Q: We've just moved into a home with a paneled study. Its dark oak creates a somber and actually rather depressing look. It seems somehow wrong to paint over the wood, so we're not sure how to brighten the study and give it a more contemporary feeling. We want to use this space as a family room. Do you have some advice for us?
A: The problem will be fairly easy to solve if you act in accordance with one important principle: Brightness is the result of contrast, sparkle and radiance. It's not produced simply by light colors.
In your case, the room can be made considerably brighter simply covering the inside of the bookcases with a fabric that's in contrast with the wood.
I agree it would be wrong to paint over the paneling. But there's no reason why you shouldn't paint the ceiling in a color lighter than the fabric. You should also choose a medium to light color for the flooring, window treatments and upholstery.
The space shown in the photo is probably similar to your own. In the hands of designer Frank A. Bergman of Kenilworth, Ill., it has been properly colored and furnished to produce a warm, informal setting with a contemporary feel.
Note that the room's success is based on the introduction of clever contrasts, rather than merely lightening its surfaces. This approach is interwoven with a Southwestern design theme. Tiles, wall hangings, reed baskets and sculptures are all expressive of Mexican and Indian cultures, as are the room's patterns and general color scheme.
The window seat behind the bookcases was covered with a richly textured material that contrasts strongly with the pottery, baskets and books. Because your own bookcases are more deeply stained than the ones shown here, I suggest you use a bleached linen as the covering for a nearby chair or sofa.
You may wish to emulate Mr. Bergman's decision to bleach the oak floor bone white. He added a kilim rug under the seating area to demarcate that grouping from the table desk. With its wrought iron legs and tile top, the desk has a Spanish Colonial styling that's consistent with the room's overall look.
If possible, you should display a variety of collections and accessories.
Well-designed objects will usually blend with one another, regardless of their styles. In this model, there's a successful mix of contemporary seating pieces and new and old crafts from diverse cultures. A Turkish rug, Indian pillows and Southwestern artifacts all look compatible in this single space.
If the room still doesn't seem bright enough even after you've tried a few of these techniques, you can still lighten the paneling dTC without painting it. Stripping and bleaching, as was done in the photographed room, will preserve the beauty of the wood's grain while making the space as bright as can be.