Five steps to add pizzazz, brighten up shop windows

Here’s the problem with being an interior design columnist who talks to a lot of creative people who have good taste and great ideas: once you know what’s possible, you can’t ignore it.

Such was the case with my kitchen hutch, a plain French pine workhorse with open shelving above and ample storage below. We lived together without complaining for 15 years.

That’s until a few months ago when, while interviewing Dallas interior designer John Phifer Marrs for this column about his new book, “Interiors for Collectors” (Gibbs Smith, September 2021), he usually mentioned that open shelves or cabinets you can see look much nicer and show off their contents much better when well lit and have brightly painted interiors. The many photos in the book amplified the message.

To my newly educated eyes, my humble hutch was no longer OK as she was. However, when I thought about how to light and paint the shelves, I froze. If I put a light on the upper ceiling of the upper section, it wouldn’t shine through the wooden shelves below. The lower sections would still be dark. The lights in each bay seemed excessive, and replacing the wooden shelves with glass shelves wouldn’t match the rustic style of the hutch. And the cords then? And what color should I paint the background?

This pine hutch was long in function, but short in form. She did her job, but not brilliantly. (Courtesy of Marni Jameson)
And so, like so many great creative ideas that die on the road between Vision Street and Execution Avenue, my inspiration almost stopped there.

Until last week. An electrician was at home working outside. I showed her the hutch and asked her what it would take to light the shelves up and down.

“Oh, easy,” he said. (Look at the word “right.”) “Just run the LED light strips vertically inside the front door frames. Then you simply drill small holes in the shelves to run the light strip through. Then you just put a transformer on the top of the cabinet and run a cord out the back.”

At that point, my consolidated years of frustrated home improvements, fussing with hardware stores, husbands, and handymen, it all came to bear, and I said, “Look, if I’m working with you, you go to the lighting store once and you buy all the right thing the first time. And there’s no curse or hammer blow.”

Photo LED light strips are an inexpensive option for lighting up a cabinet or hutch. (Courtesy of Marni Jameson)
We agreed on a price and he got to work. Two hours later, the shelves were delightfully illuminated.

Next comes the challenge of choosing a paint color. I narrowed the choice down to three, shades of blue, green and orange, all colors found in curtains nearby and throughout the house. I asked anyone who wanted to listen to their opinion. I have a three-way tie.

So I texted Marrs, who was happy to hear he had inspired me. I sent him pictures. Within seconds, he replied, “I’m voting orange. It’s in the fabric and would go well with the dishes. It’ll look nice with the yellow walls and crisp white trim. What a happy room!”

“And about to get even happier!” I replied by text. Next, I gathered my painting supplies and painted the back wall of the Sherwin Williams Quite Coral hutch. I replaced the crockery and glassware, removing stray pieces that weren’t part of a cohesive whole, and staging the shelves with more intention.

If you have visible shelving in your home or a hutch that needs sprucing up, here are five steps to take a basic backdrop from ordinary to extraordinary.

◼️ Define it. Viewable screens should feature edited and curated content, Marrs said. Whether you’re displaying books, pottery, tableware or crystal, choose a focus, then stage accordingly.

◼️ Turn it on. “Good lighting makes everything more dramatic,” Marrs said. Until the new evolution of LED strip lighting, the most common way to illuminate a cabinet was to put a light in the top bay and install glass shelves so the light was visible throughout. Retrofitting unlit cabinets was expensive. But today’s LED lights come in spools like film reels and unwind in half-inch ribbons. The strips have rows of small lights so they are easy to hide and install.

◼️ Paint it. Dropping a dramatic color on the wall behind a collection is a simple way to make a huge impact, Marrs said. When choosing the background color, consider the decor of the room as well as the color of the elements you want to highlight.

◼️ Control it. When buying LED lamps, make sure they are dimmable. If you can control the light, you can control the mood. Install a dimmer as well as a timer to control when lights turn on and off.

◼️ Stage it. When displaying content on shelves, be intentional about what you place and where. I removed fringed glassware, hung (rather than propped up) decorative plates, and grouped similar items together. If you can see it, make it pretty.

Marni Jameson is the author of six books on home and lifestyle, including “What to do with everything you own to leave the legacy you want”.

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