The lost of art molding. . . 3 things to avoid.

Brian Campbell had a nice comment on my last post about clamshell moldings. He pointed out that there are applications where a clamshell molding makes perfect sense. I agree, because in a minimalistic-modern house the clamshell casing contributes to the narrative and story of the home.

He also pointed out that there are many examples of “traditional” moldings that are equally bad. His comments reminded me of a talk I gave a few years ago on classical interiors. I used that talk to highlight some current bad habits in millwork and I think it is appropriate to share those now. Here are 3 things to avoid when putting up moldings.

1. Don’t put your wainscot too high: This is the most often abused and yet easiest mistake to fix when molding a house; DON’T install the chair rail at or above 36″. This is a great misconception shared by some designers and carpenters and if you want to read about this rule, I wrote an article for THISisCarpentry, and you can read it here. I believe the chair rail/wainscot is THE most important molding in a room. This molding does a better job of providing pleasing scale and it is a great room-unifier.

horner-millwork-0051In this example, the wainscot is around 38″ tall and nearly divides the wall in half, ugh! I would lower it 8″-10″, and I typically tell clients and craftsmen to start at 28-32″ in rooms with 8-10′ ceilings.

Unfortunately, this room is not improved by the crown or casing as they are a little over-the-top. ( see rule #2 below). Also, I think the door is ugly. (go ahead, ask me how I really feel)




1By contrast, I think this wainscot shows  the power of the wainscot to unify the interior and improve the scale. The wainscot (painted black on top) unifies the rooms as it intersects and runs through column-pedestals and tops the chair rail or wainscot. The scale is improved because the cap is 28″ tall feels great with 9′ ceilings.


#2 Be careful of using too many moldings and too much decoration. As I work to fix McMansions for various clients around the country, I find the easiest general fix is simply to strip away the excess. Often there are too many materials, competing focal points, and general built-up-molding abuse. The solution? Strip away the excess and simplify.

horner-millwork-0047This is an example of seeking to impress with more. At first glance this room, filled with paneling and moldings, is striking. However, a closer look reveals many flaws. Besides an obvious violation of rule #1, (wainscot too tall) the moldings don’t unify the interior.  Note how the pedestal cap and column size on the left are so different from the column and pedestal by the door. They are only 6 feet apart, they should work together instead of competing.





I recently visited with a client whose kitchen has the moldings on the left. Many crown moldings off the shelf today have way too many bumps and bubbles that make the molding very hard to read. There are a lot of lines in this cornice and it is thus very hard to tell what the moldings actually look like. By contrast, look at this historic moldings at Winterthur on the right. This cornice is simple, bold and direct. It is easy to see what is happening and to read the size and scale. With less moldings and more prominent shapes the moldings actually work better.


Molding fixMy fix for this excessive built up crown is to SIMPLIFY. The sketch at the left shows how these different approaches play out. Frankly,  it was hard for me to even copy the original molding onto paper because I couldn’t read what was happening, even close-up.  The fix is fewer moldings that are bolder in their profile. These strong bold shapes are easier to read. They in turn make the kitchen-space more relatable; less confusion, more harmony, a better space.


3. Stop rehashing cheap Victorian moldings:

We need to stop trying to emulate the Victorian era.  These moldings in my opinion are just as bad as clam shell moldings. They are cheap copies of an historic style, the don’t help establish scale and are used abused by builders who want to show off their millwork but don’t know how.

horner-millwork-0056This picture highlights a violation of all three rules; wainscot is too high, too many moldings and the Victorian rosette is used unabashedly.

The solution is a lower wainscot, and simpler crown. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but I’m guessing this is a 8′ ceiling with 6’8 doors. It is very hard to put so many moldings in a room with such short ceilings. Less is more; at least it would be in this room.



I don’t want to come across as the molding tyrant but there are rules for building. There are guidelines and building traditions that have been forgotten. We have lost the art of building. Our ignorance shows itself most clearly in how we apply moldings. We can build more beautiful homes, we just need to break some bad habits.

Let me know if you have comments. Thanks,
















The Personality of moldings- why clamshell moldings suck.

Hello, my name is Brent Hull, and I’m a molding geek… I admit it and confess that I think moldings are beautiful. I believe they speak to us and demonstrate characteristics that communicate personality, charm, sophistication and grace. Moldings, like other key ingredients in a Timeless House communicate a story.  Aligning moldings with the story of your home is a key to success.

molding languageThe moldings to the left tell are an example. They communicate not only their stylings but also their age and origin. They are all door casings (or architraves for you classicist) and thus are strong supporting moldings.

The top molding is Georgian, it is from a house built in 1776. The middle moldings is Federal, and dates from 1806. The bottom molding is French and dates from the middle of the 18th century.

These are all distinctive. They reflect light differently and thus influence the personality of the room in unique ways.


before and afterThe importance of moldings is demonstrated in this picture above. The same room, the same cased-opening, at the same height, yet this space is transformed by the presence and power of moldings. The only that that has changed are the moldings yet the space is more impactful and beautiful than before.

A comparison of moldingsThe reason moldings have the power to change a space can be seen in this  comparison of 2 classical moldings to a modern molding.

Moldings work and communicate by the way they reflect light. The bolder shapes and projections cast heavier and darker lines. Small shapes and thin beads like on the Federal molding casts softer lines and are more subtle shadows.  What shadows does the clam shell molding, (popular in the 50′s and 60′s), cast? No shadows. The soft plan line is designed to go away, to disappear. It is the reason the moldings in the before and after picture above is transformed so dramatically when good moldings are introduced.

Moldings are important and communicate a strong narrative. Don’t gloss over this decision. It is character defining and crucial to the story of your home.








The Omnivore’s Dilemma: 3 challenges of the industrialized life.

untitledI’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma a wonderful book on the industrialization of the food industry over the last 100 years. It is clear the food industry faces challenges that are eerily similar to those of our current housing market. For housing, it is plagued by McMansions, sprawl, and poor quality; in the food industry, it struggles with large portions,  obesity, and fast food.

The best example of the success (and failure) of modern food production is the Twinkie. The hostess wonder and star of many movies (including Woody Harrelson’s elusive treasure in Zombieland), the Twinkie has a similar background to our houses because it was originally made from real ingredients but has devolved into a plastic copy.

twinkiesThe Twinkie, according to Wikipedia, was once “real”, in that it was made from flour, eggs, sugar, and even real bananas for its filling. Although not completely changed (in that there is still flour and eggs as part of the recipe) today the Twinkie is filled with more additive then honest ingredients. Many of the original ingredients have been replaced by scientific equivalents to improve its shelf life and keep its price down. Our industrialized culture has changed the Twinkie as well as our homes.  It’s no wonder we have cookie-cutter homes the come from the same mold.

Below are just 3 of many similar challenges that we must resist if we hope to build Timeless Houses.

1. Speed:

Author Michael Pollan seeks to track the path of corn, from where it’s grown in Iowa all the way to the products on our pantry shelves. He discovers that much of our corn is feed to cows because corn fattens the cows faster than any other grain. In fact the speed at which we fatten cows has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. In the 1920′s it would take 4-6 years before a cow was sent to a slaughter-house. Today it is 14-16 months.

Speed also influences and overwhelms the homebuilding industry. From the builders who seek to “turn-their-inventory” as fast as possible to the trees that are grown on massive plantations around the world. Compare old growth lumber: its stability, longevity and beauty to new lumber which is not stable, rots quickly and is filled with knots. Although speed may improve the bottom-line, there are costs that we need to consider. Our houses are built faster but they don’t last longer. . .

2: Quantity over Quality:

Pollan also points out that the anonymity of today’s farms and growers stands in contrast to old farms that proudly printed their name and label on burlap sacks or crates. When all that is advertised from the grocery store is, “Tomatoes $1.09/lb”. It sends a clear signal to the farmer that price is all that matters.

Builders today, are also harried by the price tag and naturally race to build as much home as possible for the least amount of money. When I talk to many builders about the ideas in this book, they tell me that all customers care about is price. We are sacrificing quality when we cram in extra square footage. We need to realize the message we are giving the industry when we chase price.


Another resounding insight in his book, (and there are more than I’m listing here)  is that the typical farmer today in Iowa grows either corn or soy beans. In the early 20th century a typical farm in Iowa grew many different plants (oats, hay, wheat), raised animals and was more self-sufficient. The farm in the early 1900′s could support itself, as well as provide for other Americans. Today these farmers are no longer self-sufficient.

The clear similarity is with today’s builders who don’t know how to build. They know how to manage the project, schedule and budget but as far as putting hammer to nail, they are ignorant. Most builders don’t know a framing square from four-square. The irony of a builder who can’t build is pretty crazy. The bottom-line is that we are certainly not as self-reliant as we once were.

Michael Pollan points out that with food, “You are what you eat”. I would add that with our homes, we are what we build. The homes we build reveal a lot about who we are. There is a clear narrative that needs careful consideration. If we don’t watch out, this industrialized world will run us over.