America the Beautiful

Like this glorious country, American decorating style offers something unique and wonderful in each region.

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Just as the terrain unfolds from one region to the next, home decorating styles do, too. They're parceled out as distinct regional looks. From East to West, South to Midwest, American homes are as varied as the land that inspires them.

With a few definitive design traits to map the way, each look can be re-created. No matter where you live under the spacious skies, let the following rooms be your guide.

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Steeped in tradition, the Eastern Seaboard style includes furnishings with a proper British attitude and accessories that bring home the briny flavor of the sea. And, though grounded in history, the nautical New England look isn't purist-fussy. It's easy to achieve and invites taking liberties. A little Yankee know-how substitutes for precious antiques or a museum curator.

  • It's not in the history books, but our playful rope stencil with sailors' knots conjures up old Nantucket or Boston just the same - and instantly ages a new room. See how-to instructions and pattern below.
  • Nautical accents -- lighthouses and ship models -- sound the sea indoors. To avoid cliche, add suggestions of seagoing trade; a song de boeuf ginger jar and fruit bowl, an Oriental rug, and, on the desk, an Oriental cinnabar and French lamp.
  • Elements of chinoiserie and nautical style are anchored by traditional British-style furnishings. Reestablish ties to 18th-century England with reproduction Queen Anne wing and Windsor chairs and a delicate Chinese Chippendale sofa, as well as formal, swagged drapes.
  • The Colonists used natural pigments to color their rooms, so the shades were rich and strong. Give your rooms the same gusto.


Tie flat upper walls to their character-laden, paneled counterparts by stenciling a border, right, around each major segment of the room. Squaring off each section highlights the architecture and even adds a second frame to the artwork.

Print out this page, then enlarge the pattern so that one square equals approximately 1 inch. Trace the design onto stencil material such as vellum or Mylar (available at art and crafts stores) with a thin-lined permanent marker. Tape the stencil to glass and cut out the design using a sharp crafts knife.

Position the stencil on the wall, making sure it is level. The triangular center piece should fall at the center of your stenciled line and the loops should be at the corners. Hold the stencil to the wall with painters' tape or spray stencil adhesive (available at crafts stores). Do not use masking tape or spray glue; they may leave a gummy residue on the wall.

To get uneven ropelike texture, use a natural sea sponge, right, a lint-free cloth (such as an old T-shirt), or cheesecloth instead of a brush. Dampen the sponge or cloth, then wring it dry. Lightly dip it into acrylic paint. Blot onto a paper plate to remove most of the paint. Lightly tamp the sponge or cloth over the stencil, above, reloading with paint as needed. When one section is done, lift the stencil from the wall and position it over the next area. At the corners, work in from both sides until you are close to but not into the corner. Stencil the corner motif. Fill in the remaining area, making slight adjustments in spacing if needed.

It wasn't all glitz in the Old South. The style that sticks has plantation prettiness, but less opulence. Refined furnishings and fabrics are mellowed by the rustic woods of smaller, more humble quarters -- homes found in the Appalachian foothills rather than mansions among the cotton fields.

  • Rooms, like people, delight in surprises. Set elegant furnishings against rustic architecture by installing a simple wainscot of horizontal pine planks tinted pale pink. See how-to instructions below.
  • Southerners surround themselves with flowers on textiles, plates, framed prints, and wallpaper, as well as in vases. A hooked rug gives the setting a much softer accent than an Oriental rug would.
  • An essential furnishing for this style, the cane-back plantation rocker recalls lazy hours weathering the heat, mint julep in hand. This shapely wood chair joins an exposed-frame sofa and the "planter's wife" desk to give the airy room some structure.
  • Pastels set the summery, mild-mannered mood that signals Southern style. A crisp stripe joins in, lightening up the formal, Federal-style sofa.
  • A pennant-hemmed valance adds shape to simple curtain panels for a finished but not overdressed look.


Our Southern Belle parlor wears its horizontal stripes well. Run pine planking around a room horizontally to add rough-around-the-edges personality to your plain spaces. Nail 1x8 tongue-and-groove planks to the wall, then cap them with a wide baseboard at the bottom and a 1x2 at the top. For the color wash, dilute one part latex paint with two parts water (use a couple shades darker paint than the wall color) and brush it onto the wood, letting the grain show through. Seal the paneling with matte polyurethane.

Grant Wood's American Gothic painting serves as a caricature of the Midwest's no-nonsense work ethic. Yet the stereotype points to an essential truth that still can be detected in the region's decorating style: fresh-faced Victorian, in which even the Sunday parlor puts its best foot forward -- but always with a firm hold on practicality.

  • Add the sweet charm of Victorian gingerbread to a bland room with a wall-to-wall decorative plate rail that's also a space-efficient display area for usable objects. See how-to instructions below.
  • The Scandinavian roots of the first Midwestern settlers remain fixed in a fondness for spirit-lifting colors: creamy pale walls, white-painted woods, light fabrics, and the ever-happy blue-white-and-yellow palette.
  • Even in the best room of the house, functional furnishings hold their own -- a pie safe and stove replace finer highboys and carved-mantel fireplaces with their own modest brand of curvy character.
  • Capture a turn-of-the-century mood with a Gothic-style table and whimsical rolled-arm and bun-feet sofa. The familiar turned forms and everyday wood finishes declare cozy charm without pretense.

Gingerbread Trim

Pipe a room with gingerbread trim for farmhouse charm in even the most city-bound spaces. Let the trim top beadboard paneling (now available in easy-to-use kits at lumber stores) for an extra dose of sweetness. Use a paint can or plate to draw the scalloped edge on a piece of 1x3 pine, leaving an inch that's solid at the top. Drill a 3/4-inch hole through each scallop. Set the trim from the wall with a 3/4-inch block, then top it with a 4-inch shelf.

Pine forests and the brilliant hues of the earth itself strike a distinctive note in Western home styles. Native American and Spanish Colonial design influences chime in, too. The result is a style that's textural, rich, and rhythmic -- and ever aware of the outdoors. In its most lasting interpretation, the look is achieved without a single boot or bandanna-clad coyote.

  • Using dark wood trim plus terra-cotta and ceramic tiles grounds this room in the Spanish Colonial era and gives the look the integrity of natural materials. Inject wrought-iron accents and occasional pieces to enhance the handy textual interest.
  • An adobe fireplace traces back to Native American building styles, which influenced the later Spanish Colonial approach.
  • A color wash on the walls echoes the earth outside to add depth and visual interest inside. To reproduce the textured look even in a drywall room, see how-to instructions below.
  • Anchored in the vibrant hues of the western horizon, Navajo-style textiles mix easily with earthy leather. The textiles' strong geometric patterns are balanced by wood furniture with equally strong lines.

Texture and Color Wash

Extra texture and a wash of color add Western spirit to any room, anywhere. Dab on the texture with joint compound and a trowel. For the color wash, dilute latex paint with an equal amount of water. Dip a lint-free rag in the paint, wring it almost dry, then scrub the wall with the rag, letting some base coat show. Add depth by repeating the process with related colors.

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