Walls and ceiling account for most of your room's square footage, offering large, often blank canvases on which to make an artistic statement about how you live and how you perceive your space. Your wall and ceiling treatments can hide problems, enhance strong points, and pull together a design scheme better than any other element.
Assess your room's basics before making decisions on wall treatment. Start with the quality of light (both natural and artificial), the proportions of the room, and architectural features you may want to downplay or highlight. Soaring ceilings can be "lowered" by painting them a deep, warm color, low ceilings "raised" with a color much lighter than that on the walls. If a room is small and dark, light colors lend a spacious, airy quality. Or the same space can be enlivened with warm, rich colors and textures to give it a cozy feel.
Paint is what everybody thinks of first when considering the numerous options for wall treatments. Even with paint, your choices are myriad, from a neutral palette to quiet colors or strong ones. Many paint shops and home improvement centers now offer designer-chosen palettes that allow you to mix wall, ceiling, and trim colors from room to room with confidence. The hand-sponged and marbleized paint effects that were popular in recent decades have given way to quieter decorative applications, such as combing and color washing, that add depth and texture without calling undue attention to themselves. Some designer paints add fibers that transfer denim, suede, flannel, or other feel-good textures directly onto the wall.
Paint finish affects its color and determines its durability. Flat or matte paints absorb the most light, creating an opaque color, and are usually the best choice for ceilings or living areas. Semigloss and gloss finishes reflect a lot of light and can take vigorous scrubbing, making them ideal for trim as well as food preparation areas, but they do highlight any texture or imperfections in walls.
Water-based latex paint is today's preferred choice over alkyd (oil-based) paint. It is nearly odorless, dries in hours rather than days, and cleans up with soap and water. Alkyd paint has excellent durability but takes longer to dry, requires a paint-thinner cleanup, and may make you choose to vacate your house until the odor dissipates.
Textured or patterned wallpaper can add warmth and dimension to a room as well as soften living spaces. Unsurpassed for hiding imperfections and creating detail in a space that lacks it, wallpaper can produce optical illusions suggesting better proportions in rooms that are too long or too boxy, or whose ceilings are too low or too high. Most papers are relatively simple to install.
Traditional styles are available in updated hues, and coverings such as linen look-alikes and grass cloth can add subtle texture while providing a muted backdrop for furnishings. Embossed wall coverings designed to look like stucco, pressed tin, or plaster fresco can impart a sense of history to a contemporary home.
Wall coverings containing or coated with some sort of vinyl will be the sturdiest and easiest to install. But alternatives abound, including silk and other natural fibers that provide a neutral backdrop. Uncoated choices such as hand-screened papers are gorgeous but may be difficult to hang. The same is true of foils, which can brighten up a dark space, and brown craft paper, at once simple and sophisticated. You will probably want to seek professional help if you decide to use one of these.
Architectural wall treatments
From the most elaborate crown molding to the simplest baseboard, millwork can lend architectural interest to almost any space. You can even use it as you would furniture arrangements, to divide a large space into smaller areas -- with chair rails to define the dining area, for example. When selecting the style and scale of millwork at your lumberyard, consider your home's architecture as well as its proportions. An elaborate cornice molding would enhance a room of grand, classical proportions, yet look out of place in a smaller, low-ceilinged room.
Solid wood paneling -- natural, stained, bleached, or painted -- provides a warm ambience in country decorating schemes. Wainscoting is traditional, with a chair rail separating the wood paneling below it from the painted or papered wall above. Installing wood paneling is not a difficult undertaking, since paneling boards generally have edges specially milled to overlap or interlock. Hardwood boards are most often milled from oak, maple, birch, and mahogany. Common softwoods include cedar, pine, and fir.
Moldings are back in vogue. You'll find basic profiles at lumberyards and home centers. Specialty millwork shops are likely to offer a wider selection and will often custom-match an old favorite. Prefinished pine or hardwood is fine if you want a stained look, but if you plan to paint your molding, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is less prone to warping and takes paint better.
Also consider architectural accents such as pediments, pilasters, decorative friezes, and ceiling medallions. New pieces are stocked at home improvement centers, vintage originals at architectural salvage yards and specialty stores.