How do you modernize old wood paneling?  Modernizing a dark wood-paneled room can transform it from heavy and dated into a bright and inviting space that combines classic and contemporary elements. If the woodwork is in good shape and a wood worth saving , we always recommend restoration rather than painting. Once you paint, it is difficult to return the wood to its original condition.  For the 2024 Pasadena Showcase House of Design, Cozy Stylish Chic took on the challenge of reimagining the 1902  English Tudor library.  The library was intact with the original architectural details, including rich walnut wood paneled walls and bookcases, and oak floors.  However, the room felt dark, depressing, and somewhat dated. do you brighten an old wood paneled room?  Here's what we did to breathe new life into this 1902 wood paneled room without painting:

9 Ways to Modernize a Wood Paneled RooM

1) Update Window Treatments

2) Incorporate Modern Statement Lighting

3) Revamp the Ceiling

4) Layer Floor Coverings

5) Enhance Bookcases

6) Use More Upholstery and in Lighter Colors

7) Swap Out Dark, Outdated Furnishings with New

8) Add Layers to the Room

9) Add a Mirror

Move the slider left and right to to see the before and after of the Library:

Before  photo  - library Modernizing old wood paneling without painting - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House Library Lounge and Curosity Room

When modernizing wood paneling, the obvious solution is to paint.  Yes, that is a solution but why ruin perfectly good wood when there are plenty of other ways to brighten the wood paneled walls?  There are plenty of ways to brighten an old wood paneled room without painting.  Retaining the original dark wood paneling and floors is important, especially when you are working in a historical home, as we are with the Library Lounge and Curiosity Room of the 2024 Pasadena Showcase House.  Painting is the easy solution, but easy isn't ways the best solution. All you really need is good design sense and clever decor choices. Here's what we did to breathe new life into this 1902 wood paneled room without painting:

Tips on brightening a dark wood paneled room


• Update Window Treatments

Brighten a old wood paneled room with window treatments - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House -Cozy Stylish Chic Library

Replace dark wood blinds with sheer or light colored window treatments.  For the Library Lounge, we removed all the dark wood blinds that had covered the windows for years.  Even when open, the natural light coming into the room was limited, and the light was quite harsh. For the library  windows we replaced the wood blinds with feminine white paisley-embroidered sheer Roman shades and a floral linen print. These fabrics, sourced from Ralph Lauren and trimmed with Samuel and Sons passementerie, add a light and feminine touch to the windows. They allow soft, filtered natural light into the room, which contributes to the coziness of the space.

Brighten a dark wood paneled room with window treatments - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House
Brighten a dark wood paneled room with window treatments and passementerie - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House

• Revamp the Ceiling

Brighten a wood paneled room with wallpaper on the ceiling - Cozy Stylish Chic

Another easy way to brighten up a wood paneled room is to address the ceiling.  While painting the ceiling a white or lighter color might be the logical solution, you may sacrifice how the room feels.  This was the case with the Library Lounge and Curiosity Room.  We definitely needed to switch out the dreary mustard-colored paint for a lighter color.  However, painting the ceiling a plain white or cream would have left the space feeling flat.  Instead, we opted for an archival floral wallpaper from Ralph Lauren Home | Designers Guild.  Not only is it a light cream, but the faint graphite floral has the look of a vintage  stencil and the pattern gives movement to the ceiling.   Choosing a soft pattern on the ceiling can make a room feel cozy while brightening the room effectively. The wallpaper on the ceiling is a big contributing factor to why the room FEELS so cozy and inviting.

• Incorporate Modern Statement Lighting

Lighting is key to modernize a wood paneled room. We recommend avoiding recessed lighting and exploring other bright options like those available from Hubbardton Forge. Incorporating the right type of lighting will do wonders and will instantly modernize a wood paneled room.  Hubbardton Forge makes every piece of lighting to order in their forge in Vermont.  The modern Solstice fixture replaced the old ceiling fan.  Solstice is made of cast glass and forged steel, and is the perfect modern lighting solution for the Library Lounge and Curiosity Room.  The integrated LED is dimmable, allowing the ability to create a mood when dimming the light, or adjusting the lighting for task lighting when needed.  Hubbardton's Pression Lamp sits in front of the main window.  The crackle glass, leather strap  and industrial styling are the perfect complement to the room.

Pression Table Lamp - Hubbardton Forge through Cozy Stylish Chic, Pasadena
Solstice Chandelier - Hubbardton Forge

The Brindille Ring Lamp in front of the fireplace adds the perfect modern touch to make the room feel less formal.  It is a welcome change to the dark and heavy black fireplace screen that once stood in its place.  I can't tell you how many people have commented how cozy the room feels.  It wasn't very cozy before our transformation.

Brindille Light - Hubbardton Forge, Pasadena

• Layer Floor Coverings

Layering rugs to modernize an old wood paneled room - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House
Layer rugs to brighten wood paneling without painting - Cozy Stylish Chic

How do you modernize wood paneling with equally as dark wood floors?  When you have wood paneling and dark wood floors, you want to contrast the color and texture.   Minimize the amount of wood showing by layering the floor coverings in lighter textures and patterns.   For the Library Lounge and Curiosity Room, we modernized the dark wood paneling by layering rugs.  Hopscotch, a textured sisal rug from Fibreworks was custom shaped and sized to the size of the room - 8" shy of the overall size of the room to allow for a wood border.  

 Our friends at Silk Road Rug, Inc gave us access to their extensive selection of antique rugs.  We selected an early 1900s hand knotted Persian Tabriz for the main rug. The fine floral detail is the perfect complement to the color palette and patterned pillows positioned throughout the room.  In contrast, an antique tribal Turkish runner is placed at the far end of the room.  We love the contrast in pattern and rug provenance.  The sisal Hopscotch rug from Fibreworks adds texture, neutralizes the dark wood, and grounds the room.  On the other hand, the antique rugs from Silk Road Rugs, Inc. define different areas within the room.

• Enhance Bookcases

Wallpaper the backs of bookcases to modernize old wood paneled walls

Consider wallpapering the backs of the bookcases. Adding a contrasting color, pattern, or texture will help break up the overabundance of wood.  For the Library Lounge and Curiosity Room we were not allowed to permanently alter the original wood.  How did we brighten the dark wood bookcases?  We added temporary backs to the bookcases by wallpapering foam board that we cut to size then wallpapered with a Ralph Lauren | Designers Guild  herringbone wallpaper  The textured backs create contrast, making our displayed curiosities more prominent and visible.

• Use More Upholstery and in Lighter Colors

Down-filled sectional by Lee Industries - Cozy Stylish Chic

Add upholstery in lighter and brighter colors.  Doing so will detract from the dark wood paneling on the walls.  We opted to go for a super-sized down-filled U-shape sectional, which dominates the room.  The size and shape of this modular Lee Industries sectional screams comfort and cozy, and is begging visitors to dive in and take a nap.  Unlike other lookalike sectionals on the market, the feather and down wrapped foam has the comfort but also the recovery that you don't have with other sofas.  What does that mean?  When you get up, you won't be leaving the seat cushion a puddly mess!

• Swap Out Dark, Outdated Furnishings with New

Update the dark and outdated furniture with lighter, fresher colors and softer textures.  When we did the first walkthrough of the space, there was a wood executive desk and office chair in the alcove.  A dark wood desk was not doing anything to modernize the old wood paneled room, so we decided to replace it.  We put in two upholstered ottomans by Lee Industries trimmed with a pleated Samuel and Sons trim that acts as a cozy day bed.  The perfect spot to read a book or an afternoon nap.   

Before photo - window seat - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House Swap out outdated furniture to modernize old wood paneling - Cozy Stylish Chic

• Add Layers to the Room

Ralph Lauren Home Pillows - Cozy Stylish Chic Pasadena

Add the final layer to the room by adding accessories, pillows, and textures.  A layered room always results in a warmer atmosphere and a cozier space.  Instead of using just any pillow off the shelf, we added details that tie into the other elements in the room.  It is these small details that make the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.  Not only do they elevate the room, but the added texture makes the room FEEL warmer, brighter and more modern.  The pillows in the Library Lounge and Curiosity Room were made by Mike Ragan | RAGS using a variety of fabrics from Ralph Lauren Home | Designers Guild and trim from Samuel and Sons.

2024 Pasadena Showcase House Library Lounge and Curiosity Room - Cozy Stylish Chic

• Add a Mirror

Fireplace - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House Library Lounge and Curiosity Room

Adding a mirror is a surefire way to modernize and brighten a wood paneled room.  The reflective surface of the mirror bounces light around the room, keeping the space from looking too dark.  We added a small mirror above the fireplace. Truth be told, this mirror was our third choice.  Because of the wall moulding, we couldn't hang our first option as it had a french cleat.  Hanging the second option, we realize that it was too heavy to hang with barely 1/4" of wood solid brick.  So... we pulled a mirror off my living room wall so that we had something to photograph for the program.  And then we kind of liked it, so here it is.  

Library Lounge and Curiosity Room Design

The resulting "Library Lounge and Curiosity Room" strikes a perfect balance between classic and contemporary aesthetics while also modernizing the wood paneled room. We incorporated elements from micro-trends like "granny chic", "eclectic grandpa", and "bookshelf wealth.  In doing so,  we infused current trends, but without being trendy. The room exudes a casual elegance and resonates across a broad age range. Taking out the heavy desk, leather chesterfield, and dark wood furniture and replacing it with some whimsical pieces and lighter upholstery makes the dark wood paneled room feel brighter and less formal.  

The Details

We revamped the formal English library to create a warm, inviting space suitable for all ages that reflects how we live today. Imagine that this is granny's house but the grandchildren took part in reimagining the space and how it is used. The key to achieving this was to modernize the old wood paneling, giving it a fresh and contemporary feel, while the Curiosity Room adds a casual atmosphere for exploring creativity. Personal touches like  kids' artwork, board games and personal mementos add to its charm. Beautiful and functional pieces such as the antique chess set and ottoman from Griffith Chess Designs top off the room's transformation. With imagination, any space can be transformed and speak to the way you live.

Antique Chess Set and Ottoman - Griffith Chess Designs - 2024 Pasadena Showcase House

The 2024 Pasadena Showcase House

The Library Lounge and Curiosity Room we designed for the Pasadena Showcase House is open through May 19.  It really does need to be experienced in person, as the photos do not capture the true essence of the space. We can't thank our sponsors enough who made this year's room possible:

Ralph Lauren Home | Designers Guild 

Samuel and Sons

Lee Industries

Hubbardton Forge

Silk Road Rugs, Inc

Mike Ragan | RAGS


Griffith Chess Designs

All the items, including fabric and wallpaper, are available to the public and design trade through our Old Pasadena design center.  You can visit our showroom in person or call us for more information or pricing.  We do business around the country and ship, too so just contact us if there is any way we can help you with resourcing anything you may need.


Here's another before and after pf the room  from another angle.

before photo Down-filled sectional by Lee Industries - Cozy Stylish Chic

From yet another angle. here is a photo of the room from the 1978 movie "Foul Play".  Do you recognize any of the actors here? This is Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn, and Brian Dennehy - but much younger!  Come check out the house in person through May 19.

Jeanne K Chung | Cozy Stylish Chic