Regular readers of the West Coast Way will know my love of light, bright spaces. But every home needs at least one dark room, a space whose visual weight anchors the rest of the home. It’s the mystical pairing of white and black, firmament and earth, day and night.
We recently designed one such anchor space, an office on the main floor of a home in White Rock, B.C. That contemporary home looks out to a pretty expanse of Semiahmoo Bay, bisected by Canada’s maritime border with the United States.
Ocean-view homes are almost always dark at the rear (where they give onto land) and bright at the front (where they address the water). Our home office was at the rear of the house. Here’s how you do dark right.
Give the biggest surfaces weight
Before furnishing a room you need to give thought to the finishes that will wrap the space: Flooring and wall colour.
A dark room needs ballast, like a ship. And a deep, rich floor places visual weight at the bottom of the room, steadying the decorations that will follow.
For the floor in White Rock we laid in engineered hardwood. It had a matte finish, which was key: Any reflective sheen would highlight imperfections in a dark floor. Also important was the translucency of the stain. Being able to see the light play on the grain adds essential depth.
For the walls, we were careful to select paint only slightly lighter than the floor. If you want a room to envelop you it’s wise to keep to a similar palette. In the home office we skipped light trim on the baseboard and window casings, instead painting them the same colour as the walls.
Don’t chicken out
When buying dark paint, stick to values over 70 per cent on the grey scale. Anything less will seem neither here nor there. People end up in the middle of the road because they’re nervous about creating too heavy a space. But a dark room needs a steady hand in the early-going. The lightening comes later.
As with the floors, avoid reflective paint on the walls, which will show hotspots from your lighting fixtures. (Even eggshells often have too much shine.) The objective in a dark room is to have the walls absorb light, not reflect it. I’ve yet to find paint better than Benjamin Moore’s washable matte for this.
The ceiling is where things get tricky – paint it black and it’ll feel like it’s coming down on you. Our office had nine-foot ceilings, and I worried that going too dark would make the room feel oppressive. Plus, our recessed lighting kits had already been purchased. They had white trim. Unless we replaced them all with a finish that better blended (like brushed nickel), the ceiling would appear pocked with white.
Layer on the textures
A flat, dark room would be lifeless without layers of indulgence. The challenge was the scarcity of furniture in our room. Each piece needed to make an impact.
We wanted the drapery to fade into the background while adding a layer of softness, so we selected linen close in colour to the wall with a coarse woven texture. Then we pooled the drapery on the floor – a weight that lowers the room’s centre of gravity.
We chose a wingback chair for its tall back and geometric print. The print works for a couple of reasons. It pops against the grey backdrop with a silky texture that adds visual interest. And from the hallway it draws the eye into the room.
Rugs are central in the texture recipe. For a bold look, go with a chunky wool rug with contrasting weaves. That would have been too funky for our office however, so we chose a Tibetan rug with a tone-on-tone pattern. Its silk refracts light differently than the wool, and as people walk on the rug, crushing the fibres, the reflection creates a sumptuous texture.
Seek balance with lighting
Before playing with the lighting, you should know what you want to achieve. Are you looking for a romantic, salon-style interior with velvet curtains and oxblood walls where you can hardly see what’s in each corner? If so, you’ll want to reduce the number of recessed lights, put dark shades on all your lamps, and stick to oil paintings and prints in sepia and jewel tones. You want the effect of candle light – little warm glows in an ocean of dark.
Our house was too modern to permit such melodrama. We wanted the office to be sultry, but not oppressive. This meant allowing for a reasonable amount of artificial light and surfaces that could bounce it around the space. We wanted people to be able to study the art on the wall and work at the desk without eyestrain.
We hung a white drum light over the desk – it provides good spread for the work surface and casts a pleasant glow around the room. (A fixture with a dark shade would have only illuminated the desk and the ceiling, neglecting our art walls.)
The prints themselves act as a “bounce” for the light. Rather than hang heavy oil paintings, we created a collection of prints and photographs and framed them with big ivory and taupe mats. These break up the dark grey walls without being distracting from the mood.