The Bowling Alley Effect
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
Classically, proportionately, and visually, a rectangular room is considered the most attractive and easiest to decorate. But not so if it looks like a bowling alley. If you’re faced with a long and narrow space, you can re-balance its effect using three simple techniques:
1) Widen it. Paint the back wall (that is, the short one you see as you enter the bowling alley) in a bold horizontal stripe. Or, if you’re more daring, apply these stripes to the ceiling instead. Large, graphic wallpaper also works. Mount horizontal shelves on the short wall and appoint large but minimal accessories. Choose a horizontally-patterned square or round rug. Hang an over-sized vertical mirror on one of the long walls.
Horizontal ceiling beams can be a good addition as well as a mantel if you have a fireplace on the short wall. If a window is on the short wall, extend its width with flanking draperies or artwork. On one of my client’s walls, we hung his great-grandfather’s fly-fishing rods in a horizontally, stack-like fashion. This not only gave a widening illusion but also allowed for a uniquely personal and artistic display.
When doing small remodeling projects like a bathroom, choose rectangular-shaped tile and run it horizontally. Do the same if installing wood planks.
2) Interrupt it. Drop a light fixture from the ceiling. Allow it to have enough presence to be a focal point. Don’t just choose a safe fixture but one that has enough character to make an impact. Center the fixture over a coffee table, dining table, desk, or any other object that will prevent you from knocking your head on it! Using a fixture with this intention literally interrupts the long, three-dimensional space.
Arrange furniture so that it gently interrupts the flow. This can be done with the chaise part of a sectional, a standalone ottoman, or by turning a chair on a forty-five degree angle.
3) Dissect it. Break the space into two smaller spaces designating the purpose of each by its furniture. For example, one space could be for gathering and conversation while the other is a greeting station with a console table and a bowl for tossing keys. Another pairing could be a desk and lounging chair in one area with a wall organized as a photo or art gallery in another. Just be sure that the gallery stands on its own and is not part of the reading area.
Mark different zones with different rugs, different paint colors, or different wall treatments. Arrange furniture tightly to allow for the most space between the zones.
Complimenting these three “dos” are three “don’ts”:
1) Don’t hang the same size photos or art along the long walls. This repetition will only emphasize its length. Instead, hang one large piece and flank it with two small ones.
2) Don’t lay a rectangular rug in the same direction as the bowling alley. Rather, turn it 90 degrees or place it on the diagonal.
3) Don’t “wall hug” but move furniture away from walls and into the space. If your room is too small to do this, add something small like a bench or ottoman or even a pair of opposing sconces on the long walls.
Widening, interrupting, and dissecting all achieve the same goal. They act as distractions that delay the visual flow from the beginning of the bowling alley to its end. Just like magic, these tricks create illusions and improve your interior space.
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