Q: When we bought our house six years ago, we knew it wasn't our dream home. We'd planned to stay just three years and then move on to something more our style. But in this economy, that's not going to happen.
Now we're looking for ways to give things a little character, to take the boredom out of what is just an ordinary tract house. Any suggestions?
A: Perhaps it will be comforting to learn you're in a boat that's already crowded with other homeowners who meant to be upwardly mobile and aren't just now.
The best answer lies in architectural detailing you can add on at relatively little expense: Crown moldings, chair rails, door and window frames can be had by the running foot from any lumber yard or many home-supply stores. You'll also find plaster-look decorative details like center-ceiling medallions and over-door pediments.
Consider, also, that you can replace ordinary windows with interesting shapes -- bays, bows, eyebrows, Palladian windows that will make yesterday's tract house look more special and now.
Paneling and custom cabinets that warm a room with wood also add almost-instant "heritage." According to professional designers, there's a nationwide revival of interest in such "investment" furnishings.
Consider the room we show here without the handsome paneling that frames the fireplace, and you see at a glance what a great difference fine detailing makes in the feel of a room.
The mantel, walls and shelves were built by the artisans at Rutt Custom Cabinetry, a firm with authorized showrooms throughout the country. Their craftsmanship, as you see, is not for kitchens alone.
More "heritage" tips from the pros:
Replace cheap hollow-core doors with heavier-quality paneled or decorative doors.
Change the hardware: unstandard-issue doorknobs, switch plates, hinges and the like add a custom look. The same is true for light fixtures.
Cheap flooring also is a giveaway. Consider re-laying a quality-looking wooden floor. Substitute porcelain, ceramic tile or marble in a foyer.
All these are capital investments, remember, and add to the overall value of your home when you finally decide it's time to be upwardly mobile again.
Q: I just read your ideas on using Oriental rugs on carpeting. Did you know that it is very bad to put furniture on rugs over carpet? It is too "plush" beneath, and the furniture legs can easily break through warped threads, ruining very expensive, often antique treasures!
A: You have a good point, although in most cases we're talking area-rug-size Orientals, where any furniture would likely be a lightweight cocktail or end table. Old-fashioned cups would solve the problem under a load-bearing sofa or club chair.
At any rate, any rug -- including Orientals -- needs good padding beneath or you will, indeed, grind away at the fabric.
Q: This may be a question for Amy Vanderbilt, but she's dead and I need an answer. Recently, we had the family over for dinner and I used place mats on the table. My cousin made a point of telling me -- in front of everybody -- that place mats were not proper on the dinner table, only for informal
meals. Does she know what she's talking about?
A: I have it on the best authority since the late Ms. Vanderbilt
that place mats are showing up -- and being accepted -- on the chicest tables at dinner. In fact, Letitia Baldrige, former White House social secretary (to Jackie Kennedy) and author ("The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette" and "Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to the New Manners for the '90s") says she is a great believer in the new informality.
"Entertain casually, serve chili, if you like, but do entertain at home!" she urges. Instead of criticizing your table appointments, Ms. Baldrige might offer you "the Croix de Guerre" she says any hostess deserves who makes time to have dinner parties at home, not in a restaurant or hotel.
NB When was the last time your cousin had everyone in for dinner?
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.