Q: We recently bought an old Victorian-style house. Its living room ceiling is 12 feet high with crown moldings, and the windows are tall and narrow. What little furniture we brought along seems too low-slung for such a space. We're going to buy some new furnishings as well as wallpaper and window coverings, but we need your help in making the right choices.
A: Let's start with the walls and window treatments. Right off, I suggest you paint the crown molding and baseboards in a color contrasting to the rest of the wall. It doesn't matter whether the shades are light or dark, as long as the difference between them is sharply apparent.
To be safe, I'd avoid patterned wall coverings, especially strips or any other design that would add verticality to the room. You might consider a printed wallpaper like that shown in the photo. This particular paper, from the Cottage and Castle II collection by Wall-Tex Wallcoverings, looks as though it were created by a painter skilled in the faux technique.
As another way of de-emphasizing the room's vertical dimension, you could install a decorative border paper under the crown molding and over the chair rail, assuming the room includes such a feature. If it does, you might also paint or wallpaper the surface below the chair rail in a darker color. Usually, however, the ceiling can be made to look lower without resorting to every one of these tricks.
Whatever treatment you decide on for the windows, make sure that it is not placed any higher than the top frame. Valances will add weight to the room and therefore visually reduce its height. An effective and simple alternative would be to use a decorative pole, made either from a sturdy, painted wood or metal with ornate finials at each end. It's entirely a matter of your personal preference.
The curtains themselves need not be elaborate. Pleated side panels in a draped fabric will probably suffice, especially if wallpaper borders and painted cornices are part of the decorative scheme.
Finding the right kind of furniture may well prove to be your biggest challenge. Many people are chagrined to find that it's so difficult to locate attractive, large-scale pieces. That's particularly true on the East Coast where, with the exception of old houses, rooms tend to be small with low ceilings.
I would look for high wing chairs -- 40 or 42 inches tall -- and consoles that are least 36 inches off the floor. Camelback sofas and bookcase secretaries are smart additions, too, if you can find them.
Should you favor a more contemporary look, there are a few West Coast manufacturers that specialize in furniture of generous dimensions. Proportions are important, however, so make sure that a tall piece has a certain heftiness. A slender cabinet or table won't properly anchor a room as tall as yours, nor will its lines be in keeping with the elegant Victorian architecture.