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Dark interior? Here's how to lighten it up

Sometimes it's not good to get everything you want. I'd love to start each home from the ground up, working hand in hand with an architect and the client, but that's not always possible. Instead, we often come into the design process when houses are under construction. The success of the project at this point is determined by how we work within the parameters laid before us.

We had one such opportunity recently, on a project near Vernon, B.C. We were to design a show home for an ambitious golf-resort development known as Predator Ridge. About a quarter of its 1,700 homes had already been built.

The challenge was one that many new homeowners face: putting your imprint on a space designed by someone else. When we set to work, construction on the home was nearly complete. The bones were all in place, but the homes still needed flooring, cabinets and furniture.

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The style was a departure for us. The Predator properties to date were taking aim mainly at retiring baby boomers from Alberta, a cohort accustomed to interiors with dark walls, chocolate floors, espresso kitchens, chunky fireplaces and iron chandeliers.

The development's two existing show homes hewed to this aesthetic, a style I playfully think of as Choco Craftsman. Although the homes sat in an airy landscape of mountain and light, their interiors, to me, felt close.

Although Choco Craftsman isn't our norm at Kelly Deck Design, we were excited to give it a fresh approach. We intended our show home to take a step away from the weighty feel of its predecessors, but the time wasn't right for a design revolution. Success would consist of finding the middle way. With that in mind, we articulated three goals through our drawings and site visits.

Manage expansion and contraction with colour

We hoped to create the sense that the walls were pushing out, not closing in, so we avoided dense browns, opting for a light linen paint similar in tone to the grasses of the surrounding land.

Lightening the walls was a good start. But if you don't take care when adding cabinetry and millwork to a room, your hard-won sense of space will evaporate. We decided to paint both cabinet runs warm white. We also allowed all millwork to meet the ceiling, which wore the same shade of white as the cabinetry. Smoothing the transition from millwork to ceiling is an old designer's trick for making a room seem taller.

Keep it real with natural finishes

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Next, we addressed the flooring and stone finishes throughout the home. These are elements people get emotionally invested in, associating them with quality and longevity.

We wanted to avoid flooring and fireplace façades that disguised their true identity. The other show homes had floors of chocolate-stained maple (a naturally blond wood) and fireplaces of cultured stone (that is, concrete coloured and shaped to look like real rock).

We knew the flooring had to be eye-catching but dark enough to ground our colour scheme. We found a wide-plank, wire-brushed walnut floor. The width (five inches) articulated a contemporary edge, with a swirling grain that gave it warmth and richness. And the matte finish felt great underfoot.

We abandoned the idea of using chunky or chiselled rock on the fireplace. To get the result we wanted, we'd have had to rip the entire unit out, reframe, and start over. We took a more conservative approach, painting the stately mantel in warm white. The marble mosaic surround brought a subtle refinement to the room.

Confound expectations with smart accessories

The light fixtures the homes had been using were predictable – wrought iron or brushed nickel, with swirling arms and frosted glass torches.

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For the dining room, we selected a modern farmhouse chandelier. Made from greyed wood with a big, odd crystal hanging off it, the piece seemed an appropriate choice given the area's ranching history. Its colour reminded me of the fences that crisscross the fields outside.

The difficulty in a Choco Craftsman interior with espresso tables, buffets and furnishings set between dark walls is light. There isn't any. Even apart from practical concerns such as visibility and illumination, we wanted to show people that a home could envelop you and still use brighter, more colourful furnishings.

Here was our opportunity to bring the exterior landscape indoors. I'd driven around in March photographing the area, recording textures and colours. What stood out at the time was the deep blue of the sky and the burnt orange of the ubiquitous Douglas firs.

We planned the interior scheme around two fabrics – a bold blue print for the living-room chairs and a rusty velvet for the ottoman. The idea of using the outdoor colours inside was to draw visitors into the interior. The vital connective element, though, was the sapphire drapery. It's rare that we'll do a rich hue on a window in Vancouver: It nearly always distracts from the view. But here, under the big blue dome of sky, it was perfect.

Opening day was July 23. The local radio station and a live band were there to welcome visitors into the open house. The floors were a hit; people were drawn to their texture and warmth. The chandeliers were raved about (it seems that I'm not the only one bored with wrought iron). But the white kitchen and light walls sparked a few debates. Most liked the feeling of space. But there were those who preferred the darker kitchens and walls. Chocolate was more comfortable, opined those visitors – and the dark wood just felt cozier. I guess we can't sway them all.

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