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BACKGROUND CAN MAKE OR BREAK A ROOM

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Backgrounds get star billing when David Stone directs the design of an interior. Just as an opera's sopranos and tenors need the support of the orchestra, fine furnishings look their best with proper treatment of the surrounding floor, walls and ceiling.

Look at a photograph of a beautiful room, then try to imagine it with no special backgrounds - no color on the walls, no rugs, nothing to support the furniture and add charm to the space."You can buy furniture, art, curtains, but if you don't get the backgrounds right, a room never really works," says longtime Houston interior designer Stone, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers.

Background, Stone explains, can include draperies. "But basically, it's the box in which the furnishings are going to live," he says. "When I begin a room, I work on the box first, then the furniture and the needs of the client. If you don't get the basic background straightened out in the beginning, you don't have a fighting chance."

While all designers do not agree with Stone about his starting point, one of the legends of decorating, Britain's David Hicks, strongly concurs.

In the 1987 book "David Hicks: Style and Design" (Little, Brown, $29.95), he writes: "Decorating the basic structure . . . is all too often seen as a necessary but uninteresting preliminary before the pleasurable, creative work of arranging furniture, hanging pictures and grouping objects can begin.

"But the treatment of the principal surfaces - floors, walls and ceilings - forms more than just a background or context; it actually defines how the entire scheme will develop.

"One reason for this is the sheer extent of the area involved. Whatever color or material you choose for a floor covering, for example, is bound to have a dominant effect, simply because there is so much of it."

That was the case in a large, formal living room that Stone designed to showcase an extraordinary collection of European antiques. The backgrounds are soft, starting with a pale, silvery oak floor and a pair of silk Oriental rugs in beige, tan and amber tones with blue accents.

"Next we did an amber and gilt Fortuny (an opulent, subtly patterned cotton fabric from Italy) on the walls," he says. "It's quite a large room with very tall ceilings and a lot of wall space, but nothing was really going on (architecturally) in it. The Fortuny gives it continuity and an aura of luxury, plus it reinforces the color scheme of the rug and floor."

The room was also planned as a complementary backdrop for the woman's blond coloring. "Another thing I take into consideration for the background is the color palette that will make the clients look best. I've seen many rooms that were beautiful, but the people who lived in them looked out of place, simply because the backgrounds were not good for their skin coloration and hair," Stone adds.

Color is one of the most effective, least expensive and easiest ways to change background elements. The right color can transform a room and change the mood.

The late Billy Baldwin, an American icon of timeless interior design, stated in his 1972 book, "Billy Baldwin Decorates" (Holt Rinehart & Winston): "Because the color of the walls dictates the color of every other thing in the room, you must feel completely natural and amiable toward it. Wall color, above all else, should never be contrived or chosen according to fashion. You can pick up an extraordinary ashtray or even a little chair on a whim, but the wall color, never.

"When you want to expand the feeling of space, or to make the room seem cozier, it's how you treat the walls that does the trick."

Painting a room's walls a deep color intimidates most people. Going from off-white to a creamy yellow or soft green feels safe enough, but most people cannot gather the courage to try a rich wine-red dining room or a forest-green bedroom.