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How to Avoid Basement Design Problems

Candice Olson redesigns a basement that suffers from all the basic problems common to most basements.

This bedroom was boring and childish -- exactly the opposite of its 15-year-old owner, an active student who enjoy sports, girls and, most of all, his drums. (SHNS photo courtesy Fine Living Network)

Pregnant women have been known to crave some very strange things, and for one of my clients it was wallpaper. Every room in the house fell victim to the "Pregnant Plaid-Paperer" including the basement. Excessive pattern aside, this basement had all the basic problems that I see repeatedly in basements:


  • Lighting: Flush-mounted ceiling fixtures make already low basement ceilings seem lower. By installing low-voltage recessed lighting, your eye is directed to the area being highlighted and not upwards towards the ceiling.

When designing lighting plans for basements, I place the lights along the perimeter, 12 to 18 inches away from the walls. If you have a small space, you'll be amazed to see how this seems to push your walls outward and make the space seem much larger.


  • Ugly fireplaces: The previous homeowner had fancied himself an amateur bricklayer and had constructed a fireplace. Positioned at a quirky corner angle, it was an eyesore. My clients wanted to replace the whole fireplace, but I thought their money was better spent elsewhere. The fireplace was painted, a simple mantle replaced the ill-fitting surround and a new decorative fireplace screen obscured the view to the old, discolored gas insert.


  • Dated finishes: Basements tend to be the last room in the house to be renovated, and with paneling and shag carpet from the '70s, linoleum from the '50s, it can be a design time capsule. To update, you don't necessarily need to rip everything out and start from scratch. Wood paneling can be primed and painted, leaving a subtle striping effect, while new flooring can go right over old linoleum or tiles, provided they're sound and secure.


  • Too much contrast: The plaid wallpaper concealed old wood paneling, and I'm not sure which was the lesser of two evils. The paper was stripped and the walls painted a soft mushroom color. Old raspberry carpet was replaced with darker mushroom broadloom, except for a designated kid's area that received an easy-to-clean laminate wood floor. Reducing the contrast in this space added a calm, cocoon-like quality and made the room seem larger.

My clients wanted a TV/entertainment area, so the old cabinetry was removed and a new TV platform was built at a 90-degree angle to the corner fireplace. All the furniture in this area was laid out based on this angle.

My clients also wanted to entertain large groups of people in the space, and a long bench with comfy seat and back pillows provided oodles of extra seating. The deep space underneath was handy for storage.

Kids also had to be able to play in the basement without taking it over, so a quarter of the space was designated as their zone by a change in flooring. Their toys were hidden behind wall-to-wall plush chenille curtains hung on a ceiling-mounted drapery rod. These "soft walls" also pull across to provide privacy for overnight guests sleeping on the pull-out sofa bed.

Now my clients are not only enjoying a new family addition but also an additional floor in their house.

(Interior decorator Candice Olson is host of Home & Garden Television's Divine Design. For more ideas and information, visit

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