Magic may or may not be in the air at this year's Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House -- but there's no doubt it's on the walls and on the floors and on the ceilings and on the woodwork and on the cornices and on the kitchen cabinets and on the basement stair walls.
It's the magic of paint, and it's everywhere in the 106-year-old Lamb house -- once the summer home of George and Annie Lamb, well-to-do Quakers. We're not talking here about the merely faux -- the simple marbling of a cornice-style molding, though the house has that, too -- but about true trompe l'oeil, the witty and imaginative use of paint to decorate, disguise and duplicate other surfaces.
All sorts of surfaces have been turned into mini-canvases for painted objects: The cherubs that fly around the living room chandelier, the "hole" in a bedroom wall where a bird is building its nest, the "ivy" that creeps up the stairs from a corner of the back door, the "damask" that covers a chair seat in the "artist's studio," the checkers board and hopscotch grid on a playroom floor, the "skylights" in an attic sitting room.
And then there's the kitchen. The owner of the house liked the stylized, floral tiles in blue and tan that decorate walls, ceiling and floor, and didn't want them disturbed. Enter artist Amy Neill, of Ellicott City, who took the earth tones from the tiles and turned the metal cabinets into "stone." She added Aztec motifs on three of the cabinet doors, plus a few trailing vines on cabinets and soffit. There are two kinds of drawer pulls -- aluminum ones in the shape of lizards and monkeys, from the Shape of Lies in New York, and metallic leather ones Ms. Neill made from ordinary craft-shop materials. In a corner of the room sits a table made of two tires -- one auto, one bicycle -- a piece of glass, and a large blue box. The room may be the most astonishing transformation in the house: It's startling, exotic and whimsical at the same time.
The third floor
In the Happy Hands Hideaway on the third floor, the checkerboard and hopscotch and tick-tack-toe grids are painted black and red and orange and bright green on the white-painted floor. In front of a play kitchen is a painted "rug." Children's handprints in primaries march across the wall as "decoration": The decorators, design students at Harford Community College, recruited their own children for the prints, warning them: "Don't try this at home." Other fun things installed in the room by Ann Famous and design-team members Tere Oleksik, Linda Miller and Valerie Millard include a bears' tea party tableand a trunk of "dress-up" clothes.
Across the hall, designer Russell Slouck, of Gatehouse Interiors of Baltimore, had artist Chris Winslow paint two huge "wood" framed skylights on either side of the sloping ceiling; "bamboo" peeks over the edges. The artist also painted rich "tropical mahogany" surfaces on what are really two huge plaster-covered chimney flues.
Perhaps the most charming use of painted notes is "Le petit Chambre des Oiseaux" (the Little Birds' Room), a bedroom by designer A. Jeannine Feeney of Lutherville: In a corner, at the ceiling, artist Gail Lieberman has painted a "hole" on the red-papered wall; there is sky beyond, and on the edge of the "hole", a bird is building a nest. A few feet away, two other birds seem to sweep across the wall.
A close runner-up in the charm category is the trompe l'oeil "china cabinet" in another bedroom, complete with a King Charles spaniel looking soulfully up from its base. The room, by Donna Foertsch of DLF Design Associates in Timonium, is bright yellow with flower motifs all around -- on the wallpaper border around the ceiling, in the blue-chintz bed hangings. The hangings on the four-poster bed are lined with pink and blue gingham for an effect that's fresh and appealing.
Dramatic artist's study
By far the most dramatic room in the painted-surface category is the tiny Artist's Atelier just off the master bedroom. The room was designed by Valley Craftsmen Ltd., of Baltimore to show off the firm's specialty -- painted finishes.
"It's a romanticized notion of a decorative artist's studio," says Sam Robinson, company president. Among the painted surfaces are the red "stone" walls and stenciled cornice border, a "draped" ceiling, curtain rods in a style Mr. Robinson described as "flattened neoclassical" topping stenciled shades, a radiator cover that looks like a tole console, a "tapestry" of painted canvas, and "panels" on the closet doors. A small chair has a "damask" seat; on the floor is a painted sisal rug on top of a "marble" floor cloth. "Romantic" barely begins to describe the room; it looks as if Turner or Piranesi might just have stepped out for a cigar.
Beyond the painted surfaces, two major themes emerge among the show-house rooms, and they're somewhat related: what might be called luxuriant opulence and austere opulence.