House to Home: Bas-relief designs add artistic touch to home decor

Designer Debbie Travis applied cardboard, string, foil and paint to sturdy boxes to produce an embossed design that complements her collection of art pieces from India.

If you are searching for a novel technique that will add a personal touch to your home decor, why not look to artists and one of their many inspiring styles and techniques?

Bas relief is a form of decoration that rises slightly off the surface.

Cut-out cardboard shapes, string or yarn — anything you can glue onto your background surface can be used to produce a design, pattern or picture that is bas relief. Fat globs of paint will rise above the surface as well, and can be interspersed throughout the design (note that thick layers of paint take extra time to dry).

Bas relief can be applied to any flat surface. It’s an art form on its own and is seen extensively in religious artifacts, ancient plaques and art pieces.

Bronze and plaster are common materials for bas-relief work. An embossed or low-relief design creates a hand-turned decorative appearance on cabinetry and furnishings as well, showing up as elaborate trim or bold insets.

An intricate and realistic representation of a scene from nature or a group of people tells a story. These can be found on plaques or doors, or the decoration can simply be a familiar pattern composed of lines and shapes.

Kids have the best imaginations. I turn to their creative minds whenever I need an inspiration fix for a project I’m working on, and they never disappoint me. Their enthusiasm is contagious, too.

Here’s an idea for a project that you can make on your own — but if there are any children around, share the fun.

I was thinking about a novel way to display interesting artifacts that an Indian friend had brought from her homeland.

Embossed silver patterns are popular in Indian decor, so this was a good starting point.

To create the embossed design, cutout shapes and lengths of string were applied to the sides of the box.

To make the patterns more interesting, I used cardboard, string and aluminum foil to build a design on small, sturdy boxes. I found the boxes at a yard sale, already painted black, but you could also make your own boxes using 3/8-inch-thick medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

Draw the pattern directly onto the side surfaces of the box using a pencil and ruler; leave the top flat. Cut out the desired shapes from wood or cardboard; string works well for creating swirling lines. Glue these items onto the surface to create your design.

Next, cut a piece of aluminum foil that’s a bit larger than your surface.

Working on one side of the box at a time, apply carpenter’s glue over the complete design surface.

Place the foil over the surface (it doesn’t matter if it’s matte- or shiny-side up), smoothing the foil and pushing it into the relief grooves with your fingers; then let the glue dry. Cut off the excess foil, and repeat with the other sides of the box.

Last, rub black acrylic paint over the foil with a soft rag, leaving paint behind in the grooves of your design.

Buff and highlight the relief to give the impression of tarnished silver.

There are so many options to try with this technique.

Instead of covering the shapes with foil, the cardboard can be colored. Multiple shades of string or yarn, plain or woven, or shapes formed by rolling bits of foil all give a raised design. This turns into a collage of relief work when paper is folded or curled so that it sits up above the surface. You also can cut or dig furrows to set the design below the surface.

Debbie Travis’ House to Home column is produced by Debbie Travis and Barbara Dingle. Email questions to Follow Debbie on Twitter at, or visit her website,