Screens have diverse uses in the home

“The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider’s web.” — Edwin Way Teale (1899-1960), American photographer and writer, “September 18,” Circle of the Seasons (1953)

One of the most versatile and hardest working accessories in home décor is the folding screen. Screens have many looks and many uses and buying one is an excellent investment. They truly support Edwin Way Teale’s statement regarding utility and utility plus beauty.

For those of you who regularly read this column, you may recall that I am a huge fan of the Asian aesthetic. And, I have a lot of Asian design elements in my home. One of my favorites is an Asian screen I bought at a consignment store in Connecticut many years ago and have hauled it across the country and transitioned it to many different rooms.

That’s the beauty of screens. My Asian one happens to weigh nothing short of a ton, is black lacquer and has subtle Asian designs on it. It has lived in several homes with me, most often as a tool to soften a corner.

And quite frankly, it’s so darned heavy that when I have moved into a different home and found a place for it, it usually has resided there until the movers came the next time. It’s most recent transition is into a headboard, and we are both happy with its new role.

When you place a screen in a corner, obviously the hard edge of the corner is taken away and you can hide stuff behind it. Uplights placed behind a screen provide a soft light and great shadows for interest.

If you are lucky to have a screen that is a little more portable, you can get a lot more use from it. The screen can have a permanent home, but if you need it for a quick hiding place, a backdrop for a cozy dining spot or to use for a little privacy for overnight guests on the pull-out sofa, it really “pulls its weight.”

Other inventive and utilitarian uses for screens include the way I have used mine as a headboard, serving as a partition to create an entryway or to separate sleeping areas from sitting rooms. They also provide great “screening” for things you want to hide: for instance, storage boxes, washing machines or just about anything else that won’t fit into a closet or cabinet.

Folding screens actually originated in China; Japan was next, and then, of course, Europe. The original Chinese screens tended to be the heavy, permanently placed ones, often with serious paintings on them. The Japanese screens were made of lighter material and more portable in nature. Screens played a huge role in East/West trade as early as the 1500s and continue to cross boundaries today.

And now, screens are everywhere. I can’t remember going into an import store or furniture store without seeing somebody’s version of a screen. Materials range from the lovely paper or shoji ones; natural materials such as twigs, wicker or bamboo; painted wood; wallpaper-covered frames; fabric-covered frames; and many others.

Prices also run the gamut. I was very excited when I paid around $100 for my 1-ton gem in the consignment store; however, brilliantly painted, designer screens can run thousands or you can pick them up for less than $100 in some import stores.

If you are handy, screens can easily be made by the do-it-yourselfer. A screen is, in reality, three panels attached with some form of hinge and decorated to your taste. Great materials for making one yourself include old shutters, hollow doors or any other material that can support its own weight. Your screen can be painted, stained or covered with wallpaper or fabric.

A screen is somewhat like a piece of clothing: There’s one for every taste, style and price range. Buy one or make it yourself. Use it for the original purpose, or think outside the box and find new uses for it.

So, if you’re somewhat bored with your room, think about adding a screen. You won’t be disappointed, and will find many uses for it. Oh, and try to get one you can carry yourself. Good screen movers are hard to find!

Carolyn Muse Grant is a founder and immediate past president of the Architectural and Decorative Arts Society, as well as an interior design consultant and stylist specializing in home staging. Send questions to

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