5 Interior Design Ideas to Max Out Your Basement Space
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5 Interior Design Ideas to Max Out Your Basement Space

Here are the five errors they encounter over and over — and how to avoid them.

By Rachel Wolfe
Fri, Oct 8, 2021 10:40amGrey Clock 4 min

EVEN THE MOST casual horror-movie viewers know that basements are where protagonists go to, as TikTok teens would say, “get unalived.” For interior designers, however, the most unnerving part of these spaces isn’t who (or what) might be hiding in wait, it’s often what’s lying in plain sight: their décor.

Too many homeowners treat basements “as a second-class space where old furniture and random junk goes to die,” complained Anelle Gandelman, founder of New York’s A-List Interiors. “A basement is not the place for appeasing your husband with his ugly leather recliner,” echoed West Palm Beach, Fla., designer McCall Dulkys.

Here, architects and designers share five other frequently encountered below-ground blunders and suggest less-frightful alternatives.

1. The ‘All Things’ Space

New York designer Elizabeth Gill lives in fear of families who ask her to turn their cellars into an all-in-one combination gym, playroom, family room, man cave and mother-in-law suite. “Then, I get the stare and a ‘Can you make all that work?’” she said.

Instead: Prioritize. “Determine the most important use of the space and make that the focus,” said Ms. Gill. Any extra living area can be a bonus in a crowded home, she said, “but you ultimately will end up using a space that is functional and complete—not one cluttered with lots of things that detract from the original design.”

2. Fateful Ceiling

A common feature in basements, dropped ceilings suspend large tiles in a metal grid, thereby leaving room to conceal inset lighting, ducts and other mechanicals. But they shave height off a room, contributing to the dreaded cavelike feeling and threatening to behead your taller friends. Other misguided attempts to hide ductwork also bug design pros. Washington, D.C., designer Melissa Sanabria’s peeve is soffits whose bottoms have been painted to match the ceilings and sides to match the walls, creating a two-toned effect.

Instead: According to New York designer Robin Wilson, 8-inch-deep high-hat lights, which need dropped ceilings, are a fixture of the past. Use new, shallow-profile overhead LED lights. Conceal ductwork and pipes in a dropped bulkhead that appears designed and purposeful around the perimeter of a ceiling, advised Bethesda, Md., designer Tamara Gorodetzky. Where a soffit is unavoidable, “paint walls, ceiling and every side of the soffit the same colour so everything disappears,” Ms. Sanabria said.

3. Pall-Casting

Leave the flickering fluorescents to “The Exorcist.” Basements are dark spaces, “and improper lighting creates uneven, shadowy areas,” said New York designer Rozit Arditi.

Instead: Even if you’re going for a moody man cave, “you need good lighting that can be fully illuminated and also dimmed for cozy ambience,” said Charlotte, N.C., designer Layton Campbell. Incorporate a mix of light sources such as floor lamps, table lamps and sconces so you needn’t depend on one overhead fixture, advised Ms. Arditi. Linear, ceiling-tracked LED lights can help lead the way from one space into the next, said Mary Maydan, an architect in Palo Alto, Calif., who installs them with a 90-degree bend as they flow from a hallway into an adjacent family room. “This creates continuity and makes the corridor act as an invitation into the next space.”

4. Neglected Nooks

Irregular areas of foundations are often covered over or turned into closets. “But especially in basements that are largely open, these odd and unusual shapes offer special moments for decoration,” said William Cullum, senior designer at Jayne Design Studio, in New York City.

Instead: Knocking down walls and rejiggering spaces is expensive, so get creative with what you have and use it as an opportunity to try something you’d never risk on the first floor, Mr. Cullum said. For one Oyster Bay, N.Y., basement (shown above), Mr. Cullum made a banquette that conforms to a polygonal footprint, established by the breakfast room above, and installed curtains on an existing steel beam, creating a special reading nook with a cozy, tented feel. “It’s a small retreat within an expansive space,” he said.

5. Wannabe Wood

Dark, dank 1970s-style panelling comes across as hopelessly dated and usually represents a “total departure from the rest of the house” said architect Margie Lavender, principal at New York City’s Ike Kligerman Barkley. Old-fashioned panelling is not moisture-resistant and can be a place where mould grows, added Ms. Wilson.

Instead: Ms. Wilson uses thin brick cladding or dry wall back with cement instead of paper—typically used in bathroom renovations—to prevent mould growth. Stick with light colours to maximize limited light, advised Ms. Lavender, and consider an accent wall of high-gloss tile, in cream or robin’s egg blue, to add texture and reflect light.

Notes From Underground

Strange basement décor

“I got totally freaked out when I walked into a basement that housed an antique doll collection. Cue the scary horror music.” —Layton Campbell, designer, Charlotte, N.C.

“A full barbecue grill with a chimney at one end and a wood-burning fireplace on the opposite side. I can understand a man cave, but to have two fire-generating things in a basement could mean that your house burns down.” —Robin Wilson, designer, New York

“I was asked to help a client display his collection of medieval torture tools.” —Tracy Morris, designer, McLean, Va.

“Every wall was covered with PEZ candy dispensers. It was quite the collection.” —Sterling McDavid, designer, New York, N.Y.

“A toilet in the basement without any sort of enclosure.” —Luke Olson, senior associate, GTM Architects, Bethesda, Md.

“A potential client had a hot tub in the basement. It was odd and immediately felt like some weird castle dungeon with the smell of chlorine and mould.” —Miriam Verga, designer, Mimi & Hill Interiors, Westfield, N.J.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: October 5


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Capri Coffer socks away $600 a month to help fund her travels. The Atlanta health-insurance account executive and her husband couldn’t justify a family vacation to the Dominican Republic this summer, though, given what she calls “astronomical” plane ticket prices of $800 each.

The price was too high for younger family members, even with Coffer defraying some of the costs.

Instead, the family of six will pile into a rented minivan come August and drive to Hilton Head Island, S.C., where Coffer booked a beach house for $650 a night. Her budget excluding food for the two-night trip is about $1,600, compared with the $6,000 price she was quoted for a three-night trip to Punta Cana.

“That way, everyone can still be together and we can still have that family time,” she says.

With hotel prices and airfares stubbornly high as the 2023 travel rush continues—and overall inflation squeezing household budgets—this summer is shaping up as the season of travel trade-offs for many of us.

Average daily hotel rates in the top 25 U.S. markets topped $180 year-to-date through April, increasing 9.9% from a year ago and 15.6% from 2019, according to hospitality-data firm STR.

Online travel sites report more steep increases for summer ticket prices, with Kayak pegging the increase at 35% based on traveler searches. (Perhaps there is no more solid evidence of higher ticket prices than airline executives’ repeated gushing about strong demand, which gives them pricing power.)

The high prices and economic concerns don’t mean we’ll all be bunking in hostels and flying Spirit Airlines with no luggage. Travellers who aren’t going all-out are compromising in a variety of ways to keep the summer vacation tradition alive, travel agents and analysts say.

“They’re still out there and traveling despite some pretty real economic headwinds,” says Mike Daher, Deloitte’s U.S. transportation, hospitality and services leader. “They’re just being more creative in how they spend their limited dollars.”

For some, that means a cheaper hotel. Hotels.com says global search interest in three-star hotels is up more than 20% globally. Booking app HotelTonight says nearly one in three bookings in the first quarter were for “basic” hotels, compared with 27% in the same period in 2019.

For other travellers, the trade-offs include a shorter trip, a different destination, passing on premium seat upgrades on full-service airlines or switching to no-frills airlines. Budget-airline executives have said on earnings calls that they see evidence of travellers trading down.

Deloitte’s 2023 summer travel survey, released Tuesday, found that average spending on “marquee” trips this year is expected to decline to $2,930 from $3,320 a year ago. Tighter budgets are a factor, he says.

Too much demand

Wendy Marley is no economics teacher, but says she’s spent a lot of time this year refreshing clients on the basics of supply and demand.

The AAA travel adviser, who works in the Boston area, says the lesson comes up every time a traveler with a set budget requests help planning a dreamy summer vacation in Europe.

“They’re just having complete sticker shock,” she says.

Marley has become a pro at Plan B destinations for this summer.

For one client celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary with a budget of $10,000 to $12,000 for a five-star June trip, she switched their attention from the pricey French Riviera or Amalfi Coast to a luxury resort on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.

To Yellowstone fans dismayed at ticket prices into Jackson, Wyo., and three-star lodges going for six-star prices, she recommends other national parks within driving distance of Massachusetts, including Acadia National Park in Maine.

For clients who love the all-inclusive nature of cruising but don’t want to shell out for plane tickets to Florida, she’s been booking cruises out of New York and New Jersey.

Not all of Marley’s clients are tweaking their plans this summer.

Michael McParland, a 78-year-old consultant in Needham, Mass., and his wife are treating their family to a luxury three-week Ireland getaway. They are flying business class on Aer Lingus and touring with Adventures by Disney. They initially booked the trip for 2020, so nothing was going to stand in the way this year.

McParland is most excited to take his teen grandsons up the mountain in Northern Ireland where his father tended sheep.

“We decided a number of years ago to give our grandsons memories,” he says. “Money is money. They don’t remember you for that.”

Fare first, then destination

Chima Enwere, a 28-year old piano teacher in Fayetteville, N.C., is also headed to the U.K., but not by design.

Enwere, who fell in love with Europe on trips the past few years, let airline ticket prices dictate his destination this summer to save money.

He was having a hard time finding reasonable flights out of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., so he asked for ideas in a Facebook travel group. One traveler found a round-trip flight on Delta to Scotland for $900 in late July with reasonable connections.

He was budgeting $1,500 for the entire trip—he stays in hostels to save money—but says he will have to spend more given the pricier-than-expected plane ticket.

“I saw that it was less than four digits and I just immediately booked it without even asking questions,” he says.

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