Mirrors Do Lie

Reflections on Reflections

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Realtor Phyllis Jane Young illustrates the power of mirrors to enhance a home.

There are eleven mirrors in my dining room, I didn’t realize this until a few minutes ago, when I counted.

My dining room is typical for a Capitol Hill row house, about twelve by twenty feet (though having a formal dining room at all has become something of a rarity). I suppose eleven mirrors in such a space is a lot by most standards.

The largest hovers above a sideboard bar, covering about a third of the wall above. There’s a somewhat smaller one above the china cabinet on the opposite wall. The rest are set in the four panels of a folding screen in one corner, the last is in the back of an ancient vitrine that sits, fragilely, in another corner.

Six more mirrors are on the ground level of the house. Two in the foyer, two in the kitchen, and two in the living room. All are boldly framed, most are large. At Christmas time you can catch a glimpse of the Hanukah bush from every room.

It should come as no surprise that one of my favorite childhood books was Through the Looking Glass.

Clearly, I love mirrors. They play with light, space, and energy, transforming a non-descript box into a space of curiosity and mystery that seems a good bit larger than its actual size.

Architect Judith Capen is no fan of mirrors, though she says she likes mine. “They’re outside the design vocabulary of modernists.” Quoting architect Mies van der Rohe, she says, “Less is more.”

You won’t find mirrors anywhere but the bathrooms in the brilliantly sculpted, utterly original Capitol Hill home she shares with her architect husband and partner in architrave architects, Robert Weinstein. Even in the baths the mirror is a simple sheet, an unbroken reflective surface with no bevels or frame. Frames are “froufrou,” she says, wrinkling her tidy nose.

There are seventeen mirrors on the main level of the Cavanaugh’s home. Seven are visible in this shot.

Consider the East Wing of the National Gallery, she more or less says, over a bit too much merlot at The Eastern wine bar. Remove the art and you have – Art. The space needs no embellishment, no visual tricks.

If you live in an architectural marvel, you might agree. If you don’t, and I don’t, the words of another architectural giant, Robert Venturi, might better reflect your point of view. “Less,” he said, “is a bore.”

Here, our minds meet.

Particularly “in open plan renovations,” Judith says, “when developers blast out all the interior walls to create a big space and the garden variety buyer isn’t going to do anything but move in furniture – well…it allows for some playfulness.

“Mirrors? They’re magical!” says Phyllis Jane Young.

The realtor spends a lot of time coddling houses before they go on the market, tossing everything too personal, tatty, or dated. When her properties hit the market they dazzle, and mirrors play a big role—big, bold, and clean lined, definitely “not like they belonged to your grandmother.”

An exception, though, would be a fabulously framed vintage mirror in a sophisticated contemporary room, which can look phenomenal, if you’re into Italian movie sets.

“I’m a light freak,” she says. “Mirrors make light and space explode in the most inviting way. They enhance a sense of openness, a generosity of space. If you have light in a room, mirrors can enhance it. If you need light, you can have it by placing a mirror near a window or light source.”

The bigger the mirror the more space it appears to create.

They can also transform the unlikely into something splendid. “I remember once seeing a garage that was filled with – stuff,” says Phyllis. “But the owners hung a huge mirror and you open the door and say Wow! It looked huge and wonderful not, ‘Oh My God, you guys are junk dealers.’”

Though I’m sure the junk was gone before the property was listed.

Mirrors can play some brilliant tricks. Flank the fireplace with tall pier glass mirrors and it’s as if you have open doors to more rooms beyond. Place a huge one above the fireplace to reflect a dazzling chandelier. Get one of those TVs with the mirrored screen if you can’t live without a TV over the mantle.  Samsung makes some beauties.

Put a mirror adjacent to or opposite a window to reflect more light in a dark room. In the kitchen, a mirror can blow out a wall, and a mirrored backsplash can be stunning – and easy to clean. A mirror can also work wonders in a garden, particularly in the pocket-sized plots so many of us have.

Always consider what the mirror reflects. If it’s something you love you’ll have two of them. Or more.

All of those mirrors in my dining room? At night, with guests around the table, Alexa playing Piaf, candle lamps flickering, it’s like a supper club – the company is visually doubled.

Just make sure that when you’re dealing with huge mirrors they’re properly hung. A hook and picture wire is asking for calamity – get a pro to do the hanging. Or just lean it against a wall, which also has the welcome effect of making you look long and lean. If you’d rather look short and dumpy, well…

Forget the notion that mirrors never lie, they absolutely do. They can make you look older, younger, fatter, thinner, and taller. They can transform you, as quickly as they can change your living space. I, for example, always look my best in the bathroom at the 14th Street, SE, Harris Teeter. I always head there for a little ego boost before feeling up the broccoli. I could live there, I think, though there’s a little something lacking, design wise. Not sure about entertaining, either.

“Pay attention to the way the mirror reflects you,” says Phyllis. “When I’m adding a mirror I always check for the one in which I look best, figuring so will the client. This is particularly important in the foyer, where you want to look terrific coming and going.”

It’s like the smell of baking cookies during an open house– if you look great, you’ll want to buy the place.

Stephanie Cavanaugh writes a weekly column for the newsy website mylittlebird.com