I am an addictive fan of things that turn up in those huge home-furnishing warehouses, provocative, great-looking things that appear to say you could get $5,000 worth of designer-quality kicks out of $195 in off-the-shelf parts and a paintbrush. It may be something of an illusion. Not everything you see can be turned into a thing of beauty easily. But I still think that the big hardware and chain stores are packed with overlooked decorator opportunities just waiting to happen.
Take the case of screens. Bought retail, with perhaps a Sino-Japanese scene romping across the panels, an elegant, first-class screen has no trouble at all in running into four or even five figures.
At the same time, the stores are packed with items that need only adequate hinging and some artistic surfacing to become a striking decorative accent.
A screen can do wonders for a room. All you need, for instance, to hide a problem corner, or to visually liquidate something ugly like a big old radiator, are a lamp on a table and an occasional chair -- plus a backup screen. It works invariably if the colors are right.
As a flat surface, a screen can offer almost anything in the way of finishing that a wall can boast: stenciling, trompe l'oeil, wallpapering, scenic painting, mod graphics, faux paneling, mirror panels or fabric. And screens adapt to a wide range of decorative schemes. They are a relatively inexpensive way to create a statement in large formal rooms, particularly adaptable to making private spaces within large volumes. In many cases, a screen or two can substitute for expensive structural changes in a home or apartment's design. They can cover wall blemishes, too.
As a test of all these exciting horizons, I ventured to assemble data on the makings of a homemade screen with simple ingredients.
There is no great trick to hinging screen panels. For real firmness you will need three hinges for each connection between panels, or, for a standard-size three-panel screen of 6 or 7 feet in height, six hinges (three packages of two hinges each) to complete your screen. Typically, brass-plated hinges for 3/4 -inch wood panels run about $1.50 to $2 per hinge, or about $10 to $12 to do the job. For heavier panels up to 1 1/4 inches wide, prices about double.
Because they are two-way devices, each hinge will have three leaves, or plates. You must cut a mortise (indentation of the shape of the piece) in the wood 1 1/2 times as deep as as one of the leaves of the double hinge. Use a small saw, a utility knife, a small wood chisel, or all three, to make the cuts and dig out the wood. Screw the hinge into the wood. Then lay the next wood panel flat on the first and support it with blocks so that the screw holes in the hinge fall on the center line of the edge of the second panel. Then mortise the hinge into the second panel and screw in place. Continue with each panel.
With a flat-surface screen, you can build a family heirloom by plastering your screen with prints, family photos, old records (mortgages, birth certificates and family trees) and then finish the surface in the decoupage method. This is actually a revival of a Victorian tradition.
Some designers have created unusual flat screens by putting a different wallpaper on each screen panel, or in bands parallel to the floor. In dining rooms where chair rails and wainscoting are an appropriate formal note, a screen with a paneled look up to the height of a chair rail is effective. Notable themes for traditional screens have been wave motion, mountain and tree formations.
Most home supply-lumber houses today will carry a variety of thought-starting prefab units. Among them are whole shuttering and door units. The latter are usually 80 inches high and from 24 inches up to a yard (and more) wide. The light, hollow luan wood models are easy to heft and include attractive wood graining. The luan panels are completely flat rectangles, hence adaptable to mural work and wallpaper.
More weighty and substantial things (though not necessarily more practical) can be made with bi-fold shutter doors, produced in a variety of types and widths, often with the hinging already in place.
Contemporary decor adapts well to the use of light fabrics or ordinary window shade material available in stores. The strips of material are simply hung within rectangles (normally wood framing) that are hinged in the standard screen pattern.
Here are some suggestions for interior treatments involving screens:
*If pressed for bedroom closet space, use a screen in one corner to enlarge clothing storage, or to serve as a dressing room, or both.
*A cold-looking, floor-to-ceiling walkout set of glass doors or a big window will come alive as a focal point with tall, matched screens posted on either side, especially if a view is involved. And homemade screens could cost much less than custom draperies.