Transform plain pony wall into spectacular thoroughbred

There's an old saying that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And though all of us are constantly confronting the vicissitudes of life, it's probably true that few professionals need to overcome daily challenges more than a designer. I vividly recall a respected member of the industry leaning across my desk, looking me straight in the eye and saying, "this business is constant problem solving -- always was and always will be."

As for myself, through the years I have found that the bane of my great plans and hopes for a client's home will often be challenged by what builders and contractors leave in their wake, such as a pony wall, which is a low wall, usually about 4 feet high, that is used to separate and/or define one space from another. In my opinion, these walls are often totally superfluous to the design and invariably impede the flow between rooms. Of course, as time has gone on, the trend towards one larger space as opposed to small, divided areas in a home has grown more popular. The pony walls I encounter appear increasingly bothersome and unnecessary to me. What to do?

Sometimes I'm lucky and the client immediately sees my point and agrees to take out the offending little wall separating, for example, the entry hall from the great room -- and I breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps I might suggest the use of some kind of pedestals or columns to create a transition between spaces, which is far more imaginative and elegant than the mundane 4-foot-high wall. Still, there are times when the clients don't see it that way and genuinely believe that the pony walls are some divine and unalterable part of their homes, absolutely necessary for the design. Though I hate to admit it, sometimes they're right.

I must confess that there are instances when it is imperative to work with the existing short wall. So, I have conjured up ways that help to satisfy my aesthetic goals by altering its form while at the same time preserving its function. My chief objective is to try and transform the offending drywall into a piece of "furniture" that will complement and enhance the overall décor. Generally, I enjoy the challenge and the results are often quite inspiring to the clients as they see nasty drywall become integrated, meaningful elements in their homes.

For example, I was recently contacted by a client who had moved into a charming home and wanted to decorate with a West Indies motif. She had already installed handsome wood flooring, decorative fans and the like, but was very troubled by a short wall that separated her great room from the kitchen area. She felt strongly that the offending drywall had to go. And she was right.

I presented the idea of wrapping the existing wall with a wood façade and trimming it with lattice and decorative molding finished in a warm West Indies kind of look. She loved the idea, which resulted in a showpiece she could proudly display, in addition to the wall unit and mantel I designed to complete her new décor.

Another client, who lived in the same community and whose home I had designed (along with my wife, interior designer Barbara Woolf) in a more formal European style, had a pony wall separating her breakfast room from the formal living room. I turned the breakfast room side of the wall into a wet bar complete with stone top, copper sink and antique-finished cabinetry with stunning European hardware.

For the living room side, which backed a beautiful baby grand piano, I covered the wall with a wood façade that featured faux cabinet doors and the same hardware so that it appeared as a lovely buffet rather than as an ordinary, unsightly piece of drywall. Abracadabra! Finally, to give a total look of elegance and warmth, I paneled the drywall running along the short wall of her kitchen counter in the same old European finish enhanced by raised panels.

It's been my experience that just simply capping a low wall with wood or stone that's perhaps been used elsewhere in the home can go far in helping to create a more finished and stylish look. This comparatively simple process is guaranteed to turn the plainest of pony walls from eyesore to eye-candy, and should be considered when budgets are tight and ambitions run high.

As you can see, there is indeed hope for even the most unattractive elements in your home; lemons can become lemonade. With thought and imagination the lowly pony wall can become a beautiful, integrated element of even the most lofty design scheme.

Stephen Leon is president of Soleil Design International and has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He is on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to