Seven deadly sins of dated decorating

June 27, 2012

S tyle is not eternal. It’s hard to believe that my own beautiful, pricey granite kitchen counters installed in 1999 are now considered passe. This does not mean that I am tacky. It means that this part of my house looks dated.

I’m not the only one. With the lingering recession, many remodeling and redecorating projects are on hold and we are living the “as-is” lifestyle.

“ ‘Dated’ means that at one time it looked good,” said Amy Zantzinger, an interior designer based in Chevy Chase. “Bad taste never looked good.”

Benign neglect makes that giant whitewashed armoire or faux-finished ceiling that was once on the cover of Elle Decor your own personal monument to decades past. Compare your interiors to a clothes closet that is never weeded out. From time to time, rooms need a fresh eye and a wardrobe change. Home fashion repeats itself but rarely in the exact same way. Elements come back in slightly different forms. Wall-to-wall shag was the toast of the 1970s. In the past decade, shag area rugs have become a designer showhouse staple. Avocado-green walls were pretty much banished after the 1970s, but olive green is having a revival as we speak.

Anyone who spends time dropping in on open houses in their neighborhood knows that many homes, with their puffy balloon shades and sloppy slipcovered sofas, are stuck in another decade. So remember that the orange, gourd-shaped lamp you think is so chic may have no takers on Craigslist in 2020.


Avoid droopy valances. (Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post)

In the spirit of fun, we asked a few local designers to come up with a list of the seven deadly sins of dated decorating and how to fix them. How many will you confess to?

1. Mauve: A paint color of yore

Mauve was big in the 1980s and 1990s, when the distinctive dusty rose color showed up on carpeting, sectional sofas and especially accent walls. If your bedroom is painted mauve, you are sleeping in a time warp.

Debbie Wiener, a designer based in Silver Spring, has strong feelings about this color. “Mauve has come and gone, and there is no place for it in our future,” she said, singling out Benjamin Moore’s Mauve Mist. “Horrible.”

As an alternative paint choice, Wiener is hot on Benjamin Moore’s Rhine River, a medium-intensity green she says can be warm and cool at the same time and fits modern or traditional decor. “Where mauve resembles nothing in nature,” Wiener says, “this color has a very natural look.”

2. Track lighting: Way off track

Designer Amy Zantzinger thinks lots of living rooms need an overhead lighting overhaul. “Track and recessed fixtures interrupt a beautiful ceiling. They are overdone and look tired,” she said. “Track lighting is also bulky and clunky, cluttering up your ceiling.” Zantzinger also says ceiling-mounted lights are unnecessary to highlight your paintings. “I don’t live in an art gallery,” she said.

Zantzinger believes that floor lamps are making a huge comeback. She likes a combination of floor and table lamps to personalize a room. Some of her favorite floor lamps are skinny metal ones that give an overall glow and add height to a room. She likes those from Holtkoetter.com, especially the floor lamps with a small metal shade.

3. Flower power: Not on upholstery

Remember when huge roll-arm sofas upholstered in bold floral prints were a mainstay in living rooms? Fabric in dramatic patterns isn’t generally a wise investment, said Erin Paige Pitts , a designer based in Gibson Island, Md.

“Very strong patterns often turn out to be the elephant in the room,” Pitts said. “I am very deliberate in the use of patterns, especially in upholstery.”

Pitts suggests keeping to neutrals in sofas and club chairs. Get your jolt of color in pillows, which you can buy inexpensively at West Elm or Wisteria, or, better yet, make yourself. Pitts suggests splurging on good-quality fabric (look for sales) and sewing 22-inch squares. Her tip: “Don’t make thin, small pillows. Use fewer, bigger pillows. If you buy two yards of fabric, make two large fabulous pillows out of it.”

4. Tiles: Twenty years in Provence is too many

If you went on vacation to Tuscany or Oaxaca, fell in love with vivid tiles and installed them in your kitchen or bathroom 20 years ago, it’s time for a change.

Marika Meyer, a designer based in Bethesda, says a wall of tile in different colors and patterns is not only a pricey travel souvenir, it can make your home look like a ceramic showroom. “In a brand-new construction home in Potomac, using French or Italian tiles just doesn’t seem authentic. People get seduced and inspired when they travel, but you do eventually have to think of longevity and resale,” Meyer said. Although French style is classic, the romanticized American version of French country feels tired.

Meyer recommends subway tile, the glossy white rectangular tile (traditional size is 3-by-6 inches) created for the walls of the New York transit system. She also likes the 2-by-5-inch size for kitchens and sometimes a 6-by-12-inch for baths. “Stick with a simple, neutral backsplash or bathroom wall,” said Meyer. “Subway tile has been popular since the turn of the century: It’s not going anywhere. That fancy tile work will feel dated in just a few years.”

If you want to add a modern element or a vacation memento, accessorize with a coffee pot, a contemporary glass bowl or a set of towels in a fun color.

5. Valances: Just say no to the droopy swoop

A decade or two ago, homeowners fell in love with the trend of draping their windows in yards and yards of fabric. We now live in simpler times.

“I really don’t like valances,” Washington designer Annie Elliott said, “especially the drapey kind that hang atop a window, or those that are installed as a limp, droopy crown above matching drapery panels.”

A tailored valance with box pleats or a cornice style is still a clean, classic look,” said Elliott. She suggests avoiding anything “flounced, unstructured or droopy.”

Instead, she recommends exposed metal rods and ring-top drapery panels with straight curtains hanging to the floor.

6. Brightly colored Orientals: Can your rug be saved?

Good, hand-knotted Oriental rugs are an investment and a staple in decorating, and they look better as they age. Less expensive, mass-produced Oriental rugs with thick pile and vibrant colors became popular about 30 years ago.

“I see a lot of these bad Oriental rugs from the 1990s that have a lot of heavy reds and navys in them,” says Shazalynn Cavin-Winfrey, an Alexandria-based designer.

Today, the look has moved to new Oriental rugs that actually look old. Manufacturers caught on that people were looking for thinner pile and softer colors. If you have an Oriental of a darker genre but are ready for a fresher look, Cavin-Winfrey suggests bringing it to a rug expert, who can do a chemical wash for about $300 to $500 for a 6-by-9-foot rug. “That will create a rug with a more variegated color, like what you’d find in an old rug,” Winfrey said. “It will give it a much more youthful look.”

7. Wallpaper borders: Bordering on antiquated

While wallpaper is staging a major comeback, those six-inch-wide borders that were glued to the top of many walls look like yesterday. “You just can’t do them anymore,” said Elliott, whose design firm is aptly called Bossy Color. “Wallpaper borders are a great example of 1980s overdecorating. They look especially tired when they sit on top of another wallpaper.” Elliott says that “matchy-matchy” look is out of favor. Wallpaper a whole room, not just a border. A kid’s room is the only place Elliott might go for a border. For that, she is a fan of Wallies removable wall decals.

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