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Seek inspiration in decorative arts wing of a major museum and in history books


Q: I want to give my dining room the elegant look produced by formal English or American period furniture. The room isn't large, but it does have a 10-foot ceiling. In addition to the table and chairs, should I purchase a sideboard or a breakfront? I'd also like your advice on decorations.

A: The best way to start such a project is by looking at examples of period room settings. American and English dining rooms of the 18th and 19th centuries are depicted in many books that cover the history of interior design. The decorative arts wing of a major museum is another good place to look for inspiration.

It seems as though the floor space of your dining room may be too small in proportion to the ceiling height. To create an illusion of a more appropriate scale, install a chair rail approximately 32 inches above the floor. Paint or wallpaper can then be applied below it, in either a plain or textured pattern. Above the chair rail, add a large-scale, repeat-patterned paper -- or, better yet, vertical wallpaper panels.

In sets of three or four, these panels form a scenic design that can be varied in different parts of the room. The type of paper shown in the photo is reminiscent of the silk panels hand-painted by Chinese artists who came to the United States early in the 19th century. These softly colored and wistfully composed bird and flower motifs depict fantasy scenes of Chinese gardens.

Applied to your walls, paper panels of this kind will make the room seem larger while also acting as a suitably decorative surround for the dark wooden furniture that was so typical of historic English and American interiors.

If I had to decide whether to add a server or a breakfront to a fairly small room, I would almost certainly choose the server. It offers a functional surface. A server also looks lighter and less imposing than a tall piece of cabinetry.

In your situation, a suitably scaled server would be about 6 to 10 inches taller than the dining table. It should also reach above the height of the chair rail.

I am particularly fond of the demi-lune sideboard. Because of its soft curves, it acts as a good foil for usually angular pieces of traditional mahogany furniture.

The model shown in the photograph is manufactured by the BakerFurniture Company. It has been finished in crotch mahogany veneers matched to create a fan-shaped design. At 6 feet in length, this sideboard is able to accommodate a display of candlesticks and glass or porcelain items even as it holds all the necessary platters and bowls. Such a piece clearly has decorative and functional advantages.

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