A mirror, mirror on the wall can be the fairest decor of all

January 08, 1995|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

In his best-selling novel "Bonfire of the Vanities," author Tom Wolfe wrote that the most discernible sound in Manhattan of the early 1980s came from the deliberate shattering of plate-glass mirrors lining the walls of fashionable New York apartments. Mirrored walls had suddenly become passe, replaced by newly fashionable frescoes, faux finishes and the visual trickery of trompe l'oeil.

Though tarnished by excess, the mirror's reputation as a valuable element of interior design is still intact, and the mirror remains a marvelous raw material for decorators. It can add sparkle to almost any setting. It can brighten dark spaces by reflecting natural and artificial light. It can contribute to the illusion of spaciousness, making Lilliputian rooms look larger.

Framed mirrors, in particular, are old and reliable contributors to the making of beautiful rooms. If mirrored walls were overdone in the past, framed mirrors -- ready to hang or custom-made -- have been underused in recent years. That's hard to understand because they're affordable, available in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, embellishments and prices, and seldom fail to add a touch of graciousness, glitter and glamour to a room.

Like a framed painting or portrait, a framed mirror is an adornment for a wall, helping to break up the surface solidity of a large expanse. Unlike a painting, though, a mirror provides a constantly changing "picture." The reflection of the interior landscape varies according to the viewer's position in the room and changes in light; it can add vitality to a room.

Because a good-size mirror toys with depth perception, it also can create the effect of an interior window where none exists. Common sense may tell you that no window is there, but the mind seems to interpret reflection as transparency: It seems you are looking through, rather than at, something.

The mistake most people make when choosing a framed mirror is going too small. Skimp on scale and you risk minimizing the mirror's ability to reflect views and light and add drama.

It's difficult to choose a mirror that's too big. Because of its transparent and reflective nature, a framed panel of silvery glass rarely looks weighty or overbearing. Suspended over a console table or a sofa, a mirror measuring 3 feet by 4 feet is not in most cases too big.

Shape and size are largely matters of personal preference. Generally speaking, rectangular mirrors look better than square ones. Vertical mirrors also work better than horizontal ones in adding shape and dimension to the wall.

Other good shapes include round or elliptical mirrors, with or without frames, particularly when suspended over a mantel, a hall table or a sofa. They produce a kind of porthole effect reminiscent of ocean liners and the art deco era. Convex mirrors, a favorite of the neoclassical era and often framed in gilt, are still widely available and a good choice as an attention-getting room accessory.

If you can't find a suitable ready-to-hang framed mirror, consider having a frame made by a framing shop and a mirror cut to fit by a local glass dealer. Or choose a hefty molding from the lumberyard and make your own architecturally significant frame. You can make a basic wood frame from inexpensive pine and then upholster it with patchwork quilting, an Oriental rug remnant or batting and fabric. With scissors and a staple gun, you can pull off the project in a couple of hours.

Another strategy is to use smaller framed mirrors in multiples. Buy them in retail stores or start a collection. Look for interesting frames in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials at antiques and garage sales, and have mirrors cut to fit. Then group them together on one wall or hang three or four in a straight vertical line behind the lamp tables at each end of the sofa.

Tom Wolfe and trendiness notwithstanding, unframed plate-glass mirrored wall panels still have their role in home decoration. While a mirrored wall can certainly add drama and the illusion of spaciousness to a small room, it can also overwhelm a room. Worse, many people don't like to look at their own reflections in a wall-sized mirror, particularly when it is a background for a dining table or is opposite a living-room seating area.

So if you want the benefits of a mirrored wall without the liabilities, plan on putting up a large-size painting on the mirrored surface or positioning some furniture and plants against the wall to obscure the view.

Otherwise, it's probably best to use plate-glass mirror panels in low doses. Mirroring the little wall at the dead end of a hallway can make a narrow corridor seem wider and longer. But again, hang a painting on the mirror and position a small table in front. Without obstacles, the perception deception can fool people into walking right into the wall -- even when they can see themselves coming. The same technique can make a dead-end galley kitchen seem significantly roomier.

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