The lowdown on basement decor

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By Melissa Rayworth


It’s easy to find advice on decorating nearly every inch of your home. Kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, baths — even mudrooms and closets get attention. But the lowly basement gets short shrift.

These subterranean spaces present a host of decorating challenges, from low ceilings and limited natural light to never-ending battles with dampness and even flooding.

Yet basements can be untapped treasures.

Kathryn Bechen, author of the new Small Space Organizing (Revell Books), said to decide exactly how you’ll use your basement, and then either embrace its dark coziness or use color, texture and the right furnishings to bring the illusion of bright, open space.

Bechen said it’s worth the effort, especially for people with small homes, to convert a previously ignored basement into a family gathering spot, workspace or media room.

Here she and interior designers Brian Patrick Flynn, founder of decordemon.com, and Kyle Schuneman, an expert on decorating small spaces, offer advice on making basements beautiful.

“Since there’s usually a major lack of natural light in basements,” Flynn said, “inject light by using muted color and tons of white. What I often do is stick with muted grays on the walls, then use ultra-white on ceilings to help bounce light throughout the space. But to make it more punchy, I toss in a super-saturated accent color such as fire-engine red, grassy green or orange.”

White furniture may seem like a recipe for disaster, but furniture upholstered in white can work in a basement as long as you choose durable, washable fabrics.

Using plenty of floor and table lamps will also help, and Bechen said the old advice about mirrors shouldn’t be ignored: Strategically placing a mirror opposite even a tiny basement window will help maximize light.

The opposite approach also works: Decorate with sleek, low-slung furniture in dark colors to create a sophisticated lounge effect, using the cozy intimacy of the basement to your advantage, said Schuneman.

He said this sexy lounge look isn’t hard to accomplish, and makes a low ceiling less of a detriment. Have fun gathering ideas by visiting clubs and restaurants that feature this look.

All three designers believe basements are perfect spots for bold decorating. Experiment with colors you don’t normally use or indulge in theme decorating that might feel like overkill if you did it throughout your house.

Basements are perfect “for having a retro moment,” Schuneman said, since many of them feature vintage wood paneling and decorative touches that have been in place for decades. You’re not creating a stage set, he said. But if there are vintage pieces already in your basement, why not amplify that look rather than removing it?

Another option: “Go for the feel of a little seaside cottage,” Bechen said. Use shades of pale blue, sand and white in linen, light cottons and berbers. Go all out with seashells and decorative pieces with ocean or island motifs. Beach cottage style reminds you of open spaces and sunshine.

And if your basement will be used as a media room, go with a movie theme by framing vintage movie posters bringing in some Hollywood style, she said.

“Many basements have drop-down ceilings, which are definitely practical since it makes for easy access to plumbing and electrical,” Flynn said. But inexpensive drop-down tiles are often unattractive and look cheap.

“I usually recommend high-end ceiling tiles with architectural detail. They’re double or triple the price of basic drop ceiling tiles, but they give a much more sophisticated look. Plus, you can install them yourself.”

Another option, he said, is installing stamped metal tiles: “They have the look of an old school Victorian ceiling.”

If there is harsh overhead lighting, consider swapping out old fixtures (especially fluorescent ones) with something that radiates warmer, more flattering light. Or, Bechen said, at least swap out bluish fluorescent lights for ones with a pink hue.

Warm up the floor. First, choose materials that can handle moisture.

Even basements that don’t normally flood can still have a buildup of moisture. Schuneman recommends laminate flooring or vinyl floor tiles for durability and for style.

Bechen recommends cork flooring, which is durable, warm and soft underfoot. And Flynn recommends carpet tiles. “You can install them yourself,” he said.

To keep new flooring in good shape, consider using a dehumidifier. And a freestanding fireplace can help banish both cold and moisture, assuming you have the proper ventilation to use one safely.

“Basements don’t have to be all concrete and plastic,” Flynn said. “I like to incorporate organic elements wherever possible, such as sisal on a stairwell. The rough texture is great for traction, and it creates more of an inviting, residential feeling upon entry to a basement.”

Along with using organic materials, Bechen suggests bringing in plants — real or fake. If you have a small window, she suggests decorating near it with plants that thrive in very low light. — AP