The Interior Design Move That Adds Major Mystery To A Home
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The Interior Design Move That Adds Major Mystery To A Home

Doors that blend with the wall around them, what design pros call jib doors, offer aesthetic, practical and straight-out-of-Nancy-Drew benefits.

Mon, May 16, 2022 10:57amGrey Clock 3 min

A JIB DOOR, that is, one sans visible jambs and camouflaged with the same decoration that surrounds it, disappears into the wall. Cue the pivoting shelves that open at the sound of a pattern of notes on Bruce Wayne’s piano in “Batman Begins” or Harry Potter’s sad closet-room concealed behind panelling under the dreadful Dursley’s stairs, virtually unnoticeable but for the slide-bolt latch.

Beyond their inherent mystery, however, jib doors appeal to interior designers for various reasons. “Secret doors are super chic and surprising but also practical,” said Charlotte Barnes, a Greenwich, Conn., pro who simplified the architecture of a family room by continuing the paisley-patterned wallcovering across two flush doors. These nearly invisible doors are ideal for establishing symmetry, for example, in an oddly apertured room, she said, “or to play down a hallway full of closets, so your eye flows along without interruption.” Jib doors have other advantages but also some challenges. Here, a guide.

The Appeal

“I love the history, novelty and secrecy of jib doors and the way they trick the eye,’’ said Mallory Mathison, an interior designer in Atlanta. Perhaps the most famous examples stateside are found in the White House Oval Office, where damask wallpaper (this administration’s choice) and panelled wainscoting continue nearly seamlessly across two doors that frame a fireplace. In grand 18th- and 19th-century estates, jib doors let servants enter and leave public rooms without, heaven forbid, the risk of sharing a doorway or stairwell with superiors. Far more dramatic: On the night that rioters stormed Versailles, in 1789, Marie Antoinette fled to a secret stairway to the King’s chambers via the jib door in her bedroom suite.

Their trompe l’oeil character means a functional door can exist without visually interrupting an expanse, noted Jacksonville, Fla., designer Andrew Howard, who hid a powder-room door among white stile-and-rail panels (shown at right) for a home in Ponte Vedra, Fla. When the door is open, a view of blue-and-white lattice wallpaper and azure wainscoting provides a vibrant contrast—an “aha” moment. Bonus: Any room that’s not chopped up by multiple doorways will seem larger.

The Tips

Grubby hands can easily stain a touch-latch door, warns Ms. Mathison. If the surface is glossy and easy to clean, no problem, but if wallpaper covers the surface at “push” level, she recommends adding an inconspicuous recessed ring pull. That said, she’d reserve jib doors for little-used portals. In an Atlanta home, she installed one as a discreet passage from a butler’s pantry to a formal dining room that sees little wear and tear, concealing the door’s existence by extending hand-painted Gracie wallpaper and panelling across it. On the pantry side, the designer hung a painting to further pass the door off as a wall. If you’re not sure you’d want to constantly give guests directions to a concealed powder room, Mr. Howard—who’s seen library bookcase walls that conceal safes and gun closets—counters, “When clients are entertaining a crowd, [they] simply leave the door ajar.”

The Caveats

Find a carpenter with experience installing these odd elements. “A jib door takes expert skills because of the way the soss or other specialized hinges are installed to make them invisible,” said Mr. Howard. Another of his cautions: When hardware is embedded in the door and humidity causes woodwork to contract and expand, the door might stick or bulge out slightly. And installation isn’t cheap. Budget at least $2,000, he says, to retrofit an existing door and more for the hinges and latch hardware. While your concealing elements—wainscoting, baseboard moulding, wallpaper—can also add to the expense, don’t discount the romance factor. “I do think a jib door conjures images of speakeasies and private gossip spaces—a sense of mystery and discovery outside of the everyday,” said Ms. Mathison.


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