Ask The Experts

By staff February 1, 2003

Q. I'm going to start using chargers as part of my dinner table decor. Any rules for selecting the right ones?

Interior designer Bonnie Lancaster of Lancaster Humma White answers: Selecting the right charger is a matter of proportion, theme, color and degree of formality. I think a charger looks best when it extends about two inches beyond the dinner plate, so it's a good idea to bring a piece of your china with you when buying chargers. I like chargers laid on a tablecloth since there are few placemats that are generous enough to properly frame a charger. Chargers can be square or round. Try setting the square ones so that they are diamond-shaped on the table. The price range is about $7 to $40 and more, depending upon what chargers are made of-plastic, glass, silver, exotic wood or composition.

If using a metallic charger, match it to the rim of your plate or to the napkin rings or candlesticks so that you establish continuity. If you're doing a mixed metal look, make sure you have enough of both. While chargers are usually elegant, they can be fun, relaxed and can help set a party theme. I've used big green leaves as chargers under white plates when I serve sushi ,and then I add lacquered chopsticks. It's also fun to buy inexpensive chargers and paint them to match something in the dining room, such as the shade of the wall or a detail in your china. Chargers add beauty and interest to dining decor and I think should be left on the table throughout the meal and removed when dessert is served.

Since chargers are large, storage can be a challenge. Most will not stack in upper kitchen or pantry cabinets. Some people store them in drawers.

Q. I'm impressed by the look of the new wooden bathtubs. Do those things work or are they just for show?

John Smithman, owner of The Plumbing Place, says: These luxurious bathtubs do indeed work because the wood is treated with an epoxy resin to stabilize the wood permanently. No leaks, no warping. The best ones are manufactured in France by a company called PSC Bath, which uses African iroko wood or American maple to make what they term the Image Tub. Iroko wood is a rich, medium-brown color and the most popular. The maple is light and modern looking. Clean a wooden tub with a soft cloth and mild detergent because you're just cleaning the surface sealer, not the wood. Wooden tubs, the rustic ones made in a barrel stave method, have been around for many years, but these new models are refined and beautiful.

Q. What does ebonized wood mean?

Interior designer and furniture designer Wilson Stiles explains: Ebonized wood is any wood that is stained black to resemble ebony, a heavy, hard black wood that is subtly grained. Real ebony comes from tropical Asia and Africa. When you stain a wood black instead of painting it, the grain shows through. Suitable woods for ebonizing are maple and mahogany. And I like to use ash when I want to emphasize texture. I generally use an oil-based stain because you get a nice depth of color. One coat is sufficient for darker woods, but ash would require two or more. If you want a light wash of black, just dilute the staining product. You can ebonize any wood that has a grain that you want to pop through the color.

Q. What is Sheffield Plate?

Bruce Crissy of Crissy Galleries responds: In the early 1800s Matthew Boulton developed a sort of metal sandwich in which he put a sheet of copper between two sheets of silver to make beautiful and useful objects. He called his invention Sheffield after the English town. This process predated the electroplating of silver, which gave us silver plate. Sheffield Plate is highly collectible, especially in England, where it's prized for its warm, soft patina. You could pay thousands for a signed Boulton, but a simple egg set of cups and holders from the period could be had for about $275. You clean Sheffield Plate the same as sterling or silver plate, but don't buff too aggressively or over time the silver veneer will wear away and the copper will shine through. Never replate Sheffield, as it ruins its value.

Q. I have a small, cave-like room in my old Florida house that is paneled with dark, vintage cypress on the ceiling and walls. Without ruining the beautiful wood, how can I brighten the room?

Gwendolyn Sears of Gwendolyn Sears Interior Designs answers:

The best way to retain the qualities of the wood is to wash the walls with a see-through light stain. The technique, called pickling, will lighten up the mood while allowing the grain of the cypress to show through and the room to retain the architectural feel of the wood.

Use light colors for the area rug, upholstery or art work. Lighting also can play a significant role in brightening the room. Depending on the condition of the house and roof, some sort of tubular skylights could be an option. The trick is to use soft lighting: Table lamps and soft lights like torchieres would be good. If the ceiling is high enough and the room is appropriate, you can use a chandelier with a dimmer.

Q: I want to redo my kitchen in a Country French manner. What are some essential items I need to have, and what colors should I choose for the hardware?

Ron Cook of Cook's Custom Cabinetry answers: You need warm, light tan woods, stone or granite countertops and tile backsplashes. Appliances should be built in-Subzero, ASKO, Wolf ranges-and should be stainless steel.

Cabinets should have warm crown moldings and other trims, such as newel posts, columns and fluting on the cabinetry. I like to use pewter hardware, and I also use a lot of mullioned and seaded glass [glass with tiny air bubbles trapped inside] doors on the cabinets to break up the projections. You don't want everything in one straight line. A good wood to use for the cabinets is a rich cherry with a warm glaze.

Most Country French kitchens have islands. Good color schemes to use are rich blues and greens. Other interesting visual features to consider including are tray dividers (if you plan to display dishes) and open shelves for cookbooks.

For lighting: no fluorescence! Use nice concealed halogen lighting. And if you have a bar, choose some beautiful French barstools to enhance the seating arrangement.

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