Of course, new can be nice, but nothing beats the storied charm of old buildings. If you love the look as much as I do, and want to achieve something similar in your own home, allow me to let you in on a little secret: wainscoting.
If you've been in many buildings, especially older ones, you've probably seen this waist-high paneling without really noticing it. It can really gussy up a room, and unlike other, showier architectural details, it looks equally nice in rooms with lower ceilings, like the eight foot ones found in a lot of American homes. Here are some of my favorite examples.
Above, dark paneling lends a somber and distinctive look to this home spotted on Fantastic Frank.
How tall should a wainscot be? That depends a lot on the proportions of the space. DIY Network recommends installing a chair rail (which often forms the top of a wainscot) at between 32 and 36 inches, for a room with an 8' ceiling, or at about 1/3 of the way up from the floor. This room from Life.Style.Etc adheres to that proportion, although you'll see others that are higher or lower.
In a shoot for The Apartment, a white wainscot makes a lovely contrast with painted walls above.
The double row of paneling makes this wainscot from Inside Out just a little bit fancier.
This bedroom, part of a beautifully detailed Brooklyn townhouse spotted on Cup of Jo, has a wainscot that's a bit higher than the ones you typically see. In this high-ceilinged room, it works, adding architectural interest and breaking up a large expanse of wall.
Another thing to consider when adding a wainscot, besides the height, is how it relates to other objects in the room. In this bathroom on My Domaine, the wainscot skirts the window, but terminates directly under the medicine cabinet, for a neat look. (The ledge at the top is a convenient spot for toiletries, particularly in a bathroom with not much space around the sink.)
This wainscot, in a room spotted on Desire to Inspire, is so tall I'm not even sure I can call it a wainscot. The paneling here inverts the 1/3 rule and instead leaves one-third of the wall as the not-paneled bit.
This wainscot spotted on Houzz has a geometric pattern that's very different from the paneling you typically see. This would be perfect in a hallway, entryway, or any room that needs a little extra pizzazz.
Adding a chair rail and then painting the space underneath in a contrasting color can create the effect of a wainscot without the heavy lifting of paneling the wall. The black wainscot in this hallway from Seventeen Doors corresponds nicely with the black door beyond.
Just because wainscots are typically made from wood paneling doesn't meant they have to be made from wood paneling. In this gorgeous dining room seen on Dwell, colorful tile makes for an elegant and unusual wainscot.
This beautiful historic home in Amsterdam, spotted on The D Pages, has a wainscot made of marble. If that's not luxurious, I don't know what is.
Thinking of trying the look at home? If you're DIYing, Craving Some Creativity has an excellent tutorial for using trim to create the look of paneling — without the bother of installing actual panels.