Ask Jennifer Adams: To remove wainscoting or not, that is the question

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Q: I'm renting my parents' old house, an older ranch-style with low ceilings. The big kitchen/living/dining rooms are great for me and my roommates, but it's decorated with fake wood panels that go halfway up the walls, with wallpaper above that and dark trim. The whole space feels so dark and depressing to me. What can I do to make these rooms feel lighter? What would happen if I take off the wallpaper and wood?

- M.T.
A: Those horizontal lines probably make your ceiling feel even lower. Do you walk around with your shoulders hunched so you won't get squished?

I have a few ideas for you, but before you do anything, ask your parents for permission. They may have information about how and when the wood panels - typically called wainscoting - and wallpaper were installed. That will help you (and your parents) decide what to do.

If the wainscoting was installed after the house was built, it might have been put over existing wallboard. With your parents' OK, remove part of the wainscoting in a corner to see what's behind. Then make your decision.

In the right space, especially in smaller rooms with very high ceilings, wainscoting is a beautiful solution. Banding high walls horizontally brings a space down to human size and makes you feel less like you're living at the bottom of a well.

Removing the wainscoting, wallpaper, and trim, and painting the walls one color will make them feel higher. And painting the walls in a light neutral color, such as off-white or warm gray, will make the rooms feel more airy and calm, too. If you don't want to remove the wainscoting, at least paint it the same color as the walls.

Add some vertical elements to help raise the ceiling height visually. Tall lamps, art, plants, and full-height drapes will help. Mirrors and sparkly accessories will bounce the light around.

Good luck and send photos when you are finished.

Jennifer Adams is a designer, author, and TV personality.

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