Why Is the Chair Rail Lost in the Parts Bin?
The chair rail. What ever happen to it? Once upon a time, it was seemingly everywhere. Today, it languishes on the bottom of interior design’s parts bin, right next to crown moulding. Perhaps we should give it another look.
YOUR BASIC CHAIR RAIL
In its simplest form, as a horizontal band running around the room, the chair rail serves as a unifier. It creates opportunities for use of different materials/finishes/colors above and below the chair rail, translating into visual texture.
Even in this “Plain Jane” room, it creates opportunities to add texture at the windows. For example, we can run the chair rail straight thru under the window sill (Detail 1) or we can express the sill by stepping the chair rail as it passes beneath the window sill (Detail 2). In each case the rail ties the room together visually. However, in Detail 2 the window gains importance.
But could it do more? The answer is “Yes and No. It depends on the architecture of the room.” Fortunately, our last post presents us with the perfect opportunity to see how a chair rail behaves when the wall planes move in and out.
Here’s an example in an 1804 Federal Period home we we worked in in which the rail runs right thru below the window. A Before/After blog post can be seen here.
ADDING LAYERS OF TEXTURE: THE FORWARD wall PLANE
In this example, the forward wall plane frames the doors, fireplace and windows. The walls between recede. In Detail 3, the chair rail wraps up on to the forward plane and dies against the door jamb. In Detail 4, it dies against the outside edge of the forward plane. Finally, the rail can float, as seen in Detail 5.
There’s no right and wrong here. Personally I prefer Details 3 and 5. They actively engage/acknowledge the change in all planes. There’s a commitment to action. Whereas, Detail 4 leaves me flat. The rail is just sitting there…
We find a similar condition in the Louvre, in which the forward plane frames the door.
ADDING LAYERS OF TEXTURE: THE RECEDING wall PLANE
I reversed the location of the forward plane in these two sketches. Thus, the walls between doors, fireplace and windows come forward, taking on more presence in the room. Very subtle differences between Details 6 & 7, with Detail 6 engaging the nearby door jambs, mantel and window casings. Detail 7 does not. As drawn, (contemporary) my preference is Detail 7 because of how it frames and reinforces the fact that the wall is the foreword plane. With more traditional detailing on the walls, jambs, above the door, over the mantel, etc. Detail 6 becomes a unifier, tying everything together.
In the Carnavalet Museum, the receding plane is adjacent to the door, similar to the above details.
WHAT IF: THE LAST DANCE
So… What if we combined a few elements from the above two examples? Let’s say the forward plane on Elevations A & B were at the doors and mantel. Here I have chosen to carry the chair rail to the edges of the door jambs and fireplace.
In Elevations C & D, I chose to bring the walls between the windows and French doors forward, making the windows and French doors “recede” into the thickness of the walls they might in an older home whose exterior walls were thicker. One tiny but very critical detail here is I did not return the chair rail to the edges of the window casing or jambs of the French Door. Why? Because I wanted to emphasize the “disappearance” of these two elements. The act of terminating it on the inside corner adjacent to the windows or French doors visually pushes them further into the background.
This combination begins to echo some of the basic building blocks of Neoclassical interior architecture, with the fireplace/mantel and entry doors in the room having more presence, while the exterior windows and French doors play a lesser role.
Variations on a theme
There are many ways wall planes and chair rails can be combined. For example, in the design concept sketch below, we used Detail 5 on the forward wall, while the window plane recedes. Look closely. There are two options. On the left, the window plane’s details are fully recessed. On the right, the window sill/base assembly sit proud of the adjacent wall panel, while the window is recessed. Our client selected the option on the left.
Looking into a distant room at the Carnavalet Museum, we find a similar condition. (Note a third way to frame a window.)
In my sketches I have shown the chair rail following the profile of the wall plan. That is not always the case. Below, it pays no attention to the wall planes, zipping straight across the gap.
The Forgotten CHAIR RAIL: THE TAKE AWAYS
We need to consider pulling the chair rail back out of the interior design parts bin because it can be an important feature in a room’s design.
1. By wrapping a room, a chair rail helps visually organize/tie a room together.
2. It can reinforce the in/out movement of a wall plane by moving with the wall plane.
3. A floating chair rail acknowledges the edges of a wall plane, reinforcing the shape of the plane.
4. Terminating the chair rail on an inside corner reinforces the difference between now wall plane and another. It gives precedence to the forward wall plane.
5. Conversely, terminating the chair rail on an inside corner helps make the receding wall plane disappear.
6. Sometimes, the chair rail has mind of it’s own.
7. If you want to see a master of this genre, visit my friend Greet Lefevre’s website.
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