“People tend to worry about walls,” says celebrity interior designer Russell Sage. Among his many brilliantly curated projects is The Fife Arms, a hotel in Scotland known for its clever interior décor. I tend to drift, and I think this is the best way. Just keep going, never stopping, and take the color up and over the ceilings too. For a really big space, I’m happy to commission an artist to make a mural that covers everything. This worked to great effect in Clunie’s dining room at Fife Arms, pictured above, and the result was a dramatic space that changes what you think you know about how period features are presented.
But for everything else, from paint ideas big and small to what to hang on your decorative walls, these suggestions—and I—should help you overcome the potential hurdle of what to do if you’re lucky enough to have a large space to decorate.
Note on the large walls. The size is obviously relative, and we’re not talking about huge ballrooms here. These decor suggestions apply to anything larger than a closet in a basement, and anything you might look at and think “there’s enough room to really do something here.” These are the things you must do.
How to decorate large walls
1. Choose the right neutral – and use it in the details too
When the choice is overwhelming, it may seem easier to become white. But interior designer Kelly Hoppen points out that’s not quite the way to go—in fact, it can seem a little too cold over a large space. Now she suggests getting a little warmer, and thinking about how deceptive beige living rooms can be when it comes to large walls.
“Beige has evolved and is here to stay,” says Kelly. Simple, soft and comfortable, that’s what people want and need right now. For beige walls, be sure to paint the baseboards, beams, and ceilings the same color, not white.
2. But if you use color, choose the right tone
Stylist Russell Sage says if you’re avoiding Kelly Hoppen’s advice and going overboard, there’s only one caveat. “When it comes to walls, whatever color you use should have a touch of the earth,” he says. So if you fancy the color pink, don’t go for the plastic pink but rather the plastic shade. Peach instead of orange. Dark gray instead of glossy white. Primrose instead of yellow banana. Look for shades of brown or gray and only the wall color will work.
What is the reason for that? When a bright color is used over a large area it completely dominates the room. This can be cool, in an extreme way, but for a space that’s elegant and large—yet still exciting—think more muted. Limewash paint works well here.
3. Pay attention to where the windows are
Whether you’re going for a neutral or earthy tone, let the space help you decide exactly what color you want. There is more to how to paint a wall than just brush strokes.
“Design decisions should never be made in a vacuum,” says interior designer Brigitte Romanek. It’s about going into a building and feeling it first. I particularly like to pay attention to where the windows are. If you take it, you will notice how the light will bounce around the room, and which colors will work best. Oftentimes, what’s outside the window can clarify choices, too. Green paint can be a great choice for walls if there are a lot of trees outside.
Here, this graphic paint was chosen perfectly for a space where light falls through windows most of the day. The sun refreshes its earthy hues and adds subtle richness.
4. Add details with paneling
Often in new buildings or modern spaces, large walls can make a space feel like a box. This is where the texture you add can reinvent the feel of a room. But that doesn’t always mean going down the Victorian-influenced promenade to a house built 100 years later.
“Why not try a modern, wood-clad wall?” says interior designer Alexandria Dooley. It is a surprisingly effective way to change the architectural aesthetic of a living room. A wood wall can instantly create a focal point and add texture and pattern to a space.
The smaller the slats, the more the exterior resembles Scandinavian design – and less like a vintage period.
5. Create a salon wall – and change it frequently
The simplest thing to do with any wall is to hang art on it, right? Sad mistake. Speaking from personal experience, this finishing touch can feel like the hardest part. “People tend to be a little anxious when they hammer a nail into the wall,” says Russell Sage. “Especially if it’s newly decorated. But the art creates a focal point, and I’m really happy to hang the cornucopia. If it doesn’t work, you can patch it up and start over.”
The key to any gallery wall is to continue to revitalize it by changing what you display. “Have twice as much art as you need,” Russell suggests. And switch pictures as your mood changes. Think of it as having the spring collection and the fall collection. After all, we are not in the age of minimalism, and people generally have a lot of possessions. So mix them up, move things in and out. It’s the easiest way to feel like you’ve mastered a large wall.
6. In case of framing, match it with the walls
Knowing how to choose the perfect picture frame can be as daunting as getting the art right. But for large walls, you want the art to be the hero, not what you hang in it.
“I’m fixing picture frames forever,” says Russell Sage. Draw them, customize them, and even make paper for them. I often think they have to be the same color as the walls, in order for the art to really stand out.
Above, all the frames are covered in the same white paint as the walls which makes the vibrant art the main thing you see.
7. Create your own reference line
While we generally recommend using one color on everything—and Kelly Hoppen did at the top of the page—there are exceptions. And Joa Studholme, the main color genius at Farrow and Ball, enjoys suggesting ideas that go against the rules.
After all, large walls often come with high ceilings. “And if you have high ceilings, you can bleach them, instead of increasing the color over and over,” Joa says. “If you have low rooms, you should always use the same color on the walls and ceiling so your eye doesn’t know where the wall ends.”
So, with this extended space to play with, you can use a paint effect like datum lines – the modern version of the picture rail. “I like to do the red up to the level of my dado, which is about 8 feet tall,” says Gua. Once inside, you feel confident. It serves as a sense remembrance of a time when you were confident, and it will really affect your mood.
Surprisingly, yellow-brown is a great color to go with red, highlighting its more sophisticated undertones. So use this shade to separate the wall from the ceiling, as shown above.
8. Make a 3D installation
When you have a space to play with, anything you decide to hang on the wall can be big too. “I love to make 3D wall art,” says Russell Sage. I recently covered a wall in a mural from Fromental, a scene full of trees and branches. On top of that, I added some old stuffed birds in cages to pop off the scene.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a picture of this newly decorated wall, but this is a Fromental mural, above, to give you an idea. And while stuffed feathered friends may not be to everyone’s taste, there’s a lesson here. Why should your gallery wall be a flat artwork? Breathe life into the space by making your installation in comfort. It’s a little unexpected, sure, but it will add character in spades.
How do you dress up a blank wall?
If you’re starting from scratch with a blank wall, the best way to dress it up is to layer it. And while it may seem intimidating to hit a lot of nails in your home, there are tricks to get around this.
“I love hanging a mirror on the wall, then making artwork on the mirror with a layered effect,” says Russell Sage. “This can only be done with adhesive pads, which allow you to fix smaller images into larger frames.”
Old photographs, postcards, or small prints like a collage can be used to decorate a blank wall full of character.
What do you put on either side of a big plate?
The best thing to put on either side of a large painting is lighting, cleverly angled, to illuminate the art. “I like to spread the light all over the room,” says designer Tom Dixon. Instead of having spot lights, it’s about washing the place with light. This creates balance, highlighting the surfaces and features you want to make the most of.
On either side of the artwork, you can fix angled wall lights or even fix invisible adhesive tape LED strips. These will make your drawing the hero, and ensure that all eyes are firmly on them.