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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Switch Plates and Vents

It may not be close to my hardware obsession, but I do spend time thinking about things like floor vents, switch plates and outlet covers. Or maybe I should say I spend time thinking about how these things bother me because they are mostly so unattractive.

In my powder room.

Switch plates: I try to gang plate switches whenever possible. Not only does it look better, it keeps you from running around the room trying to remember which switch turns on which light source. Generally, I go with plain white unless the room is wallpapered, then I have the plates covered and love how they disappear.

Gang plate that controls all the family room lights. I prefer the screws to all be vertical.
Men don't seem to notice such details. Guess I'll be the one to fix it!

The  switch plates of my dreams! Clear with a toggle switch, made by a British company.
The perfect solution for both painted and papered surfaces as well as panelled walls.

I am usually not a fan of decorative or painted switch plates. Here's why: painted plates always scratch and end up looking dirty and covered in fingerprints. Try scrubbing them and the paint will come off over time. Decorative plates just become a big distraction on the wall. Something that is necessary and utilitarian becomes a feature instead of blending into the background. Especially avoid decorative plates if the walls have paneled molding or wainscoting. Nothing worse than having a beautiful architectural element ruined with a  blemish that your eye will automatically rest on!  And, decorative plates (specifically outlets) are really not a good idea for kids rooms. Putting something colorful, that may also look like a toy, on the wall provides an invitation for a toddler to play with the object or at least investigate it. Scary, considering it has the potential to harm. Same with kitchy night lights, better just to avoid them, especially in kids rooms.

I have two friends that have faux finished switch plates in their kitchens. One space does present "the look" better since the walls are rich tan and the room has a nod towards Tuscan design. However, in my other friends kitchen, they just look dirty on her light colored walls. Don't worry, I am smart enough to keep such observations to myself! But, if either were to ask my opinion, I'd be honest and suggest plain ol' white.

Outlet covers: No question they are ugly. All I can say is that if you have the opportunity during construction to select  locations that are as convenient and unobtrusive as possible, do it! And, consider yourself very, very lucky to have had a say! I prefer to have them low. I would love to have them all close to the floor, because it cuts down on dangling cords. Electricians hate doing this because it's a pain and depending on where you live, not to code. I recently learned the codes in my state for new construction are changing for switch plate heights to conform to handicap standards. And, that the outlet which is controlled by the wall switch will now be installed upside down. In other words, it won't smile!

Floor Vents & Wall Vents: If your lucky enough to live in an old or historic house, chances are your vents are beautiful.  I just love the artistry and design that once went into creating them and will be forever sad that home builders don't see the value in incorporating such details into newer construction. I for one would pay extra for a beautiful option. A lot extra! I've collected a few vents from salvage yards and one in particular may one day be the template to have my wall vents re-designed.

Your basic white vent wallpapered.

My favorite pattern from the vintage vents I have collected. I would love to have this copied for all my wall vents. Growing up, my grandmother had a big old house in upstate NY. During summer visits, I would sneak out of bed
and lay on the cool wood floor of the guest bedroom peering through an open vent much like this...
 listening to the conversations in the kitchen below and spying on the grown-ups! 
 One of things that was at the top of my list when we refinished the hardwood floors was incorporating flush mount vents.  Most floor vents in the US are drop in and have a raised edge whether they are metal or wood. In Europe you see generally see flush mount applications.

A room from an estate on the Dutch border. The original farmhouse was circa 1876. Veranda-March 2011
This is a very large floor vent.  If it were a raised vent, the sofa and floor lamp would need to come forward
and the curtains would not hang evenly. The flush mount vent solves all these issues. 
In my house, most of the floor vents are between windows or just under windows. It's absolutely maddening as it restricts furniture placement greatly.  I was determined to finally cross this item off the list of house "parts" that irk me! I had a total of 6 vents cut to fit flush on the first floor. They were costly, but not a budget buster, since it was only one floor. I received a few emails inquiring about them from this post, so hopefully this will answer your questions about the process.

Here's how it works:

Before: vent sits on top of the floor with a raised edge.

Next: floors are stipped of old stain and wood is cut to receive the frame and new vent.

After: The frame and vent are stained to match and are now flush with the floor. What a difference!


  1. On the one hand I love you for posting about this..feel the same way! On the other, now I'm thinking about the few yet very UGLY and really obvious mess of light switches and thermometers etc. in a big ugly clump in my living room...addressed so many of them in our recent renovation and then just ran out of steam...going on the never ending summer to do list for sure!

  2. this is SO my pet peeve! I adore your papered switch and vent covers-fabulous! I once did that in a toile bath- gone! I do have to disagree about the white though...I personally think the white switch/outlet covers on a painted wall make the eye go directly to the switch/outlet cover and stand out in the room. I buy wood covers and paint them the same as the wall to make them go away. Never had a problem personally with them getting dirty, but if they did since they are the wall paint (never flat), just a bit of cleaner would clean them up. I also paint the screw heads to make them go away too, and screws always vertical :)! I, too, love the old iron ones, and have incorporated several in the barn.
    happy week!

  3. Great post. I am bookmarking this becuase we will soon be having a lot of vents and switchcovers to deal with and they drive me nuts too! With all the advances that have been made in design it baffles me that we are still at the end of the day stuck with ugly plastic switchplates! Agreeda about painting, they show every smudge and scratch then I fixate on THAT instead of the ugliness of the Great post.

  4. Zhush,
    We have moved thermostats and cable hook-ups as never ends!

    Love of a House,
    I do agree on dark walls or in certain situations other options are often necessary. For a client's foyer, I had the painters paint a wall vent in a stripe to line up perfectly with the stripes on the wall. It just blended in and looked great! I don't use flat paint on walls either, but the switch plates just seem to take the paint differently.

    Thank you and I totally agree! I really wish I could change everything out to the toggles pitured above, but that's not going to be in my budget anytime in the forseeable future. If you go with plain white, use the metal instead of plastic, they are a bit better.

  5. These are the kinds of nuts and bolts details that if not handled properly can really ruin a space! Wow - the papered vent is impressive. Terrific practical post!!

  6. You hit on a hot button topic. I love the British glass plate with the beautiful brass switch.

    Have you found a way to hide the electrical cords leading to the outlets?

    Love your blog
    Helen Tilston

  7. I like switch plates that match too. I don't want them to be the focal point on the wall. Have a gorgeous day, Kellie xx

  8. i have never seen flush mount floor vents, I loved them! I have friends who also insist on using decorative switch plates-all over their house. You're right it so distracting because I notice them every time I visit. I have plastic, but after reading this I am switching to white metal!


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