Here in New England, we have a storied housing stock. Neighborhoods and main streets lined with clapboard Colonials, brick row houses, weathered Capes, and detailed Victorians dating back decades, sometimes centuries. The architectural hallmarks of these older homes offer a glimpse into the way people lived long ago.
Many of these homes, however, can make modern living less than ideal. In general, they’re dark. Rooms may be small and closed off from each other, ceilings lower, windows more sparse, wood dark.
With spring here, can we brighten these spaces, make them lighter and airier, without destroying their original character? Local designers say it’s not as difficult as you might think.
1. Paint it white
“The biggest challenge in terms of making these older houses feel brighter is that they tend to have a lot of dark cabinetry and woodwork around,” says Catherine Skaletsky, an interior designer at the Newton-based firm Catherine & McClure. “People are a wreck to paint it. But they shouldn’t be. Lighter paint can do so much for brightening and adding depth to a space — it’s the most important thing you can do.”
The same holds true for trim, she says, which, when painted a glossy white, can completely transform a room.
2. Keep window treatments and upholstery light
Nothing darkens a room more than heavy fabric, especially around the windows. Avoid heavy draperies that block sunlight. In a darker room, select window treatments that are light in color and in weight, says Skaletsky.
“Bright doesn’t have to mean white everywhere,” she says. Champagne, dove gray, or light taupe can all feel light. When it comes to upholstery, avoid dark greens and browns and heavy damask fabric.
“People think that because they live in an older New England home they have to keep everything traditional. But you don’t,” says Skaletsky. “It’s good to bring some California brightness and lightness into the décor especially since we deal with dark, dismal winters here. You want your interior to feel the opposite of that.”
3. Create an interior window
Adding a window to an interior wall can open a space and allow light to be shared between two areas. Architect Jeff Klug, cofounder of Boston firm Butz + Klug, says that installing an interior window is simple and powerful.
“Not only does it help filter light from one space to another, it allows for cross ventilation, which in older homes is also particularly important.”
Klug recommends using tempered glass on interior windows so when they are closed there is complete privacy. Also consider swapping out solid doors between interior spaces with a glass one to share maximum light.
4. Widen a doorway between rooms
Milton interior designer Beth Bourque does a lot of work in center-entrance Colonials, which typically have four separate rooms on the main floor. She says that it can be tempting to start knocking down walls to make rooms feel brighter and more open.
“But it’s not respectful to the architecture to go around doing that,” she says. Bourque often compromises by widening doorways between rooms, a much less costly move that can have a big impact.
“A lot of light can flow and bounce between spaces with a double-wide door opening,” she says. With a new, expanded opening, she recommends maintaining the moldings used in the rest of the room for a seamless integration.
5. Invest in good lighting
While it seems obvious that a part of brightening up a space is to enhance the lighting plan, it’s often overlooked, says Bourque. “I encourage my clients to splurge on lighting.”
Use a three-part approach that involves task lighting, such as track lights or under cabinet fixtures; ambient lighting, such as wall sconces and table lamps; and sparkle, which “provides more of a glimmer like a chandelier,” says Bourque.
“Switch out old recessed lights with LED ones. They’ve come a long way and now produce a warm incandescent glow and are long-lasting.”
Bourque also recommends using plug-in wall sconces, which are relatively new to the market. “Pottery Barn and other retailers carry them. They don’t have to be hardwired, which means any homeowner can install them.”
6. Enlarge a window
A dark room can feel dramatically larger and brighter by replacing a double hung window with a triple-hung window. “This isn’t hard to do if you have the wall space,” says Klug.
A triple hung window can be almost the size of a door, so when you’re standing in front of it, “It’s as if you’re standing on a balcony without actually being outside,” he says.
An oversize window enhances the communication between the outside and inside and makes the two areas feel naturally connected — which results in the interior feeling bigger and more airy.
7. Maximize mirrors
Mirrors add a sense of depth that breaks up wall planes.
“Reflection is tremendous when walking into a room. A mirror is a suggestion of a window that you can’t actually see out of,” says Klug. “By bouncing light around it allows the space to expand visually.”
To take full advantage of a mirror, place it opposite a lamp or a fixture so there’s plenty of light to bounce off the surface. You can also use furniture with a mirrored or glossy finish to reflect even more light.