A cozy sectional with swivel chairs and an ottoman make the home theater space warm and inviting.
The neutral color scheme lends the space a family-room feel.
The owner selected acoustical fabric for the walls and furniture.

Bethesda Systems Goes to the Movies

An industry expert raises the curtain on mistakes to avoid in a home-theater design

Mike Wilson of Bethesda Systems recently completed a theater in the Potomac, Maryland, home of his client, Diane Shaw, who happens to be an interior designer. While Shaw wanted the ease of use and functionality of a state-of-the-art theater, she disliked the typical home-theater look. “I didn’t want leather seats, cup holders and Star Wars posters,” she recalls. “I wanted a family room feel to it.”

Wilson and Shaw worked together to ensure that the end result would reflect Shaw’s aesthetic vision. Bethesda Systems designs digital renderings for every project to help clients visualize the end result, which aided the process. “You might as well see the room before you build it,” Wilson explains. 

In lieu of typical rows of theater-style seats, Shaw selected an arrangement for the two-level space that would be more conducive to gatherings with friends or her seven grandchildren. A large sectional and swivel chairs foster family time on the main level, while the upper level boasts five reclining chairs. Bookcases flanking the screen will allow the designer to display art and accessories. 

Ultimately, the project was a success. “My son just visited us from New York with some friends, and instead of going out to DC at night, they decided to hang out and watch football, and then switched to a movie,” says Shaw. “I’m so glad we did it.”

H&D caught up with Wilson to talk about the ins and outs of designing a theater at home. 

What were the most important functions of this home theater?
The theater is controlled by a system called Savant that allows the whole room to be run using an iPad. The theater has access to DVDs, Apple TV, cable and all the standard sources that are available. The room also has lighting and temperature control and it is all designed to be very easy to use. 

Why is lighting important in a home theater?
Lighting design and control is a very important element of a theater. You don’t want to just put high hats in certain areas. Oftentimes, if you put lights in the wrong areas they’ll shine in someone’s eyes. And if you put all the lights on only one circuit, it’s on or off, and that kind of stinks. You want to have a lot of lights and a lot of control. Obviously, when you’re watching a movie you want it to be pitch black. But if the kids are watching a movie on the lower level and you want to read a book on the top level, you want control of those lights. 

What is one of the most common mistakes in the design of a theater?
People often don’t use the right fabric on their walls. It’s a challenge to find fabrics that are acoustically transparent. Speakers are designed to portray the exact acoustical analysis of a film, TV show or movie. If you put something in front of them that alters the sound, the fabric could be absorbing or distorting the sound. A simple test is to hold fabric in front of your mouth and speak. If your voice changes, the fabric is not acoustically transparent.

What is a better indicator of a quality theater experience, the acoustics of a room or the components?
If a room is set up incorrectly, $25,000 speakers could sound awful. If the room is set up correctly, $1,500 speakers will actually sound better. That’s where skill comes in; without it, anyone could build a theater.