The Cross House

How To Decorate a Victorian-Era House?

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The parlor of the Cross House, winter 2015. For many many many years the room looked like a bomb had exploded in it. Last year I managed to get the room looking civilized again. The room is primed white, waiting for the picture rail to be installed, and decoration to begin.

 

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The parlor originally had wallpaper, a paper frieze (above the picture rail), and ceiling paper. Astonishingly, I found the original wallpaper (in a damask pattern) behind the two radiators, and another fragment behind the mantel.

 

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The cost to replicate the original wallpaper makes the option out of the question. For now. The plan instead was to simply paint the room a solid color, and install patterned draperies. Recently though, I did a post about changing the direction of how to decorate the room. I decided to stencil the walls, and order solid-color drapery. The image above is the stencil I really like. To me, this is an modern take on a classic damask pattern.

 

So, this is the plan.

The other day though, Bo Sullivan commented. As faithful readers of this blog will know, Bo is a God to me. He is incredibly knowledgeable about period design and period lighting and period wallpaper and, golly, just all things period. I suspect that if I wanted to have an 1890s suit made for an event, Bo would know exactly how it should be styled and cut. And exactly what fabric I should use.

I feel incredibly privileged that Bo seems happy to communicate with me.

In his comment, Bo urged, strongly, against my stencil selection, and recommended a stencil version of the 1894 damask wallpaper. He even offered to underwrite the cost of the stencil.

Wow. Incredible. My mind raced with tingled excitement about this new possibility!

I replied to Bo that while I still very much wanted to proceed as planned, I was nonetheless excited to see what he might come up with.

We then went back and forth, and then I realized that the whole issue would make for a fascinating stand-alone post. I hope you agree.

I want to thank Bo for taking the time to engage in this discussion, which forced me to articulate my thoughts.

I also want to thank Bo for having an interest in this discussion! A man to love!

And so, I offer the following for your reflection…

 

A Tale of Two Directions

It seems that there are two directions people take when decorating an old house:

  1. Recreating a period-correct decor. The more authentic the better.
  2. Some people though desire a more modern look. This normally means knocking down walls to create an open plan, painting all the wood trim and wood doors and wood mantels white, and punching a lot of can lights into the ceiling. The house will then be furnished with nary an antique.

The first direction is something I have no desire to do.

The second direction, well, FREAKS ME OUT. Sadly, this direction seems the norm. Sigh. And This Old House celebrates this! Go figure!

I wonder though if there is a…third option? I wonder about this a lot. Indeed, a rather obsess over the question.

My plans for the Cross House, and how it looks when done, involve a direction I have not seen before. I have looked and looked for examples of what I want to do but keep only finding examples of direction #1 or #2.

You see, I very much want the historic Cross House, when completed, to seem fresh and modern Even hip! At the same time however I want it obvious, without question, that the house dates to 1894.

These two desires seem irretrievably conflicting.

But are they?

When the Cross House is completed, I yearn for young people to walk in and exclaim: Wow! I love this! I could live here! I want these imaginary young guests to instantly understand that old houses can be cool while nonetheless being 100% respectful of the original historic structure.

My kazillion thoughts on the matter have resolved to:

  • Be exacting about restoring the structure.
  • Create a decor which is clearly modern, yet still complements the 1894 structure.

 

Can a 1894 House Visually Acknowledge That the 20th-Century Happened?

In pouring over images of Victorian-era interiors, I am always struck by the diversity of expression. The range of expression seems endless.

I have also observed that such interiors incorporate furnishings and objects representing decades and even centuries of design. And this, perhaps, is one of the most important issues impacting my thoughts.

The Cross House was built in 1894. I have no interior images (insert big sigh) so have no idea what the original decor was like, save the few pitiful fragments of wallpapers. The decor might have been elegant and beautifully styled, and it might have been, well, ugly. No era is immune to bad taste.

It is likely however that the decor of the Cross House incorporated furnishings and objects which in 1894 were already antiques. Perhaps the dining room set was terribly old-fashioned by 1894 but had been passed down in the family for three generations? Perhaps many objects had been collected on world travels in exotic places, objects which might have been centuries old? Perhaps the round reception room was based on ancient Moorish influences? Perhaps the parlor sitting set was Egyptian-influenced?

This type on blending of history was not unusual to Victorian-era decoration. And this brings me to something important.

The Cross House is 122-years-old. It is not frozen in time. To me, it is very much alive, more so than it has been for a long time. I love love love the idea that the house is returning to life and brilliance after a long slumber!

If Susan and Harrison Cross perhaps had no compunction about decorating their new home with an eclectic decor reflecting a diversity of styles and ages, then why should I? Thus, I yearn for the past 122-years to ALSO be reflected in the house when it is finished. I yearn for the house to feel contemporary yet nonetheless unmistakably historic.

Exactly HOW to accomplish this is the struggle.

Certainly I am not going to proceed with Direction #2: knock down walls to create modern open-plan living, paint all the trim white (the horror!), and punch 4,759 can lights in the ceilings.

 

Faking History

Another issue which hugely impacts my thoughts is a desire not to fake history.

When the Cross House is finished, I want it readily obvious what is 1894 and what is not. For example, three of the bedrooms have attached bathrooms. These were closets originally, and were converted in 1929. Cheaply. Badly. What would be the ideal solution?

  • A part of me would like to tear out the bathrooms and restore the closets. But 99.9% of future buyers will be THRILLED that all the bedrooms have en-suite bathrooms, and thus the future of the house is better protected.
  • I could rebuild the bathrooms to match the two original 1894 bathrooms. But this would confuse the historical narrative of the house.
  • I could rebuild the bathrooms in a 1929-era style. Except the bathrooms would then be, well, fakes. They would be brand new bathrooms trying to look like 1929 bathrooms, again confusing the historical narrative of the house.
  • Maybe the solution would be to build unabashedly modern bathrooms? At least this option would not confuse the historical narrative and thus fracture the time/space continuum, bringing an end to life as we know it. An important consideration!

In 1950, openings were knocked through the original interior brick supporting walls in the basement so that bathrooms could be created during the conversion of the house into a motel, when rentable rooms were built in the basement. These bathrooms (save one) are now gone. In blocking up the door openings, I deliberately used concrete block rather than brick, because this makes it clear that something had happened, rather them erase or muddle the history with brick infill.

On the front porch, I had the original railings recreated, and will be doing the same with the railing spindles. While new, each exactly replicates the rotted originals. The historical narrative will remain visually the same, even if the material is new. I am OK with this.

If I could exactly recreate the original wallpaper to the parlor, I likely would. My only hesitation would be that I have no idea what the lost frieze and ceiling paper looked like. So, even if I could afford to recreate the original wallpaper, I could not recreate the original ensemble. I could certainly come up with an alternate frieze and ceiling paper, but then I would be creating a faked ensemble. Does all this make sense?

In the two-story stair hall, I know exactly what the original ensemble looked like as I have fragments of the 1894 wallpaper, frieze, and ceiling paper. I very much hope to recreate this lost ensemble, and be able to say: This is exactly what was here in 1894. Again, the historical narrative would be visually the same as it was originally, even if the material is new.

All the original lighting in the Cross House is long gone. I have done numerous posts about my dawning awareness that the Cross House was very likely the first house in Emporia to have electric lighting. Physical evidence confirms that the house had gas/electric combination lighting throughout. This is a fascinating and fabulous and important aspect of the house’s history. As such, I now plan to be meticulous in reinstalling period-correct gas/electric lighting to the house. This is not an aesthetic decision but rather a historical decision. Even though I have no idea of exactly what fixtures were in the house originally, I do know they were selected in 1894, and were gas/electric. By re-installing early 1890s gas/electric chandeliers and sconces, I believe the historical narrative will be correct even if the fixtures are new to the house.

I doubt I will be able to afford period-correct fixtures for a great long time in every room of the many-roomed house. In rooms bereft of period-correct fixtures I am planning to install lighting which no one could mistake for 1894, such as a 1960 Sputnik chandelier in my bedroom, and 1970s Hollywood-Regency pendants in the library. While such choices will be partly driven by finances, another motivating factor is my desire for the decor of the Cross House to reflect the fact that time did not stop in 1894. A lot of way cool things have been designed during the last 122-years.

Well, all this is why I am reluctant to proceed with a stencil version of the 1894 wallpaper for the parlor. The stencil will not be what was there in 1894, but will be a sorta kinda somewhat facsimile of the original. And I still would not have the original frieze or ceiling paper. So these, too, would have to be…fudged.

And this makes me uncomfortable. There is so much about the Cross House which is original. I want to respect all which is original, and to recreate what can be accurately recreated. I am loath however to create confusion about what is original and what is not.

 

Sidebar

This is all a bit tricky however. I could, could, just order a new damask pattern wallpaper for the parlor, and with a matching frieze and ceiling paper. I do not want to do this for the reasons outlined above: I will be confusing what is original and what is not.

However, the same could be said about installing gas/electric lighting. I will not be able to point to the fixtures and say: these are original to the house.

In my mind though is a large distinction. What paper was originally in the parlor is not historically important. What the original lighting was is of significant historical importance. Again, the Cross House was very likely the first house in Emporia to have gas/electric lighting, To ignore this historical distinction is something I just cannot do.

 

A Summation

For two years now these issues have been percolating in my head, and sum up as follows:

  • Protect what is original.
  • Recreate lost original bits IF this can be done visually accurately.
  • Everything else should not confuse the historical narrative.
  • Embrace the last 122-years of history.

Thus, because I cannot accurately recreate the lost paper ensemble of the parlor, my instinct is to go in the opposite direction and create something unabashedly modern in feeling, as shown in the stencil at the top of this post.

Several times above I mention the idea that the new decor should complement the 1894 structure. As the parlor walls were originally patterned, stenciling new patterns will complement the original look while not fudging with history.

My conclusions are heresy to most old house lovers. I understand this, and fully expect to be stoned by a crazed mob of old house enthusiasts when I am finished with the decor!

 

Ego? Or Livability?

Bo mentioned the power of ego: many people desire to put their stamp on their house. This is understandable, but I do not think ego is driving my decorative direction. Rather, this direction is being guided by my thoughts outlined above, and, importantly, what I can live with:

 

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This house was recently posted on Old House Dreams. I suspect that to a lot of people, when they think “Victorian decor”, this is what would come to mind. I know a lot of people love this look. To me, I feel overwhelmed by it.

 

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I think this is much better done but nonetheless feel overwhelmed, too. I would though kill for the green glass shades on the chandelier!

 

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I do not feel overwhelmed by this, and think this room is beautiful. But the room offers no indication that the 20th-century happened. And, this, I do not like. However, putting a 1960 Sputnik chandelier in the room would be a sacrilege because the room is otherwise SO period-correct. And this image typifies my struggle. HOW to decorate the Cross House in a manner which reflects that the 20th-century happened and yet still be respectful and even complementary of the 1894 structure??????????

 

When the Cross House was built, it is evident that Susan and Harrison Cross endeavored to create a home which was as modern as could be in 1894. I feel guided by this spirit in attempting to make the resurrection of the house modern, still.

To me, interior design is like writing a great musical score. Just a note or two off and the entire composition is ruined. I am crossing my fingers that my very long experience as a designer will help assure that I hit all the right notes.

I hope.

I pray.

25 Responses to How To Decorate a Victorian-Era House?

  1. I think the key is to approach it the way the Victorians would have if given modern materials and technologies. As long as you respect the character of the house and of the spaces inside (the public/private), I don’t think you can go too far wrong.

  2. Parlor Wallpaper: You know what existed in 1894, so why not recreate it.

    Maybe this company can help recreate the same outline, from high resolution pictures, of the damask.

    Perhaps go a few shades lighter than the original colors, and simply leave the frieze and ceiling white, or a lighter complementary color to the stenciled walls.

    • The cost to recreate the parlor wallpaper is incredibly expensive. There is no way I could afford it.

      Bo already offered to create a stencil of the paper, and my issues with this are detailed in the post.

  3. Don’t forget the most important thing.. you have to love it.

    I admire the museum like reproductions, but not always sure I would want to live in them. ( Those sofas above look uncomfortable). Back then I suppose NO-ONE would dream of plopping onto a sofa and laying down to read a book. You sat up and kept your feet on the floor.

    I think you will know each thing when you see it.

  4. I think the fact that your blog exists helps document to future owners and vistors what is original and what is not. You’ve done a tremendous job piecing together and documenting the house’s history and its many changes and uses.

    I agree with Bill Reid: “As long as you respect the character of the house and of the spaces inside (the public/private), I don’t think you can go too far wrong.” And as Betsy notes, you have to love it, and live with it.

    Your instincts have done right by the house so far — and I’m sure they will in the future, too.

  5. What if you themed each room to a different period/decade of design since the house was built?

    Picture this: walking through the house is like stepping through time (maybe not chronologically, but still). Each room features elements of design complementary to the house, but modern in the sense of a given decade. Maybe the stair hall is fully 1894, but the parlour could be 2016, and the dining room looks more 1970’s (to match the chandelier), etc.

    Whatever you decide to do it will look incredible, and if all else fails, simply follow your gut. It hasn’t failed you yet!

  6. Your taste and concern for the CrossHouse is evident! Do not question your concerns, for they show your determination for historical accuracy.

    Why not graciously accept the offer of a stencil? Recreating the original sample, you luckily found. Then you could recreate the original design via paint and sweat. You could use the same stencil with complenary colors for the frieze and also the ceiling. This stencil could be the orginal design in other rooms with your color choices to reflect you and still be original to the Cross House.

    Mulitple cuts of the orginal stencil would suit your concern for budget as you proceed to other rooms. The cost of paint and stencil would be minimal vs the cost of wallpapers for so very much of wall, frieze and ceilings.Just the thoughts of an old lady who see’s your attention to detail and concern for accuracy as well as for livability of this gem you are polishing!

  7. I read this post as if I was listening to you talk out loud … stream of consciousness, little filtering, trying to make peace with your thoughts. We have all seen you make decisions, only to change your mind and go a different direction. May I gently remind you that you’re only two years into this journey. Two years may seem like an eternity to the uninitiated, but we old-house folks know that two-years is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of a historic renovation.

    It’s very tempting to make final design decisions at this stage, in the effort to have some finished space in your overwhelmingly unfinished home. I completely understand this, as we lived that life ourselves for many years. Our goal was to make modern decisions that complimented the remaining historic fabric of our house. Our new kitchen, which replaced a very Partridge Family 1967 kitchen, is modern with an early-Victorian pantry feel to it. The original kitchen was certainly a separate building in the yard, which is long gone, as there is no evidence of an original kitchen space in the house itself. We wanted our interpretation to be what it is, a 2006 kitchen in an 1848 house, and to never be seen as an attempt at what would have been there in 1848.

    Your spaces are the same as ours, as you have gone to great lengths to preserve the original bits that the Cross House retains and you have to fill in the gaps with modern decisions… just on a much larger and grander scale. I see your parlor painted a lovely jewel-toned color, like you told us about for the library. This completes the Victorian backdrop for your furnishings and lighting, without the effort and expense of wallpaper or stenciling. Later, if you are sure that stencils are what this room truly needs, will be a simple matter to proceed.

  8. One thing I like about getting advice from people I respect is that it lets me have a better look at what I want. If someone’s thoughtful advice makes me feel sad, it still helped me know myself better. When it comes to the wallpaper, you’ve preserved a record of it so forever now someone could have it reproduced later. Especially with all this 3D printing technology, custom work may come down in price in a decade or so.

    The other thing I did was turn to Craigslist and Philadelphia Salvage to pick some things out for me. I had ideas for a pale blue-and-black bathroom that would have been similar to the plastic tile remnants I found in the walls and gone with the 1930’s remodel downstairs, but when I found what I have, a bulb lit up. Same with the doors upstairs. The 5 in the upstairs hall I think come close to period correct. Before that, the plan was to put in upgraded replacements of the 1960’s flush doors, but when I found a set, I knew that I had to have them. (I never seriously considered new pine 6 paneled doors even though they may have been the sanest option)

    It’s terrifying of course to have to choose because you need a project done. You’ll presumably have this problem repeatedly for your bathrooms. But when it comes to your stencil, who cares if you it’s a mistake? It’s only paint and you can do it over in 10 years.

  9. Ross, I think you should just leave the walls white for now , and furnish the rooms and see if you think the walls need anything. You may like to put up beautiful oil paintings or modern pictures, which look great against white walls. Let the wood in the house stand out. Live with what you want, the house will let you know if it’s right, or wrong.

  10. Ross, I forgot about your windows, you don’t need anything to take your eye away from those windows. Modern clean lines will work well and be second to the wood and windows. If you love the room when it’s done, than it’s right. If you think something is missing you can always add wall treatment later.

    • I am DYING to get color on the parlor walls! The adjacent library is now Tiffany blue, and the parlor is just crying out for a rich color!

      I am planning on chartreuse! The color will well complement the stained-glass, which has chartreuse panels of glass.

      Above the picture rail I am planning to leave white.

  11. I hardly ever comment unless I think I have something helpful to add, but this is a conundrum I’ve been struggling with too. As you know, our house was treated quite a bit more cruelly than yours, so much of what I do in the house is a desperate bid to try and make it up to the house, since otherwise there’d be so very little to actually restore. This is why I try so hard to document before, durings and afters, as well as why things were done (most of our salvage is labeled in an inconspicuous spot as well). Obviously you’re doing this too – but no matter what our future hopes for our homes are, I think it’s best to assume that after we’re gone there might be another long downhill slide before another savior comes along. So it’s up to you to preserve every scrap of history possible, and incorporate it back into the house in whichever way it will persist the longest. No matter how careful we are, written documents, scraps of preserved paper etc are too easily lost over time (I’ve seen it happen frequently as estate sales).

    Since recreating the paper is out of the question pricewise, this leaves stenciling the original pattern. I think a very modern look could still be achieved in the room even with a stencil, as it would leave the frieze and ceiling bare, to be decorated as you saw fit. You could even just stencil a small section such as the fireplace wall, as much as I loathe the idea of a feature wall. With your existing furniture, a good rug (modern or vintage), and judicious use of antiques you’d have a space that spoke to the actual history of the house while coexisting with the fact that it’s 2016.

    Whatever you decide, it’s only been two years. I think once you live in the space the answer will become much more clear. And in the end, the house is spectacular, and would still be so with just primer on the walls…

    And a quick thought before I hit publish – have you thought of printing out the photo of the wallpaper to scale and as a repeat and hanging it on the wall? This would be my first step in making such a decision.

    • Meg!

      Thank you for your thoughts!

      You wrote: “have you thought of printing out the photo of the wallpaper to scale..”

      I did just that with the stair hall paper.

      Also, my plan is to complete the decoration of the parlor and library this year. I deeply believe that when working on such an overwhelming project, it is critical to get a room or two totally done. These rooms then become “sane” spaces where one can replenish their energy!

  12. Ross: What about using the stencil on the curtains?

    It would be a way to echo an original element in slightly different way.

    Just a thought . . . .

  13. i like the stencil idea and easy to paint or paper over if you hate it but i would do one wall and live with it for a while. sometimes first judgements are good, sometimes not

    i like the BOH guy would push for early period bathrooms. the old stuff is available and new bathrooms no matter how well done are just so bland and ho hum. old ones all have character.

    as far as the 20th century goes, meehhhh!!! it doesn’t sound like most of it was the Cross house finest hour.

  14. I really like your approach of carefully preserving and restoring the original “hard” parts of the house (plaster, faux-grained millwork, hardware, etc), but allowing some freedom to depart from reproducing an original decor. As you’ve discussed, it’s not always practical, attractive to modern lifestyles, or affordable. Paint/wall covering, drapes, etc are all temporary and easy to change anyway.

    I do think you’re on the right track with searching for colors, patterns, and textures that compliment the architecture and features of the house. With such amazing windows and millwork, why not show them off!

    Finally, I too am disgusted with the design trends that TOH has been pushing lately. It’s not as bad as HGTV, but hardly respectful of historic homes. I hope this media fad of home-flipping and remodeling burns out soon, or I feel it’s going to contribute to accelerated destruction of historic housing stock.

  15. One thing that has not been discussed yet is whether or not to tone down the Victorian elements that seem so over-the-top today. It appears that Ross instinctively recoils from the full-blown recreation of a period Victorian interior, partly because it is so overwhelming. I agree. Full blown Victorian is just too uncomfortable, dark, fussy, crawling with pattern on pattern and lacking in focal point to actually live with. It’s all just too much. Overwhelming. Even if you could recreate a period room exactly as it was, should you? My answer is no, not unless the building is now a museum and no longer a house. Interiors were not the Victorians’ strong suit.

    My feeling, Ross, is that you aren’t even close to recreating the true feel of a Victorian interior yet, so don’t worry yourself about it. Even if you had all the resources to fully recreate a Victorian room your modern sensibilities wouldn’t let you pile that much pattern, filigree and spindliness into one room.

    I like the idea of stenciling with wallpaper patterns, but you don’t need to make it look like wallpaper, and I think you shouldn’t. Instead of applying the stencil at regular intervals like a wallpaper pattern, make the intervals irregular. Then they will read as modern. Nobody will mistake irregular stenciling for wallpaper. But by using a pattern taken from one of the wallpapers you’ve found, you are preserving one more bit of knowledge about how the house originally looked.

    I also like the idea of themed rooms. It’s an authentically Victorian idea, but you don’t need to restrict yourself to only themes popular in Victorian times. Let yourself have a 20s Flapper room or a 30s Art Deco room or a 50s Sputnik room without apology. You’ve got plenty of rooms. I don’t like the idea of just throwing everything together in one eclectic mish-mash, but I trust that you’ve got enough taste to not do that.

    Concerning the bathrooms, if they still have practical value as is, then keep them, but if they detract then get rid of them without apology. The first function of a house is to be practical.

    Concerning the lighting, you don’t need to replace all the gas/electric fixtures throughout the house with period-correct pieces to express the history that the Cross house was one of the first to have electricity. Just one fixture in a conspicuous place is enough for that. Anything else is a bonus. Do what you can, and don’t let it bother you that you couldn’t do them all. You’re more of a purist than I am, I would give myself permission to use later fixtures as long as I had at least some that were period-correct so that people could compare them. Later fixtures were usually less ornate and fit in better with modern sensibilities.

    Remember, a house is for living. It should be practical. It should also allow for self-expression (ego in Bo’s terms). It’s your house now, it should reflect your tastes and your requirements. Preserve whatever knowledge you have of the house’s history as artistically as you can but give yourself permission to make it yours.

  16. Concerning the dining room of which you wrote “I do not feel overwhelmed by this, and think this room is beautiful. But the room offers no indication that the 20th-century happened. And, this, I do not like.” I feel that what’s missing there is a more modern sense of balance between pattern and ground. The table and chairs are actually 20th-century, but they didn’t read as “enough” to your eyes. Replace the rusty red pattern on the walls with bright red paint, though, and I think it would feel more modern to you and provide the right balance. You could also replace the patterned fabric in the chairs with a solid color fabric. Or replace the rug with a more modern one.

  17. Hi, Ross, I’m new to the site and have been reading your posts for a week now! Thanks for taking an old lady and making her beautiful and young again! Wouldn’t we all love to have that ability?

    Thinking on something, would your local library have newspaper articles on the Cross House, either when she was built or maybe a social gathering of some sort? Maybe pictures would be available to you that way. Many librarians love a mystery/research project and if the house is loved by everyone in town, this may be a way to get more information!

    Love your posts!

    • Hi Cindy! And welcome!

      Thank you for the kind words.

      The previous owner, Bob Rodak, researched the house intensely. So far though no interior images dating before the 1970s have ever been discovered. Even the Mouse family, who owned the house from 1929 to 1960s, have no interior images!

      Sigh.

  18. This is the exact struggle I have trying to explain my choices for our home. Our home is not a museum, our home has small children so it has to be livable, and since our home is not a registered historical home the only way to hopefully preserve it as it is is to let the quality of the craftsmanship shine and highlight by proper use of the rooms how incontravertiby practical the original layout is.
    Quality is it’s own adornment, and similar in quality things compliment eachother much better than those that are just similar in style, hence why a 4000$ modern range looks beautiful in a hundred year old kitchen and a plastic 1970’s medallion, filigreed and curliqued to hell, looks cheesy in a victorian dining room.

  19. Why not choose your colors from the stained glass windows? Yellow, turquoise, pink and green. Deep aqua walls, with green, pink and gold furniture. Or pink walls with green and gold furniture. Or green walls, with turquoise and gold furniture…… You could even have mid-century style furniture and a colorful Persian reg incorporating the colors of the furniture and the windows.

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