which I am sure it is not.

One thing I noticed in your photo is you have a lot of small pieces (items) in your home. You have small items on your mantel. It really makes the eye crazy. i would cut down on it by half. You need some bigger items. You may already have them in other parts of your house. I would hang the floral photos on your wall just as you come in your door. Can you paint the half moon cabinet just as you come in? i do not know if it is an antique.

On the small circular table by the fireplace is a great place for a large plant. i know with kids and a dog that can be a worry, but with wire and a hook you can secure it to the wall (the table.) I think the runner rug is too small for that place. A larger rug, from say Target etc would be better. If not a large circular table would look great or a square one. You could then remove the small round circular table and just put the plant on that. Maybe with a few books and a photo. I would not have removed the top of your mantel. I think that was a mistake. I would not put artwork, and would use the mirror by the main entrance, above the half moon cabinet. If you have a small love seat put that in front of the fireplace. I do think that two chairs would be best in neutral fabric.

The small box on a stand by your stairs looks out of scale with the doors and staircase. I would remove it from there and put it somewhere else. A chair may look better. for a modern twist, I would replace the light fixture in the main entrance hall with something modern. It, IMO, would have to have angular lines. I wouldn't go for one of those paper latern types or the hanging lamp shade. You need something with more bravado!

I would replace the circular mirror above the radiator with the one from your entrance hall for now. Is the circular mirror and antique? If not a can of spray paint to paint over the gold w0uld work well. You can then put it with frames of like color with like color photos going up the stairs?

You also have a lot of floral things. I think this is the reason you house is looking like it is for an older couple. The florals you have are a very formal looking florals. I would slip cover the the sofa if possible. maybe add a modern poster or painting. Hope this helps.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

Wow, beautiful home. If you don't want to paint the woodwork, which, by the way, would be stunning, how about stripping off the dark stain and leaving it more natural looking. It would probably come out much lighter and much more modern looking while keeping the natural wood. It's hard to tell the floor plan from the photos, but I think I would get a gorgeous pedestal table in the center of the room. Something with a bit of weight to it. Next, I would definitely switch out your light fixture with something super modern and get a bright colored rug, maybe something ethnicky...... something super cool and hip. Save your money switching out the bricks on the fireplace and just paint them either white or black. Antiques are great, but if that's all you have it definitely will look like grandma's house. You need to add some super modern chic pieces to give it some punch. If you can't afford new furniture, how about slipcovers in white denim? Keep your big pieces neutral and solid and add colors with pillows and rugs. Floor to ceiling panels on the windows would be nice too. I would definitely paint the place a color instead of white.... it all depends what you like or find a great rug and let that be the inspiration. Good luck!

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMargery

Hello, your home has beautiful bones. But everything in it is of the same dark or dim tones: I agree with those who say paint the walls white, and recover the flowery upholstery. I recommend blue, lovely bright blue: see Metropolitan Home May 2009 article Queens for a Day. While the home is not exactly the same as yours I think it will give you an idea of how effective simple window treatments and getting the furniture out of corners can be. Also I would replace the ruched curtain on the stairs with a piece of antique lace that ends at the sill; taking that dark fabric from the dining room windows will open it up too. Kitchen sounds good: don't forget big windows. Best of luck, and please post some after shots.

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered Commentermadonnaofcoogee

Have you considered painting the floors as well as the walls white? It will totally light up the place. Your husband might agree to this because you can easily get the paint off by re-sanding. Trying to get paint off of woodwork is much more laborious. You would have to find the right paint with a dog and kids. I agree that painting the woodwork would look better but probably isn't the right thing to do.

It's a bold move but it will change everything for you - A blank canvas. I like black doors but I think a pop of color on the exterior door would be another fresh move, like a modern citrus color. I agree with the runner on the stair, but you have to go modern and fresh. Think of a fun juxtaposition with the old woodwork. It should also be on the lighter side. If you pick a pattern then the dirt won't be so bad with kids.

You gotta take the plunge or it's never going to wake up in there. Also that couch screams grandma - gotta go. Really like that chair though, but it needs new fabric. I agree with other posters about taking out the small pieces and going larger. Good luck!

(Also) Jackie

25 Feb 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJackie

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