Using Fabric To Make Rooms Seem Warmer And More Inviting

Posted: November 29, 1996

Beneath its two-story-high cathedral ceiling, Jack Lenor Larsen's living room in Long Island, N.Y., could have seemed too vast for comfort. Instead, it's almost intimate because Larsen upholstered the entire space, straight to the ceiling's peak, with straw-colored Egyptian damask.

Interior designer Marjorie Shushan also grappled with visually cool surroundings: a Manhattan apartment with white-box rooms and no distinguishing architecture. To give the place character, she assembled an orchestra of textures: silk taffeta on the sofas, antique tapestry on the ottomans, 18th-century embroidery on the pillows.

Then, to underscore all that softness, she hauled in a granite coffee table with raw, rocky edges.

As a design solution, fabric is more versatile, more inviting, than paint. Unfortunately, it's not half as democratic. It costs more, covers less, and usually requires the skills (and added costs) of an upholsterer or drapery-maker.

Yet without a stroke of renovation, fabric used with forethought can make ceilings look higher, windows seem larger, and rooms appear altogether warmer. It can draw you into a conversational corner, then make you want to stay.

Fabric is high-touch in a high-tech world, and for the last 8,000 years it has represented art, craft and pure domesticity. Indeed, its absence creates a chill that can be seen as well as felt.

Most books on the subject deal with curtains and upholstery. Designing With Fabric by Carol Soucek King (PBC International, $37.50) is a portfolio of much broader, even startling ideas, such as Larsen's upholstered cathedral ceiling.

On these pages, French armchairs are dressed in Hermes scarves. Ethnic costumes are framed and hung as art. Stainless steel mesh, the kind used for silk-screening, hangs like floor-to-ceiling drapery to conceal storage.

Is this decorating? Not exactly. In traditional terms, decorating would mean that fabric is layered on at the end - a pretty afterthought, like pictures and lamps. To King, fabric should be ``integral to structure,'' part of the architecture of a room.

``Fabrics used to dress walls, floors, windows, ceilings and dividers between them define space the same way that heftier building materials do,'' she writes, ``but with a visual, tactile poetry all their own.''

Budgets are not discussed, but scrutiny will show where money can be saved. Look at the drapery by San Francisco designer Joszi Meskan: plain cotton sheers, presumably inexpensive, dressed up with leopard-print ribbon and a swag of hemp rope. Or consider those Louis XV chairs in their French silk scarves. Designer Mike Moore, also of San Francisco, may have shopped Hermes, but any gorgeous scarf would do.

This book is the last of a quartet by King that includes Designing With Glass, Designing With Wood and Designing With Tile, Stone & Brick (all $42.50 from PBC International). It is aimed at architects and designers, who, unlike the rest of us, don't seem to crave trade secrets or tips, or even a hint of how-to.

And that's the book's weakness, though not a fatal one. The text doesn't always spell out details or decode the pictures, so you must ``read'' the photography for clues, as designers do. In one bedroom, for example, simple tabbed bed curtains imply the height and drama of a canopy without the cost - but you will have to reach that conclusion on your own.

One of the best lessons comes from the Long Island weekend house of Sherri Donghia, a noted designer who snaps up textiles around the world. Aside from her travels, she's not so different from those of us who impulsively buy yardage in stores, then ruefully shelve it away until some practical use presents itself.

Only Donghia doesn't shelve it. She hangs her collection of Indonesian scarves on pegs along the wall. She tosses ceremonial cloth from Sweden as a throw, and cuts up American Indian rugs, discovered in Santa Fe, N.M., for pillows.

Donghia tossed off a bit of advice that might horrify an archivist but liberate a tradition-bound homeowner. ``Beautiful fabrics should never be stored in the closet,'' she told the author. ``They are meant to be seen and touched.''

To read more on this subject, consult The Curtain Book by Caroline Clifton-Mogg and Melanie Paine (Bulfinch Press, $22.50). Take inspiration from historical uses of fabric, particularly formal draperies, which are loaded with lavish detailing.

Another good source is Home Art by Judyth van Amringe (Bulfinch Press, $29.95). Fabric can be wild and eccentric in the hands of Van Amringe, who uses buttons, wool, beads, paint, fuzzy moss fringe and ink to make delirious artworks of sofas, ottomans, lampshades and chairs.

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