Ways to spruce up walls with stenciling, fabrics, paper

Walls have a dramatic effect on the impact of a room. Stark white walls offer a good background for modern furniture. Small print wallpaper makes a room cozy. Stenciled walls can add an authentic country look to a home.

The easiest and least expensive way to decorate walls is to paint them.Do-it- yourselfers can save up to 80 percent of the cost of having a room painted professionally, if he or she does it carefully with the right paint for the right surface. Talk to hardware salespersons about paint choices. Take home color chips or swatches to see what day and night lighting will mean. Learn to read labels. Acquaint yourself with the special virtues of oil-base and latex-base paints. Look to see on what surface the paint will be most effective , how to prepare surface, and how much of the surface can be covered.For information on painting, write the National Paint and Coating Association, 1500 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Another method of decorating a wall with paint is stenciling. It is a fairly simple process that requires few tools -- paint, stencils, cutting tools, and paint brushes.

"A person with any ambition can decorate the home with wall stencils," says Adele Bishop of Dorset, Vt., who teaches stenciling seminars and sells stenciling supplies. Stenciling designs is much faster than trying to paint them, and, unlike wallcoverings, a person has poetic license to combine the patterns in many different ways. Since stenciling can be done on many different surfaces, stencilers can complement walls with matching stenciled curtains, fireplace screens, or floors.

"It gives you the self-satisfaction of being creative," says Ms. Bishop.

She tells students not to worry about obstacles such as thermostats and light switches, or what to do if stencils come out uneven at the end of a wall.She takes her cue from the original American stenciling artists who traveled around the countryside decorating homes.

"The itinerant stencilers didn't always bother making stencils even. They would play around and have a wonderful time. If there is a barrier, such as a thermostat, just move the stencil a bit."

STenciling is not expensive. Adele Bishop offers designs from a sea captain's house with seven stencil sheets (12 designs), brushes, and paints for traditional American stencils are very popular now, stencil patterns in baroque, Moroccan, French Renaissance, or Oriental styles are available.

Although only 7 percent of US homes use wallpaper or vinyl coverings, products have become much more varied and sophisticated than most do-it-yourself decorators realize. Industry innovations have added durability and supplied new textures to wallcoverings. Simulated satin, suede, linen, and even corduroy can be made from vinyl wallcoverings.

Walls Unlimited in Boston, a firm that sells wallcoverings to architects and designers only, has everything from ordinary wallpaper (one in a red handkerchief design) to vinyl coverings (new designs include western styles called the Cowboy Collection) to suedes, tweeds, wild silk, and natural grass.

Wallpaper is not as durable as vinyl wall coverings, but it is much less expensive. The more expensive wallcoverings, which can cost $40 and $60 a roll, are not to be used just anywhere in the house. Natural fibers will fade on the walls. Some fabrics will not stand up to certain environments, such as moist bathrooms. But the new vinyls are nearly indestructible, according to Paul Roberts of Walls Unlimited.

"They'll last until you get tired of them," he says.

Mr. Woolsey tells consumers to be practical about choosing colors. If there is a carpet in the room, make sure the walls coordinate. Look at sofas, rugs, and even paintings for clues.

Consumers who select their own wallcoverings should bring in color photographs of the room, pillows, or sheets when they ask for advice from consultants, Mr. Woolsey suggests.

Trends in wallcoverings are tending toward traditional or nostalgic looks, both Mr. Woolsey and Mr. Roberts agree.

"There will be a reversal to the softer colors of the '20s and '40s," Mr. Roberts predicts. "The sleek, silver, cold look is not selling."

Fabrics are another option for wall decor. Many fabric shops sell boldly designed graphics or soft country patterns stretched on wooden frames. Do-it-yourselfers can stretch their own fabric and staple it to frames.

Some fabrics can be taken to a manufacturer and paper backed to put on the walls like conventional wallcoverings. Other people use just the fabric as wallpaper, putting it up with wheat paste. There is plenty of room for creativity.

"One woman bought a formal pattern to frame, and spaced the panels at intervals above the high wainscotting in her dining room," says Michelle O'Malley, manager of a Fabrications store in Boston. "It's almost like paneling."

Fabric can run from very expensive ($56 a yard for some of Fabrications' imported French and Scandanavian fabrics) to inexpensive (American calicos at $3 a yard). Most material used for walls is 100 percent medium weight cotton. It can be dusted or vacuumed and should be treated with fire retardant. Some fabrics may fade if exposed to direct sunlight.

Consumers like the collections that fabrics come in, and the ease of adapting curtains, lampshades, or bedspreads to match. Arthur Breziner of Robert Allen Fabrics in Marshfield, Mass., points out that customers often buy fabric for wall decorating because wallcoverings made to go with fabrics don't always match.

Others achieve a sophisticated look unavailable with conventional wall treatments by attaching fabric to curtain rods at the top and bottom of a wall and shirring it for a gathered, pleated effect.

Customer tastes in fabrics have changed since the 1960s when fabric stores offered bright, almost gaudy graphics. Popular looks this year include soft country shades and floral patterns.

Some apartment dwellers use contact paper to cover up trouble spots, brighten up tiny areas that don't require a whole roll of regular wall paper, or to use in kitchen areas, where an easy-to-clean surface is necessary. Today contact paper designs, availabel in hardware and house goods stores, look more sophisticated than in the past. An imitation Delft tile pattern bordering windows and between counters and shelves can warm a small kitchen. One apartment dweller hides a jarringly bright metal door with wood grain contact paper.

Some landlords complain because contact paper is hard to get off walls and peels off paint when removed. People putting up contact paper must be cautious when applying it or risk crooke d designs and bubbles.

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