Successful Home Theater Design

This DC interior designer shares some great tips and insight for building your own dedicated home theater.

Successful Home Theater Design
by Kathy Alexander of Alexander Interiors, LLC

You’ve been dreaming of your home theater and the day has come for you to take the leap. Sitting down with a professional theater designer is very exciting. I’m talking about a designer of the technical equipment who puts the perfect combination together: the projector, the speakers, the screen, the controls, etc. Once all the pieces and parts are selected, the technical designer sees the layout of the space and will map out the type of screen, which wall it will go on, the type of projector, the number of speakers and where they will be located, the number of subwoofers, whether or not you will have an acoustical wall system, and the number of theater chairs.

There are many questions to be answered: How important is it that there be no sound transmission outside the theater? Where will the equipment rack be located, which will be somewhat determined by whether or not you want it visible? Where will the projector be located, which, again, will be somewhat determined by whether or not you want it to be seen?

After all of that, don’t forget the equally important step of creating an interior design that matches your tastes, emotions and desires. The excitement created by a room full of cool equipment fades quickly when you  don’t feel comfortable in your own space. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do that make all the difference in the world.

The best time to consider the interior design of the theater is right after the equipment is chosen. When I plan a theater’s interior design, I will walk the space with the technical designer, who will point out the overall location of the screen, how many chairs, the number and location of the speakers and subwoofers. He or she will let me know if there is an acoustical wall system and whether it will be on all the walls, and perhaps the ceiling, too. By this point, the clients may have already been to the theater showroom and selected the chairs.

Now, it’s time to ensure the theater reflects the client’s preferences and predilections. As with the equipment design, the interior design must consider alternatives to various questions: Will this room be a dedicated theater, or will it be a multi-functional space? A multi-functional space sounds appealing, but it may be at the expense of the acoustics. So, the sound may not be as good as it would be in a dedicated space.

If the theater is on the lower level (i.e., the basement), then the challenge is to create a design that either incorporates expected but troublesome structural elements (e.g., ductwork, columns, beams, etc.) or modify them to minimize their impact on the functionality and beauty of the space. The height of the ceiling can quickly become a critical design element. If there is to be more than one row of chairs, will the ceiling height allow for a platform for the second row? Is the room large enough to accommodate everything the client wants? Will a ceiling-mounted projector leave enough vertical room to walk under it, or will the room be deep enough to permit the projector to be mounted behind the chairs? Any planned steps will have to be lit for safety.

What style theater do you want? Do you want a formal theater or a casual look? Do you want an Art Deco theater or do you want ultra modern? Do you want the space to be a particular theme? If the clients are not sure, then I interview them further and ask them to show me pictures of rooms that appeal to them. The pictures do not necessarily need to be of theaters but rooms in general. What colors do they like? What colors do they not like? Almost always, people can tell me what they don’t like and don’t want. That is important information in the overall design analysis.

If you are going for a certain look or theme, it is preferable to extend that look into the surrounding areas. If the theater is in the lower level, I always look at the home’s main floor to get an idea of the client’s personal tastes, preferences and lifestyle.

Generally, theaters are usually kept dark so the focus is on the movie. If there are windows then it is important that light doesn’t seep into the theater. Shades that fit inside a channel are a good idea for keeping the light out and being inconspicuous.

Speaking of lighting, the artificial lighting is very important. Depending on the look of the theater, star lighting for the ceiling may be a good option. Everyone loves the sconces on the walls that provide the drama, the mood, the decoration, and also allows one to see inside the theater while watching a movie. Be careful to not have the finish of the sconces too shiny. You don’t want the distraction of a reflection from the shiny finish to take away from the movie. If you are going to use the room in ways other than as a theater, don’t forget about those times when you need brighter light for the space, and even brighter when the theater is being cleaned.

One of the items that I notice immediately when seeing pictures of home theaters is the sconces. Be careful about the placement and the size. You want the style of the sconces to enhance the look of the room and you don’t want light shining in your eyes. The mistake I see people make, whether professionals or not, is selecting sconces that are the wrong size. Sconces that are too small or too large are simply going to look bad. Another thing to be aware of is selecting sconces that are too deep and project too far into the room. You don’t want to be running into them as you are getting to your seat.

Theater Seating
Theater chairs have come a long way. You might think that you can put a couple of recliners in the room but it is not going to look or function as well as theater seating. The theater chairs can be a single chair, a loveseat, or a sofa that may be attached to each other to keep them in place. Many recliners have a single movement where the footrest comes up and the back goes down. This is not the most comfortable position for watching a movie. The motorized mechanism of the better theater chairs is the best because you can position your feet up and move the back independent from the footrest. You decide the perfect position to be in. The construction of the better chairs has an all wood frame with wood blocking for stability. This helps to keep the mechanism firmly in place. The better chairs have a seven-point mechanism whereas the lesser quality chairs have only a three-point mechanism. While there is much that can be said about chair construction, the basic difference is between wood frame vs. particle board or cardboard that are stapled together! I highly recommend that you invest in the best quality chairs you can afford. It will be a much better investment and they will last far longer and be far more comfortable. Leather or faux suede upholstery are the most practical for durability and easy clean up.

Whether you want a basic theater or something out of this world, keep in mind that you must build on each decision and ask yourself if each decision supports the look you have decided upon. If a decision does not support the look, then rethink it.

A home theater that is well designed and lovingly furnished will act as magnet in your life. It will attract the family for Friday night movies. It will attract friends for Sunday afternoon games. It will attract children to thrilling adventures and educational documentaries. It might even attract romance—let your imagination run wild. And, it will attract a deeper connection to all those about whom you care deeply.

© 2011 Kathy Alexander. All Rights Reserved

Kathy Alexander is Founder and Principal of Alexander Interiors, LLC, an interior design firm focusing on high-end residential design.

Kathy Alexander may be reached at 703/222-9100,  /