In my tenure as host and lead designer for HGTV's Design on a Dime, I had to be as resourceful and creative as possible. I would have to disperse $1,000 between six projects and two design coordinators and save a little money for accessories and miscellaneous "oops" incidents that would inevitably occur during the makeover process. That meant getting the biggest bang out of the biggest surfaces in the room—the wall.
Aside from paint being the least expensive way to make a dramatic impact in a makeover, the occasional "focal wall" is another popular option...but I was always drawn to the lower wall. This is typically referred to as "wainscoting," a type of application used for centuries in more traditional and country-style designs. It uses beadboard framed by a baseboard on the bottom and a chair rail at the top. Its main purpose is to protect the lower portion of the wall from chairs and objects that might smash into it from everyday wear and tear.
This portion of the wall, usually at about 36 to 42 inches up from the ground, is open territory for fun and function. The lower wall treatment, as I call it, is always an enticing and economical opportunity to introduce unique design elements into any room or theme.
Here's just a few my favorite lower wall treatments I've used throughout the years.
Island Flair (The Bamboo Lower Wall): Take bamboo reed fencing and cut it down to size using a hand saw. (Tip: Use duct tape on both sides of the fence right below the area you're cutting. This will hold the fence from sliding/moving while you cut.) Tack the fencing to the wall using "U" tacks (like the cable guy) and mount it in place. For a creative chair rail, carefully run a 4-inch thick/round bamboo rod through a table saw, splitting it in half. Then screw them in place.
Tea Anyone? (The Colonial Funk): This look consists of simple trim molding painted glossy white and contrasted against a deep raspberry-red wall. The 1-inch trim molding was used to make picture frame boxes that was embellished with a decorative appliqué in the center and placed every few feet across the wall. A traditional MDF beveled chair rail also painted in the gloss white adds a regal flair.
Euro-Vibe (The Textured Lower Wall): Perfect for a European- or Spanish-themed room, this look can be created using two coats of a texturing medium (I sometimes use plaster). Tint the first coat in an amber color loosely applied with a trowel. Tint the second coat of plaster a hint of sienna coloring to add some depth and interest. Apply it in a grittier fashion to appear worn. To create a unique and natural chair rail, stain some knotty finished pine (which is typically the cheapest form of pine) in a dark tone, and nail it into place. For a more detailed look, try using large-head iron nails on the chair rail for an old-world feel and embellishment.
Chic Style (The Wallpapered Lower Wall): Using wallpaper is one of the easiest ways to create a lower wall treatment with big style and lots of options. Find a style of paper that fits your design theme and go for it! Use standard wallpaper application process and be sure to overlap your chair rail slightly over the edge of the wallpaper. (Tip: If your walls are white, try using a black-and-white Damask-style paper for your lower wall and paint your chair rail and base boards gloss black for a cool boutique-style room.)
A Touch of Tile: Tiles aren't just for bathrooms! Find some bargain tile that fits your style and only use it as an accent point, either in the center of a square or even as a chair rail.
Mexican Masterpiece: Try some decorative wrought-iron wall art or gates found at your local salvage shops or even at a fence store. You will be surprised how cheap and stylish it can be. Paint the lower wall and mount the decorative iron pieces over it consistently across the wall. As a chair rail for this style, I would stick with a stained pine or even Mexican tile.
Country Eco-Chic: Use reclaimed barn lumber that still has chipped-away paint peeking through. This look adds a well-aged and character-filled affect to any room. Try planking side by side or get creative by cutting the ends on a 45-degree angle to create a herringbone effect.
If those don't do it for you, here are a few other lower wall ideas I've used:
Fashion Forward: Decoupage fashion magazines and create a mirrored chair rail.
Ultra Modern: Use frosted Plexiglas and a metallic chair rail.
Classic Library Wood: Try stained pieces of luan (thin sheet of wood) and simple, clear pine strips stained to the same color. Make boxes every few feet.
If you want to try any of these lower wall ideas but are afraid of damaging your walls, then mount your treatments on to a thin sheet of luan or MDF panels, and then mount those panels to the wall using screws.