In the old days, their function was purely utilitarian. Women looked in them to powder their noses; men used them for shaving.
Today, mirrors have moved on to become a major element in home design, an artifice that can expand space, restate a decorating coup or literally "double your pleasure," as the immortal chewing gum commercial pleads.
Always popular in bathrooms, mirrors are now being used more extensively in other parts of the home as well, particularly dining rooms where they reflect lavish interiors and social affairs.
You can order them in virtually any size. The only requirement for especially large mirrors is that there be an opening in the house big enough to bring in plate glass sheeting on vacuum cups and dollies.
The biggest surprise for homeowners installing mirrors is not necessarily the cost but the surprising length of preparatory time involved.
It isn't at all unusual for the measuring work to take longer than the actual installation, says Robert Hopkin of Mirrors & More, specialty installers based in Baltimore.
"Even in new homes, exactly plumb angles and planes are not necessarily always the case," he says. "The right measuring in advance makes all the difference. If something's out of kilter an eighth of an inch, the mirror won't fit properly."
Where mirrors come together at angles, adds William M. Bigel, director of residential design for the Baltimore-based firm of H. Chambers, an accurate fit of 1/32nd of an inch is necessary.
For his apartment in the contemporary-spirited Village of Coldspring in north Baltimore, designed by Moshe Safdie, Mr. Bigel picked floor-to-ceiling mirrors to define space. "I tend to use mirrors in a non-decorative way. I use them to make walls disappear, not to decorate a room but to create an illusion of space," he says.
His living room and dining room areas at Cold Spring were divided by a central interior wall that tended to make the spaces "more confining visually." He "put furniture in front of the mirror to lessen the importance of the wall." As a result the wall reflects the room "as if the wall was painted," he notes.
"One of the fears that people have about mirrors, especially big sheets, is that they would constantly have to look at themselves. In fact, after you live with a mirrored wall, a big one, it disappears. The first day you look at yourself, the second day you look at the furniture and the third day you walk by it without looking," Mr. Bigel relates, adding, "it's hard to convince clients of that. They have trouble realizing that they can sit in a chair and not be distracted by it."
His apartment mirrors reflect and give added impetus to a Grace Hartigan watercolor and a Barbara Taylor arrangement of South African plants in a copper bowl. The designer repeats Mr. Hopkin's warning about measurements: "No wall is straight vertically in any house," he emphasizes.
The Bigel home has dark-toned taupe-colored walls that emphasize the artworks, but also do what darker wall colors invariable do: "They tend to make corners disappear, and the room reads more spaciously than it would otherwise," Mr. Bigel says.
The artworks benefit from a low-voltage spotlight system of about seven fittings near the ceiling line, but these have to be carefully adjusted not to interfere with mirror images, the designer says. Crystal Interiors of Baltimore were his installers.
The use of small, beveled mirrors in panels or in series, which was popular on late Victorian fireplaces and stairways, may add glitter says Mr. Bigel, but does not enhance space. Leonard and Beverly Baylin of Owings Mills called on Elayne Mordes, ASID, a Baltimore designer, to do a new master suite with bath that had been added to their spacious contemporary home. They chose as their theme an integrated system of triangles. Matte-finish triangles used in the master bedroom carpeting were lavishly echoed in the intricately mirrored bathroom walls.
Triangles mounted on the mirrored bathroom walls form a giant abstract work of art that rises over a marble tub and is reflected by the mirrored walls through the bath and closet area in infinite ++ series. "We used muted tones of teal, charcoal grey, eggplant and lavender with a combination of shiny and matte finishes," says the designer.
Thanks to a complex system of bolting, the large triangles appear to float, space age-style, in front of the mirror. Robert Hopkin was the installer of the Baylin project.
Here are a few of his tips about the use of mirrors:
*You can mount just about anything on top of a mirrored wall as long as there's enough mirror coverage of the support so that the hole in the mirror doesn't show.
*A mirror in a foyer has a special sort of elegance; mirrors also work well in many bar areas.
*Beveled glass can provide an interesting rainbow or prismatic effect.
*For the look of a free-standing fireplace with space all around it, use floor-to-ceiling mirrors.