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Just how do you furnish a McMansion?

Decorating a McMansion
With a great deal of room to spare, homeowners have to fill the empty space of 11,000-square-foot suburban dwelling.   Photo Gallery Decorating a McMansion

It happens all the time. A couple buys an estate-size home with multiple rooms and lavish amenities. Two-story fireplaces. Palatial entryways with formal staircases. Soaring coffered ceilings. Arched floor-to-ceiling windows.

First they're thrilled, says Sheri Edsall, a Needham interior designer. Then ''they're panic-stricken. They can't deal with that much house."

But many Boston-area residents are learning to deal with it. Decorating a big house is a challenge being faced by an increasing number of homeowners, given the proliferation of suburban residences of the sort variously referred to as ''McMansions," ''starter castles," or ''new construction," to use the more discreet phrasing of the real estate world.

Whether they are 5,000-square-foot faux Tudors in suburban developments or 10,000-square-foot showplaces on rural cul-de-sacs befitting the pages of Architectural Digest, supersize homes come with a host of supersized decorating concerns.

Such as: How do you muffle the echo in a massive two-story foyer? Where do you get knickknacks to fill up a gazillion built-in shelves, let alone furniture that doesn't seem Lilliputian beneath a 20-foot ceiling? What do you hang on the walls when your living room runs the length of a bowling alley? Not to mention: How do you pay for all this stuff after you've broken the bank on the house? ''Big spaces cost big money," says Sandra Bissell, a North Andover interior decorator who has expertise in ''designing castles." ''You can't run out to Penney's and buy standard-length drapes for those windows."

Some of the new homes in suburban Boston are so expansive they have rooms the owners don't have names for, and they tend to be a tad underused. Carol Mader has one she's resorted to calling the ''bonus room" in the 13-room, 5,500-square-foot Georgian Colonial where she lives with her husband in a suburb north of Boston. Its main piece of furniture is a mahogany pool table, and other than that the room is basically ''a big empty space," she says.

Mary Beth Orfao calls one of the 16 rooms in her elegant 11,000-square-foot custom-designed manse in Concord ''the family library corner." (There's also a living room, family room, guest suite, ''husband's retreat," ''Costco room" for storing groceries, crafts room, personal gym, and room designated for the family dog, Carmela, with a dog shower, dog wallpaper, and a heated slate floor.) The library corner has custom cherry cabinetry, a reading chair, and a desk. ''My husband uses the room, and the kids get tutored here," she says.

It's fair to say that the average family with a new oversize home doesn't have what it needs to fill it up. ''It's hard to stretch the modest furnishings you brought from your 1,500-square-foot Boston brownstone into 10,000 square feet," says Needham interior decorator Edsall, who has done work for several clients with huge homes. ''What usually happens is they space their furniture out -- a piece in this room, a piece in that room -- and then they run out of furniture. And they're cash poor. Almost everyone ends up with one or two rooms that are unfinished. They have tumbleweeds rolling through them. The kids end up riding their bikes in them."

Jennifer O'Brien is already anticipating this. Her family is moving from a three-bedroom home in Melrose to a nine-room Colonial in Saugus with nearly 5,000 square feet of living space. ''This house is way over our heads," says O'Brien, whose husband, Steven, works in sales for their family business, Metropolitan Pipe and Supply in Cambridge. ''We have no money for decorators. The furniture we have now would look ridiculous in this house because it's worn out from use and this is such a gorgeous house."

So despite their best intentions to make do with what they had, they've swallowed hard and gone shopping. ''It was, 'You know, what we really should get is a new desk.' So the first thing we did is go to Jordan's Furniture, and then we said, 'Let's buy a bedroom set.' That started it. We got a king bedroom set, and then we had to go to get the mattress. Then we decided we wanted a bigger TV for the great room, so we got a 50-inch TV. So then we got a real nice entertainment center for that. Then we needed a new kitchen table, because we only had a small round one. This kitchen is huge, so I had to get a big kitchen table and six chairs to go with it."

Then there was the chandelier. And the lamps for the bedroom set. And ''we're getting a new rug for the great room. It's overwhelming," she says. ''We have cathedral ceilings and a lot of wall space. In terms of pictures and stuff, this is going to take years."

On the other hand, families with decorating budgets leave the work to interior decorators because the job of selecting hardware, lighting, rugs, cabinetry, paint colors, furniture, and window treatments for so many rooms is just too ''daunting," says Orfao, of Concord.

''The overall goal is you want it to look cozy and inviting," says North Andover designer Bissell -- no small task in rooms the size of those in a French chateau. ''You don't want it to look standoffish. You don't want to draw an invisible rope around the house and say, 'Look, don't touch.' "

Houses this size ''present a huge design challenge," says Ed Tashjian, vice president of marketing for Century Furniture, which recently debuted a line of large-scale furniture for ''21st century mansions."

That's what Carol Friedman of Design Resource in Harvard faced when she decorated the Orfao house, a home that was spared no details, from the copper leaf ceiling in the butler's pantry to a vegetable steamer built into the kitchen island to the ceiling faux-painted to resemble a cloudy sky in the teenage girl's room. It took her a year and a half to decorate the house. ''I dreamed about it every night," says Friedman, whose techniques for making rooms seem more intimate include using warm, jewel tones for sofas and chairs; the liberal use of upholstered window seats (including one at the top of the stairs that's wider than a twin bed); and buying art, en masse, from a local gallery. It all has ''earth tones -- gold and greens and reds that depict warmth."

Bissell says a lot of the challenges involved in decorating large houses are the same as those in small houses.

Among the strategies she uses are arranging furniture in small ''conversation areas," pulling furniture away from the walls toward the middle of the room, and using the color red in every room. ''It always makes a room happy and comfortable," she says.

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