Lighten Up: Make Any Room Lighter and Brighter

     Maybe it was a yearning for spring, or just a wish for a change of pace, but last year I found myself feeling like my living room was too dark, too rich, too heavy. It needed more light, both literally, in terms of letting in more daylight, and figuratively: the room’s atmosphere needed lightening up. I wanted to keep the warmth, but lose the heaviness.

The original living room

     The old room was warm and filled with atmosphere. It suited the house, which was built in 1914 in a combination of Craftsman and Colonial Revival styles. I thought it was just about perfect—until it wasn’t. One of the great things about decorating is the fact that it’s not rocket science or the cure for cancer. You’re allowed to change because our definition of comfort and style is ever evolving. For me, suddenly lightening up seems right. If you’re feeling in the mood to let the sun shine in, here are six strategies for transforming your space.


     Much as I adore color, I have to admit that intense, saturated color can gobble up light. Strong colors come into their own at night, but in the daylight can seem overwhelming. A soft backdrop allows other elements to emerge. When thinking about color, realize that walls, ceilings, and floors contribute to the overall color story, as does upholstery, art, and accessories.

     I decided to color the walls and the sofa in a soft, warm camel. This more neutral base increased the impact of the other, stronger colors. 


     When contemplating any decorating change, it’s essential to stand back and look objectively at the elements that define the space. In my room, there were two large archways, a great deal of window and crown molding, as well as several bookshelves and a wooden surround for the fireplace that went up to the ceiling. That left very little actual wall space. 

     The mid-range trim I had chosen years earlier enhanced the Arts and Crafts look I had been trying to encourage, but I began to see it impeded the flow of the space. In a room that is broken up by an overabundance of trim, painting the walls and trim the same color calms the space, and makes it look much more expansive. Choosing matte paint for the walls and an eggshell finish for the trim allows a bit of delineation between the two surfaces, but keeps the clean look.


     The most obvious issue way to let more light into a room is to cover less window glass. Curtains that are set back on either side of the window allow all of the window to remain visible. Roman shades that extend to the ceiling allow you to raise the shade higher, thus letting in more light, while still looking substantial. Mounting any window treatment at ceiling height also has the immediate effect of making the ceilings appear to be higher, which encourages a feeling of spaciousness.

The "new " living room with winter pillows

     My inside mounted romans in pumpkin silk covered half the window glass. If they were raised higher, the scale looked off—there was simply not enough fabric to balance the rather large windows and abundant trim; plus, the pumpkin color was bright enough to really stand out, which made the shades seem even smaller.

     The solution was to go to an outside mount, which stood up to the scale of the windows and furniture, but also allowed me to raise the shades considerably, literally letting more light into the room. I decided on one very large shade for a bank of three windows, which looked less choppy and provided a bit of a modern vibe. This time the fabric was much softer: Fabricut’s Shalini Silk,  a lovely, textural mix of gold and light redwood. Softening the color made the windows blend more easily with the walls, enhanced available light, and made the room look larger.


     While the lines of upholstery or other furniture do not directly influence the lightness or brightness of a room, simple, understated shapes allow the eye to travel easily through the space. 

     Not only was the strong color of my old sofa too intense, the dramatic sweep of the back looked overwrought, and the high arms and tight back were not terribly comfortable. I chose a Lee sofa I had ordered many times for clients. To me, it is the perfect piece: modern without looking hard-edged, meltingly comfortable but never sloppy, and not oversized. I wanted a neutral but not boring backdrop for the art in the room, as well as for a variety of pillows that change seasonally.

Summer pillows in original designs in patchwork silk

     I removed the octagonalend table with cutouts that stood next to one of the chairs, replacing it with a simpler choice on the other side of the chair. This change accomplished two functions: the busyness of the table was eliminated ( it looks terrific in my home office) and the increased space between the two chairs encourages a clear, unobstructed view of the room. The space now invites you to enter, rather than partially blocking the way.


     In the living room’s new, soft light, the Tibetan rug I had toyed with replacing came into its own. Probably because there was less visual distraction, the colors in the rug seemed more vivacious. Because there were so many other colors in the room, the rug had read only as green and gold. Suddenly, I saw a deep lavender, orange, a mid-range blue, and a camel that nearly matches the new sofa. 

     The objects on the bookshelves were rearranged, and many books given away. The new, pared-down objects seem to float on the shelves because they are no longer competing with the dark trim.


     A calmed down, more neutral room can easily slip into blandness. It’s important to keep a few elements that focus attention and energize the space. I kept my live edge coffee table. Its color blends more easily into the new room, but it still functions as a piece of sculpture. Colors from paintings in the room now set the color direction, and the pillows on the sofa reinforce it.  If you use landscapes, you can almost always count on green and blue as colors that you can echo in other elements. In this room, streaks of orange, purple and raspberry, in small quantities, enliven the atmosphere, playing off the soft camel backdrop. Ironically, if you use a warm, soft, sunlit base for walls and upholstery, you can step out with colors that you would never consider in a larger dose. And by juggling artwork and replacing a few pillows and accessories, you have a whole new story to tell.