This Designer Wainscoting Trick Will Make Your Home Instantly Look Custom-Built

updated May 29, 2020
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Whether you own or rent—or you live in new or old construction, generally speaking, you’re probably going to have some kind of challenge to face or compromise to make in your home. That is, unless, you’ve custom built your place from the ground up. But for me (and maybe you!), it’s all about coming up with creative solutions to solve whatever house woes arise. One of the problems some folks tend to have with newer builds and rentals is that they can lack some of the old house charm of yesteryears: things like moldings, coffered ceilings, archways, and exposed beams, to name a few.

In fact, lack of architectural interest was one of the many challenges the 2020 Small/Cool Experience designers faced, since each was tasked with decorating a 120-square-foot room that would have basically been a brand new, life-sized diorama constructed out of drywall with the simplest of baseboards. A few designers chose to use some kind of wainscoting for a quick dose of character, and this kind of wood paneling always delivers, even when you fake it with box panels made out of stock trim, which is what designer Max Humphrey intended to do in his “Inner Child” room seen below.

Credit: Danie Drankwalter

What’s great about wainscoting is that if you love the look of wood grain, you can use a natural stain to highlight those organic knots and grooves. If you’re more about a light, bright, and airy aesthetic, white paint will be your wainscoting’s best friend. Conversely, one of the interesting things I noticed about the paneling that Small/Cool Experience designers used is that they all chose to paint theirs in saturated, bold colors. Humphrey used Behr’s Graphic Charcoal, designer Emily Henderson used Behr’s Red Pepper in her “Eclectic English” room, and designer Mikel Welch used Behr’s In the Moment in his “Hard Lines, Soft Curves” room. Clearly, color is making a comeback. What was more surprising to me, however, is that both Henderson and Welch wrapped their rooms with two different heights of wainscoting.

Credit: Danie Drankwalter

Technically, as the old saying goes, two is a coincidence, and three’s a trend, but considering the sample size of designers in the Small/Cool Experience, I think wainscoting with different heights is going to be a fresh new way of doing wall paneling, and here’s why. In the case of Henderson’s room, which is shown above, the plan was to install 48-inch tall board and batten wainscoting on the side walls and a 60-inch tall board and batten on the back wall. This slight difference in height draws your eye right to the bed wall and up to that gorgeous picture rail—and the artwork it displays, which is the true focal point of the room. This small shift is enough to grab your attention, and the best of rooms subtly work this way.

Credit: Danie Drankwalter

Welch used his wainscoting’s height difference in exactly the opposite way of Henderson. Curiously, though, the end effect was the same. He decided to run his paneling up the full height of his side walls and go shorter on the back wall of his dining space, which allowed him to install a dramatic gallery wall of prints on a stretch of white drywall. Because the wainscoting is visually interrupted on the back wall as it wraps around the room, your eyes can’t help but look and linger at this spot, which, again, is meant to be the focal point of the room.

Who knew a little bit of asymmetry could be such a smart design strategy? I wouldn’t try this with super short wainscoting. Your paneling has to be tall enough for the eye to detect a height difference in the first place, and you don’t want the difference to be so drastic that it looks strange. But when this design tweak is done artfully, it certainly makes a space sing.