Q: Does the sofa always have to face the fireplace? In our part of California, we don't use the fireplace all that much and I hate looking into that blank hole.
A: Out of respect for the architecture, the fireplace has traditionally been the focal point around which rooms are arranged. However, you can easily turn the furniture's back on an underused fireplace and never miss it -- as you can see from the Southwestern-flavored family room we show here.
The love seat-sofa duet angles toward the fireplace without actually facing it; the diagonally laid area rug and strategically placed tables underscore the room's off-center orientation -- away from the walls toward the center of the space.
There's another good reason for this kind of arrangement, one you'd never guess unless I told you: The sofa is a sleeper. Made by La-Z-Boy and covered in a deep, rich plaid, it looks company-ready by day and is definitely ready for company by night.
Back to the fireplace: Even though it's not the center of attention, it holds its own as an art center. An ever-changing display of paintings and objects is simply propped against the wall on top of the mantel.
One more thought about unused fireplaces: Take advantage of them as a ready-made "niche" in which to display more than unburned wood. Green plants are always good fill-ins during the warmer weather; dried flowers, a sculpture, or a decorative, painted fire screen are other solutions to the "black hole of Calcutta" between crackling fires -- though I can't imagine anyone having the sheer atavistic luxury of a working fireplace and not cuddling close to enjoy it.
Q: Our home is contemporary in both architecture and interior design, but I am growing bored with so many all-white walls. In fact, I am thinking of putting up wallpaper, but most of the patterns I've seen are traditional flowers and things, so I'm afraid to try it. Can you recommend a type of pattern that would look right in a contemporary room?
A: Any one of today's three hottest looks in wall coverings could be compatible with contemporary furnishings:
Faux finishes. Animal patterns. Watercolor-washed effects.
Faux finishes -- fool-the-eye marbles, stone and patterns that pretend to be hand-painted surfaces -- are appropriate. Indeed, they add architectural strength to the background of any room.
Animal patterns -- leopard spots, leathers, snakeskins, feathers -- can be sophisticated and witty, especially if you repeat the pattern in fabric for throw pillows, say, or chair seats.
Watercolor-washed effects will add subtle colorations to your walls without making a direct statement in pattern. With a touch of pearlescence, they can be very high-style; with more focus on earthier tones, such as the plums, mauves and pale greens, they can be perfect backgrounds for contemporary rooms with a Southwestern accent.
I put the question to two professional designers in the wall coverings industry, and they came up with two more ideas: Look for traditional patterns -- like the florals that frightened you -- recolored in a contemporary palette. Textures are always terrific on modern plain walls, creating subtle all-over patterns.
Rose Bennett Gilbert is the author of five books on interior design and a contributing writer to other publications in the field. Send questions to Inside Advice, Maryland Living, The Sun, Baltimore 21278.