Railing against the “Chair Rail”

November 5, 2012



Well, here in Virginia, the center hall colonial is everywhere.  This architectural style is really quite lovely and the decorative trims found in it, when properly scaled, usually enhance the space.  And I do take a very deep bow (or curtsey) to Mr. Jefferson, whose Monticello (below) is perhaps my favorite house in the world.



via Elle Decor


And there are the historic townhouses I encounter in Old Town, Alexandria and Georgetown where the original trims have been replicated in restorations or are still intact. Those get a total pass.

But, I can’t tell you the number of homes I tour, where trims and moldings do NOT enhance the space. They often make no sense in terms of architectural context or are simply not scaled properly. Trims such as crown, window casings and base are not as noticeable when the scale is off.  But then there is ~chair rail~ .  According to master carpenter,  Brent Hull, “Chair rail is the most misused and abused molding in new houses today.”  Well put, Brent.  In the images below, we see spaces where chair rail works–  usually paired with wainscoting.



Here the proportion feels right, with the wainscoting  grounding the hallway. The color treatment is subtle with contrast (dark floors) and the focus on texture.



And in this beautiful room (below) designed by Katie Rosenfeld,  scale, balance and furniture placement make the high contrast horizontal line work.


via Katie Rosenfeld Design


In this space the trim is hefty and substantial and works to “section” the space.


via Hansen General Contracting


So, trims look fabulous in these spaces.  But what doesn’t work is the flimsy, psuedo-colonial, high-contrast horizontal line which does nothing but distract and draw the eye.


via Houzz



via Flickr


I have, on occasion, suggested that the chair rail be removed.  But another way to make it “go away” is to simply paint it out in the wall color.  The designer Sheila Bridges did this in her own gorgeous Harlem apartment. Notice how the eye goes to the striking mantel, tile surround, furniture and art. The wainscot adds weight and texture without being a distraction.


via NYSD



via NYSD


And here, designer Kay Douglass “disappears” all of the trim except for the mantel. There is no hard and fast rule for painting trim. I have many great examples of trim and walls in the same color on my Pinterest board here.

Just keep in mind that the eye is always is drawn to the area of highest contrast.  It is often best to highlight beautiful trim but not always.


Kay Douglass via Veranda



So… long live the gracious center hall colonial and its decorative moldings… but only when scale and color are right.



via Brooke Gianetti


4 Responses

  1. Great article, Jean! I totally agree and love the examples you shared with us.

    • jeankee says:

      Thank you Kristie!!! Don’t want to offend 80% of my friends here in Alexandria. You know what I’m talking about. I recently did a great contemporary apartment with open floor plan where chair rail was tacked on in an L-shaped corner (GAH). That was ripped out immediately! That said, there are loads of gorgeous formal dining rooms here where it works (it’s just that no one sits down in them anymore).

  2. Diane Menke says:

    Jean the compare and contrast of great and bad moldings is great! Thanks for that!

    Your example of “bad” chair rail is what my own house looked like when we bought it, complete with “granny” curtains.

    Note in your photo the mean little windows that make you squat slightly if you want to look out. They are too small and too low and draw attention to the lower ceilings in mid and later 20th Century houses. Adding a chair rail does not help!

    What helped our house was replacing the mean old little windows with big modern efficient ones http://myersconstructs.com/?page_id=9232 The ceiling isn’t any higher but the space feels wide open and light now.

    I think the point is that no matter what era your house is from, your designer or remodeler needs to find the happy combination to make the most of your home’s features. Every house has something going for it!

    Diane Menke
    Myers Constructs Inc.

    • jeankee says:

      Thanks, Diane. Did you happen to hit that link re the master carpenter, Brent Hull? He has an exhaustive post on the proper scaling and proportion of chair rail here http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/2010/12/03/misused-confused-chair-rail/ You probably know that stuff– the little video is interesting. ; ) Hope you made out OK in Philly. My daughter is a soph at UPENN and sent me a video of the Sandy wind noise coming thru the plate glass windows of her hi rise. Yikes! We lost power and loads of trees here : (

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