This is a primer on how to have beautiful window coverings - what to do and what not to do. Curtains add so much to a room that they should always be considered when designing a house. Curtains add romance, texture and softness. They can add either jolts of needed color or a calm quietness of neutrals. They bring coziness and warmth to a room or, they can, if you desire, add a casual, beachy breeziness. Many times curtains are chosen to add a certain sophistication, an air of pure elegance.
Sometimes they are band-aids: curtains and shades can hide a multitude of problems caused by windows that were poorly designed.
Curtains are tricky though – they need to be done right, executed perfectly, or it’s better not to bother with them at all. Nothing takes away more from a beautifully decorated room than cheaply constructed curtains – limp, skimpy, too short, too long, over embellished – you name it – it can be a disaster.
Many people don’t care for curtains at all – they call them dust collectors, outdated, an unnecessary expense, or something “my granny had.”
One of the harder parts of a designers job is talking clients into putting up curtains – the list of excuses can be endless: I have beautiful windows, I don’t want to cover them up, or I love my view – I don’t want to block it. Another popular excuse is: I don’t need curtains, I already have plantation shutters or (horrors) mini blinds.
For all the reasons not to get curtains, one can argue against each point – curtains do not need to block beautiful windows or views - they can frame them. They don’t need to look like your granny’s curtains, they can update the look. And as designers often have to argue - curtains can look beautiful layered against shutters or blinds. In the end, what curtains bring to a finished project is sometimes hard to elucidate. Oft times a designer can only say – “trust me, you will love them” – against strong skepticism.
With my own clients, I really never worry too much about the outcome, because it’s usually well received and clients are mostly surprised how much they do love their new window treatments.
After years of ordering curtains for clients, I have a formula (posted at the end of this story) that I usually follow and it works well for me. To illustrate which window coverings look great, I’ve collected pictures of curtains that I both like and don’t like, which shows the difference between the good and the not so good.
My absolute love of curtains came rather late in my life. I didn’t realize the importance of curtains in decorating or what a difference they truly made until I started designing houses for other people. Even in my own house, I lived without any curtains for years. When our long awaited curtains in the living and dining room were hung, my husband who is usually quite silent on matters of the house (except for ceiling fans, of course) remarked what a difference they made: “It’s so much cozier in here.” And I had to agree, it was – and much more - sophisticated too. I have no idea why I waited so long to finally hang my own curtains, after all, I had ordered dozens and dozens of panels for perfect strangers, why not for myself? But living without them for years and then finally getting to enjoy their beauty only made my resolve stronger to be more assertive and convincing when broaching the subject with clients. After all, I know too well the difference between having curtains and not having curtains – and I don’t want to go back to bare windows again.
CURTAIN PANELS – PLAIN FABRIC:
History: I consider New Orleans’ Gerrie Bremermann to be the Queen of Silk Panels, and one, whose designs helped started this trend of silk panels. Her own curtain formula was once printed in a magazine which I promptly confiscated for my own. Bremermann prefers to use three widths of fabric for each set (1 1/2 per panel) - a real luxury and more expensive to be sure. But three widths is so stunning, so full, so luscious – I would rather use more of a lesser quality of fabric than less of more expensive one. These taffeta silk panels above are so pretty! Billowy and with a trimmed leading edge, the curtains were oft copied by homeowners – and who could blame them? They are stunning and perfect for a living room, dining room or master bedroom. Gerrie’s curtains influenced a host of designers and persimmon silk is still a popular choice. Huge puddles on hems have since gone out of favor, now just a 1 - 2 inch puddle on silk panels looks more current.
Today, silk panels are a little less voluminous, with less puddle. These curtains shown are more up to date. The rod is barely seen, as the attention is meant to be wholly focused on the draping alone – not the hardware.
RULE: Always line, then interline silk, cotton and linen with either bump or blackout. Notice that the sunlight does not come through the silk – washing out the fabric’s color. I always line and interline my curtains, unless of course I am using a sheer, see-through fabric. I love silk curtains like these that are free flowing, without ironed in pleats, which is how I order mine.
These silk panels are pinch pleated at the top. You can do a double, triple pleat, goblet, pencil, or any other number of pleats – that is a personal choice. But, sometimes the more simple the pleat, the better. Also, here, a simple trim is placed on the leading edge and hem. To understand what curtains bring to a decor – imagine this room without these panels. Wouldn’t it be rather cold looking and seem like something was “missing” without these curtains?
A personal favorite – blush silk, wrinkled and luscious in Rachel Ashwell’s bedroom.
Curtains can be used for problem windows or rooms with design “issues.” For instance, how to cover these short French doors in a room with a tall ceiling? Should the curtains be hung over the windows only? Or, brought up to the molding, to draw the eye up and elongate the line?
Usually, the rule is to hang the rod as high as possible. Windsor Smith then added an arched molding to create a “faux” transom. Another alternative would have been to add a shade to cover this large expanse of sheetrock between the rod and the window, known as the dreaded “dead space.”
In this NYC apartment, Vicente Wolf chose to drape the windows – something that is often omitted in high rises. By using the wonderful light blue silk fabric, the apartment appears cozy and homey – not sleek and contemporary. The extra fabric was added to hide the fact that the wall only had one small window; the extra fabric gives the impression that there are actually more windows.
Extra tall windows? Take the rod as high as you can. This gorgeous house in New Orleans has a lacquered living room. The curtain fabric matches the columns in the room (not seen) and the quiet color helps tone down the wall color. If the fabric matched the walls, it would be much too bright.
NOTICE how the rod is placed a foot past the window which allows the panels to actually cover the wall, not the window, thus preserving all of the view and sunlight. Clients that insist they don’t want curtains because they will block the view need to be reassured the panels can be hung clearing the windows.
To be sure the view and window stay exposed – extend the rod 10 to 12 inches past the window frame. See how much more view is exposed on the right window?
Here are heavy linen curtains, lined and interlined, in a color that blends with the wall paint. Lining and interlining adds a weight to fabric that makes curtains drape so much better. Sometimes plain fabric is the right choice, like here. Just beautiful – and perfect!
Moving? In her own home Suzanne Kasler used taffeta and then added a deep taupe band at the bottom of the panels. This is a good technique when reusing curtains if they are too short – just add a coordinating fabric band to the hem to make them longer.
Fawn Gali's gorgeous chartreuse curtains are mixed with blue and accents of hot pink. The tall windows are fabulous - with curtains, they are highlighted even more.
Another very high ceiling in a room – the curtains are plain panels taken up to the top to elongate the line. The color of the wool panels matches the trim in the paneling. Exquisite.
Solid fabric doesn’t have to be boring - in a strong color the curtains can be exceptionally beautiful, like these.
This is beyond fabulous….except…don’t forget a window! The French door could have curtains just like the window – indeed there is already a rod! Just hang the curtains past the frame on the side of the doors and you should be fine. I can’t imagine how beautiful the reflection in the mirror from outside is!!
DON’T: Do not EVER accept curtains that are too short. You should NOT be able to see the sun coming between the floor and the panels. This usually can be adjusted during installation by lowering the pins or the rod. If not, they need to be returned to the workroom and corrected.
1. Touching – perfect for pleated panels, must be measured exactly!
2. Breaking – more casual, just barely laying on the floor.
3. Sweeping – the ‘newer’ puddle. Try a 2-3 inch hem for this effect.
4. Puddle – the most romantic puddle. Today’s puddle is 3-5 inches. As opposed to before when puddles would be up to 10” inches.
SWAGS AND JABOTS:
DON’T: Do you understand now why I like plain panels? Whoa. Less is definitely more. First I will say this – using swags and jabots should be left for very tall elegant windows, not rooms with 8’ tall ceilings. Second, the construction of swags and jabots is a very learned skill, not something for a beginner to try out. It takes a true craftsman to effectively work with all the folds and pleats. In this picture you can see how amateurish the final product is. If the designer had used only the brown silk panels alone, it would have been much better.
Classic: Much better – swags and jabots in a tall ceilinged room in Houston, done by the King of Swags and Jabots of this generation – Mario Buatta. Even still, only the dressiest and most elegant of rooms should get this treatment. And only the most talented of seamstresses should be used when executing this type of curtain.
A modified swag, shown in the most dressy of rooms. Very elegant and sophisticated.
A more trendy swags and jabot designed by Miles Redd, who is the King of Curtains. Lots of Kings and Queens!! For a more elaborate curtain treatment, consider something a bit more up to date like this!
TO PLEAT OR NOT TO PLEAT:
Panels with ironed in pleats is a more contemporary look. It requires extra fabric to make and it requires perfect execution. The hem must reach the floor with any breaking at all. Done right and in the right room, they are quite dramatic and beautiful. This room, with the vertical lines in the curtains, the buildings and the area rug – hard to imagine any other window treatment that would be as successful as these.
DON'T: I’m not sure why ironed in pleats were used here. These panels look immobile, like two columns made of concrete. The panels should be a bit looser so you can just barely make out the fabric’s pattern. Quite unattractive and I’m sure it cost a fortune. Now to be sure - this type of design is a personal preference. I think this type of design looks better with a solid fabric - where it becomes an accent color and in a contemporary designed room.
These pleats are a bit looser and, not quite as immobile as the ones above. Good in a classic room, not only a contemporary setting.
Trims are having a huge comeback. But instead of delicate lacy choices, more bold designs are used. Here, dressed up plain panels – Suzanne Kasler added a wide, plain trim on the leading edge. The trim picks up the color of the chairs.
In a dressy room – the owner makes it a bit more contemporary using an exaggerated tape that goes from the edge to the hem.
A very bold trim highlights these solid silk panels. Notice there is no pleat at the rod where the tape is – this allows the tape to be flat and visible.
Here, a contemporary graphic black and white tape is the perfect touch.
NOTE: Don’t forgo the small details! This one addition of the tape adds so much to the room. Again, no pleat at the tape keeps it flat and visible.
A graphic trim adds an important decorative element here. No pleat above the trim keeps it flat.
CAUTION: I do love this room, but have a few issues with the curtains. By adding a pleat above the tape, it is folded over and is not easily seen. Compare this tape to the ones above it. Do you see the difference this one pleat makes? Finally, always bring the textured shade up to the curtain rod!!! Why have the dead space above the shade show??!?!?!?
Arched windows are often problematic. Where to put the curtain rod – above or below the arch? Should you use an arched rod or a straight one? Usually, I like this treatment shown here – a rod above the arch with simple panels on either side, just like Jane Moore did.
When the ceiling is lower, it is even more important to bring the rod up over the arch to elongate the line.
Here is an exception. The ceiling is so very tall and there is such a thick piece of molding dividing the arch and panes that Suzanne Kasler was correct to hang the curtains lower.
CURTAINS MADE OF PRINTED FABRIC:
Using printed fabric is a bit more tricky than plain especially when so many yards are needed. Here, the curtains are more tailored and a bit contemporary and casual. Flanking the fireplace are two shades. All the white upholstery keeps the room more quiet instead of loud, something to be careful of when using a lot of printed fabric.
RULE: Pick your fabric focal point – either the curtains are patterned or the furniture.
Here a modern floral gives this room a trendy vibe. The rod is pulled up over the arch. The panels have very loosely ironed pleats which give the curtains movement instead of looking like concrete columns. Love the light and dark pinks!
Working with plaid can be tricky. I once used a large pattern like this but the fabric was defective, causing the lines to look wavy. Of course, the entire job had to be redone at a great personal expense.
Pattern fabric can become a design element as important as art work or upholstery. Here the iconic Dunham fabric plays off the blue and white.
Love these batik inspired curtains with a border that was expertly worked in to look like a trim on the leading edge and the hem. Remember – it’s very important to hire someone who knows how to properly construct your curtains.
NOTICE: The pleats are loosely ironed in, not so tight that you can’t appreciate the pattern.
CURTAIN PANELS PAIRED WITH TEXTURED BLINDS:
These windows are exactly the same size, by raising the rod and placing the textured blind in the “dead space” between the crown molding and the top of the window – the ceiling will look higher and the window will look larger and more impressive. The difference is amazing between these two images.
First, what NOT to do:
DON’T: Let’s use this window as an example of what not to do. The designer should have used a bronze rod for less contrast. The rod should have been placed at the ceiling. There should be just one blind – not two. The blind should be outside mounted, placed right under the rod – for a more cohesive, smoother look. The way this treatment is installed – you have the contrast of the trim color vs the wall color fighting with each other. One outside mounted shade placed at the ceiling line would give a much better line, would draw the eye up higher and make the ceiling appear higher, and this would have been so much prettier and simpler.
I love to use blinds, especially textured ones, mixed with drapery panels. It’s a classic look that has been around for a long time. Mixing in the blinds add a texture to the room that is visually pleasing and even necessary. The shades can be ornamental or functional and they are often used to fool the eye into correcting odd window shapes.
Here one long rod, placed high, is mixed with one long shade. The panels hang between the windows. Together, there is a cohesive look and you hardly notice how short the two side windows actually are. Nor do you notice how low the ceiling is.
Here, in a trendy bedroom, all white and black, the shades add a much need texture for contrast to all the soft white. Perfectly executed – the shades are hung on an outside mount which allows the shades and curtains to meet without any sheetrock, or the dead space, showing.
Here, perfectly done – panels hung from the ceiling with tortoise shell blinds, along with panels between the windows. At the short, side windows – matching fabric shades.
NOTE: Here, on a long window, a shade is paired with curtains that match the walls, pleated in a more contemporary style. The textured trim adds a great deal in interest (notice no pleat above the trim so it lays flat.) BUT – to me, the trim just brings attention to the unattractive window frames. If this was me, I would have used four patterned panels, and no trim in order to hide the window frames. Still, it’s a hard decision because this does look so good! This is when you are never right or wrong as a designer – and so you never happy with your final decision!
CONUNDRUMS: This is always a tough decision. Do you want the look of the blinds or the arched window? If the window is custom, a beautiful wood Palladian styled arch, I would leave the blind off and let the arch shine. If it is a cheap metal, builders window with a faux arch, I would probably cover it with the shade. Could the shade be placed between the arch and the window? With the ceiling so low here, I wouldn’t advise that here.
DON’T: Here is a builder’s grade, cheaply made arched window. What to do??? Certainly not this! You could make this window look beautiful, with a few fool-the eye tricks. There is just way too much going on in this window. Too many different window sizes, too many little shades, and the curtains are just a tad too short – this should have been fixed during the installation – the drapery pins could have been moved up just a bit. What this needs is one long shade placed right under the rod to hide the arch. The shade would be much prettier than this arch. Then I would add two more panels, making all of them just a bit wider, lined and interlined for weight (the heavier the curtain, the prettier the drape!)
ONE MORE WORD: An open question to mass builders of Mac Mansions: Why do you install lots of little windows like these? What’s with the arched windows everywhere? I understand Palladian windows, but these sir, are not Palladian windows. Why bother pretending they are? Wouldn’t just a taller French door have been so much prettier than the short door and the Palladian window? Just a question.
NOTICE: These shades were mounted inside the frame (inside mount) probably because they are doors instead of windows. You don’t get as clean a line with an inside mount – all the sheetrock and molding shows. You can actually do an outside mount with French doors depending on the swing. If the door swings out, do an outside mount. If the door swings in – you can still do an outside mount but the shade has to be pulled up high for clearance. Plus – at such a wide expanse, extra panels should be added between the windows.
DON’T: Beautiful curtains are just ruined by these two skimpy looking blinds. Only one blind should have been used here with an outside mount, placed up high under the rod in order to hide the Dead Space, that dreaded area between the rod and the window.
DON’T: This is terrible! If you need blackout shades – buy the tortoise shades with the blackout lining. This makes no sense to have two separate shades!!
DON’T: This could be so much better. Remember, bring the blinds up the crown molding, or as high as possible in order to hide the dreaded Dead Space!!! Do an outside mount so that the shades meet each other and cover the window trim. A more subtle rod would look better, this is too much contrast. And finally, I would add panels between each window.
DON’T: This is almost perfection. But – if the designer had added textured or fabric blinds to hide the ‘dead space’ – it would have been perfect. Agree? The ‘dead space’ just glares out at you, saying “where are my blinds?”
Instead of shades to hide the dead space – plates were hung instead, what a cute idea!!! How gorgeous is this by Marshall Watson????
Finally, sometimes, textured blinds are beautiful alone, without curtains! Love the contrast here between the black walls and the shades.
Suzanne Rheinstein handled this bay window perfectly. Panels are between each window and they are pulled up to the ceiling. Such a pretty room!
NOTE: Since there is no window seat, I would have placed panels between each window. By doing so, there would not have been such a wide white space stuck in the middle of a gold room.
Another bay window done correctly with panels between each window. The panels are almost too short, just almost. Be sure you hire an excellent fabricator and installer to avoid too short or too long curtains.
NOTE: When you have various window heights – try to have all the curtain rods at the same height, if possible. For instance, you could raise the rod and shade at the middle window, but it looks better to have them all at the same height.
DON’T – this started out so perfectly! The curtains with the blue trim pairs perfectly with the shades. There are enough panels so that the area between each window is covered. So what’s wrong? No rod! By not having a rod, you know the panels are just decorative and not operative. It looks phony and cheap. The designer probably believed she couldn’t find one rod that would bend around the curved wall of the bump out - but this is incorrect. Rods can be attached with connectors – making them bend – or even be very, very long. I can’t tell you how emails I get from people who have been told by their designer that their window is too long for a rod!!!
Instead of textured blinds, fabric blinds are used in this family room. A bit more dressy and sophisticated – this is a beautiful look. The thin trim adds a nice detail.
Here curtains are paired with fabric shades – instead of textured blinds. This is a more sophisticated and dressier look. Also, with pastels, it can be a very quiet and soothing look – great for bedrooms.
These curtains match the canopy. And the white shades are the right choice – more cohesive.
With so many windows in different sizes, these fabric shades are a unifying design element. Love the simple trim that accents the color scheme and the bedding.
By contrast, there is a LOT going on in this room. Fixed shades are paired with textured blinds for light control. Too much? Between the cornice with the trim, the shades, the canopy with a DIFFERENT trim, and the backing fabric –it’s just hard to get a grasp on the design. Less is best as seen in the bedroom before this one.
J. Randall Powers used a silk shade in what is probably the most gorgeous bathroom ever. NOTICE: Powers used a lining and interlining on the shade to prevent the sun from coming through the fabric and making it look skimpy and cheap. The floor!
By comparison, this silk shade in a bathroom looks skimpy and cheap without the lining. The sun pours through showing the window and the wall above it. Use a lining and blackout lining on shades, just like curtains. I even use these blackout linings on skirted tables and dust ruffles.
NOTE: This is pretty, but doesn’t it look a little boring? The long expanse of fabric shades becomes a focal point. The better solution? Place panels made of the pillow fabric between the shades and at the ends. That would look spectacular!
DON’T - Do not mix short shades with short shades. It would have been better to use panels and shades in the bay window area, than two short shades. And next to the bed, an outside mount would have been a cleaner and smoother looker.
DON’T: These inside mount fabric shades just ruin the room. All that “dead space” above the shades becomes the focal point, as opposed to the beautiful fabric shades. What a shame! The designer should have, what? All together now: brought the shade up to the curtain rod and done an outside mount! AND? The shades should have been lined to keep the sun from shining through the pattern of the fabric.
CORNICES AND VALANCES:
Like textured blinds, cornices can hide a myriad of problem windows. Here, J. Randall Powers hides the dead space with a soft cornice in the same fabric that wraps the walls – thus creating a cohesive, seamless look.
Penny Morrison used flouncy gathered valance to hide the dead space above her windows. The linen matches the inside of her canopy.
For an updated, chic look, Miles Redd (of course) chose an Chinoiserie style cornice board.
Another updated valance – here with scalloped edges. Notice the curtain is necessarily plain against the busy, printed wallpaper.
A ruffled valance in the same pattern as the wallpaper blends instead of accents. Notice Mario Buatta lined the blue and white canopy in a deep lilac.
Here, a tailored valance, again in matching fabric with the wallpaper, gives the room a seamless look.
Miles Redd used a shaped cornice board outlined in blue in this Farrow and Ball wallpaper bedroom. The antique clock and bench are so beautiful.
Penny Morrison used this valance, gathered, to hide the dead space above this alcove window. Notice the height of the valance which in turn fools the eye into thinking the room is even taller than it is. I absolutely love this library – and the house!!!!
Gilt cornices which are really antique window hardware are used here with silk panels held back with Italian stringing. More than gorgeous!
Sally Wheat used simple linen sheers at her windows. For contemporary decor, these are a perfect solution when you want privacy from the street lookie-lous (like me,) but don’t want a fancy window treatment. Love this room!!!
Sheers are often associated with summer houses on the beach, such as this one. They are perfect for letting the view peep through, but not the bright white sun.
Instead of shades, sheers are sophisticated choice to block the glare.
It’s very English to hang portieres in entrance halls and between rooms.
These are gorgeous.
Isabel Adjani’s 70s apartment in Paris by Jacques Granges. Portieres at each doorway. To die for! Classic design never goes out of style. Carpet chairs from Madeleine Castaing.
Instead of doors, use portieres or curtains.
These sheer portieres divide a bedroom into two areas.
Velvet and Linen used linen portieres instead of closet and bathroom doors.
Portieres divide this bunk room into privacy nooks.
Cote de Texas Curtain Formula:
My family room with a row of French doors along the back of the house – the textured blinds hide the dead space and panels are placed between each door.
Below is the formula for curtains I use the most with silk, linen and cotton fabrics. If you take this to your fabricator and she follows it exactly, you should have a set of curtains you will be proud of and love!
1. If the curtains are to be functional (completely cover the window when curtains are closed) the fabricator will measure precisely. If you are hanging panels that will be mostly stationary, use either 1 1/2 to 2 widths of fabric per panel depending on the size of the window. Always err on the wider amount.
I always try to avoid using just one width of fabric which looks skimpy and cheap. Of course, it calls for more fabric to use a wider width, but it’s better to use an inexpensive linen than to skimp on an expensive silk!
To guesstimate fabric amount: Double width on a 10’ high ceiling is approximately 12 yards of fabric, 1 1 1/2 width is about 9 yards.
2. Have the fabricator add wide hems on the leading edges and at the bottom. This way, the lining on the side will be sure not to show.
3. Be sure to order NO IRONED pleats with silk panels!!! Very important – or else you will end up with two stone concrete columns of fabric. I don’t iron in pleats in linen either, preferring a more casual look. As for pleats at the top, the simpler the better and cheaper. I usually do a French pleat. Here are some common ones:.
4. Always use lining and interlining unless you are using a sheer. I use either bump or blackout linings. The interlining creates a heavy weight which makes the curtains drape better and the sun doesn’t shine through blackout lining – especially important when using silk and see through fabrics.
Tip: I also ALWAYS use blackout lining when making skirted tables and bedskirts for the same reasons: weight, draping, and sun rays coming through. I like to see the fabric, I don’t like to see through the fabric!
5. Measure the curtains from the top molding or ceiling to elongate the line.
6. If adding blinds – use outside mount and place the blinds right under the rod to hide the dead space.
7. You don’t need to splurge on expensive rods – the thinner the better is fine in most cases. If you don’t like finials get a rod that attaches directly to the wall.
8. Go easy on the embellishments: the more contemporary the design, the more fanciful trim can be used. Be sure not the add a pleat above the trim on the leading edge or else it won’t lay flat.
9. Don’t make your drapes too short. If you want them just “kissing” the floor, be sure you have a great workroom , measurer, and installer, this is very difficult to get exactly right. I usually order a 1 to 1 1/2” puddle which allows me to grab the hem, step back, and let the curtain fall gracefully in place. And it doesn’t have to be exact with a small puddle. You might prefer just a slight ‘break” in your hem. Be sure to discuss the proper length with the measurer so there are no surprises. It’s always easier to fix a too long hem - a too short hem can be a disaster!