Today, we’re going to tackle a reader question from Ellen, who is having trouble deciding how to handle her den/family room that has a really dark brown brick fireplace and wood paneled walls. Here’s her decorating problem in her own words…
My problem is my den/family room. We bought this 1960s ranch almost a year ago, and the room has partly of a mid century feel, yet all of my furniture in the room is traditional. As you can see, the walls are completely paneled, except for the huge dark brick fireplace. There is lots of good light from the front windows, but the fireplace just dominates the room. I am trying to decide how to treat the walls and fireplace. Paint both? Paint one? Cover the brick with drywall? Help! There are too many options! The room is quite large and we spend the majority of our time in here in the evening, so I would love to get it done and not have to redo! Thanks so much for your help!
The Current Den/Family Room:
Let’s take a look at the family room that Ellen is working with. First, here’s a closeup of the two finishes in question — the wood paneled walls and the dark brown brick fireplace.
And here’s a wider angle view of the whole fireplace. It’s definitely large and currently looks very dominating on that wall and in the room.
And an even wider view of the area, including that wall of windows with all of that natural light pouring into the room.
And here’s a quick look at how the rest of the room is arranged…
People who have known me the longest are probably going to fall out of their chairs when they read my response (and I really can’t believe it myself), but I actually love your paneling. I’ve seen lots of 1960s paneling in my life, and I dislike most of it simply because over the years, most of it has changed in color and is SOOOOOOO unbelievably orange. And while yours definitely has an orange tone to it, I don’t find it offensive at all. I think the wood adds beautiful warmth to the room.
Now the walls may look different in person, and they may look way too over-the-top orange for your taste when you’re viewing it in person. If that’s the case, and if this room were mine, I think I’d still try to keep the wood, and maybe tone down the orange (if it’s too much for your taste) by using some wiping stain in a more neutral brown over the top. Just make sure it’s not too dark (you don’t want to turn it into a cave), and make sure you’re not trying to use a penetrating stain on those walls. A wiping stain is thinner than a gel stain, but thicker than a penetrating stain, and I find it the easiest to control. Old Masters is my favorite brand of wiping stain.
All that to say, if this were my room, I’d keep the wood walls and work with them. One thing I don’t like about how paneling was done in the 60s and 70s is all of the small (and stained) trim that was used with it. So in order to modernize the look a bit, I would add new trim or paint the existing — a larger crown molding painted in a warm white, warm white door casings, warm white baseboards, etc. But that’s a personal preference for me (I like substantial trims and casings, and I like them in a warm white), so that may not fit your taste at all.
So where I’d put the bulk of your budget and effort is the fireplace. I don’t think you need to drywall over it, unless you’re going for a more modern feel. But I’m guessing you’re not wanting a modern feel since you mentioned that all of your furniture is more traditional. And I don’t think you need to do any major renovation, like tear out what you have and start over. I think you can work with what you have, with some modifications.
If this were mine, I’d put money into purchasing stone (something light and natural in color, like limestone) just for the hearth, and then I’d paint the brick in a coordinating (almost matching) color to the stone hearth. The purpose of bringing in a light limestone heart is just to add more natural elements to complement the warm wood walls, and also to add a large solid surface to break up the lines of all of the small bricks on the huge fireplace.
This is obviously an outdoor fireplace, but it gives you an idea of what I’m talking about when I say that I would cover the hearth with a light-colored stone like limestone. I’m just talking about the horizontal plane of the hearth (the part you would sit on), and leave the rest of the brick showing.
And once the light, natural stone hearth has been selected, I’d suggest painting the brick to closely coordinate or even to match as closely as possible. To keep the brick looking natural, and not like it’s been painted with semi-gloss latex paint, I’d suggest a breathable mineral/limestone paint that’s made specifically for painting brick. That will give you the most natural look possible without resulting in an obvious “painted brick” look.
I would keep the stone/painted brick color a warm, natural, but light color. Keep in mind that the closer to stark white you get, not only will it defeat the purpose of trying to make the fireplace less of a dominating feature in the room, but it will also look way more modern than what you seem to gravitate towards. Here’s an example of the stark white with the stained wood walls.
You can see that the stark white fireplace is a definitely attention grabber, and combined with the stained wood walls, it has a definitively modern look to it. So if you decide to paint, just keep that in mind. A color that’s light and natural, but with some warmth to it, would be ideal, in my opinion. You can see the difference in color between that stark white fireplace above and this warm, natural (but still light and bright) fireplace below. That bit of warmth makes a huge difference.
But also keep in mind that it can’t be too yellow, either. If you can find something in a warm gray or greige — something to complement the backsplash that’s visible in the kitchen — that would be idea.
So that’s what I would do with the “backdrops” of the room. Once those are in place, there are some other decorating suggestions that I’d make to bring the whole room together. For example…
If you do keep the wood walls, it seems to me that this bookcase is an opportunity to bring in color in keeping with the nature-inspired backdrop elements of the wood walls and the natural “limestone” fireplace.
In its current color, I don’t think the wood color of the bookcase is complementing the wood color of the wall as it should or could. I think painting that bookcase is a great opportunity to bring in a color that would complement the wood walls. I don’t know what nature-inspired colors you like, but my mind goes immediately to green. I think something similar to this grayish green would look so pretty sitting against a warm wood wall.
Or if you like a little more color, and a truer green, this is another green that would look great against a warm wood wall…
Once you’ve brought color into the room on an item like that, then you can scatter that color, plus one or two other complementary colors, through the room with some pillows, throws, etc. on your sofa and chairs.
You could also take the opportunity to bring that color (those colors) into the room with either one large piece of artwork over the sofa, or adding a gallery wall comprised of nine or twelve coordinating pictures/paintings over the sofa to fill up more of the wall.
A final suggestion that I’d make is to rehang and add to the curtains on this wall. Since they’re right next to the fireplace, and the fireplace goes all the way to the ceiling but the curtains don’t, I think that’s adding to the dominating look of the fireplace in the room. Making that fireplace a lighter color will definitely help in making that dominating factor recede some, but so will adding visual weight and bulk to the window wall so that it looks like it can hold its own next to that huge fireplace.
I would take the curtain rod as high as it can go, and then bulk up the fabric by adding more curtain panels. And if you can either add a header tape to the top of those curtains to keep the header standing up straight rather than drooping down, or find curtains that have a more substantial header tape in them that can stand up and keep their shape at the top, that will help that wall have more of a presence as well. Since that fireplace is floor to ceiling, make sure your curtain panels are as well. Hang ’em high and as wide as you can.
When you bulk up the fabric on windows by adding more panels, they don’t necessarily have to cover more of the windows and block out light. I know that’s always a huge concern for people who resist the idea of curtains or draperies because they don’t want to block out light. But blocking out light isn’t necessary. You can still push them open just like your current curtains are. But the visual weight of the bulkier fabric will look more appropriate with the huge width of those windows, and that visual weight will pull some of the attention away from the huge fireplace.
Alright, folks! What suggestions do YOU have for Ellen?
(Are you stuck with a DIY or decorating problem and want input? Click here to submit your question. I post/answer the questions in the order that they’re received, so please don’t send questions if your contractor is on the way to your house right this minute and you need immediate advice. 😀 )
Addicted 2 Decorating is where I share my DIY and decorating journey as I remodel and decorate the 1948 fixer upper that my husband, Matt, and I bought in 2013. Matt has M.S. and is unable to do physical work, so I do the majority of the work on the house by myself. You can learn more about me here.