Background can set the style in a room


December 19, 1993|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Contributing WriterLos Angeles Times Syndicate

In designers' language, the treatments for walls, floors and ceilings are known as backgrounds or surrounds. And this is one case where professional jargon is entirely apt.

For, whether you are creating a Spartan environment or an opulently appointed room, the style will be determined by how the furniture is surrounded. A background consisting of draperied windows, plush carpeting and applied decorative moldings will create one kind of effect; bare wood floors and pristinely white or darkly lacquered walls will set quite a different scene.

The term is appropriate in another way as well. Just as in a theater, a room's background creates a mood that will affect everyone present.

The surround always matters, regardless of the look -- or the expense -- of all the other elements. Even the so-called eclectic interior, which consists of pieces drawn from different periods and styles, has to have the right kind of background, or else the room will be nothing more than a mish-mash.

And for those who know how to manipulate a surround, it's easy to give a room corner a hip, big-city look, a laid-back rustic appearance or just about anything in-between.

To see how a surround creates a distinctive tone, let's take the example of one of today's most popular and sophisticated designs, which is derived from Art Deco. This blend of new and reproduction pieces works best, I think, with a surround of

alternating light and dark lacquered surfaces, such as the panels of a folding screen. These types of interiors have also revived the use of animal-skin patterns and textures on fabrics and carpets, which was quite the rage in the 1930s.

The photo shows a detail of such a setting. Here, a '30s-style bent plywood chair is surrounded by a 19th-century Japanese screen and a modern leopard-print carpet design. The chair itself is covered in a velvet tiger-stripe pattern. (Don't worry -- these are all synthetic animal skins.)

Taken together, the elements produce a rather exotic mix of African and Asian styles.

Now let's imagine the same chair with the same fabric pattern, but in linen rather than velvet. And what if it were sitting on a white Berber textured carpet or possibly a bare floor made of ceramic tile?Take away the screen as well, and picture the chair in front of a scrubbed pine or a white louvered wall. The overall look then would be more casual and indeterminately tropical than the cross-cultural setting that appears in the photo.

It's the backgrounds, you see, that make all the difference. The furniture, no matter how beautiful, is often of secondary importance.

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