Old Loves

At the birthday party of a friend last weekend, taxed from added project hours and feeling not as sociable as one wants to at a gathering, I took refuge in the house, where I was able to capture photos of my friend’s collections.  He is an antique dealer with an eye for handsome accessories. While the party guests talked and laughed out on the lawn, I tried to get the camera on my phone to capture light in these dim, romantic rooms.  Looking back over the pictures kindles that pleasure I feel in old homes with good bones and interesting appointments.

carl's black and white porch

The welcoming side porch of our friend’s house, fresh and crisp with black and white paint.

My first memory of an old house with fine collections takes me back to childhood, up along a winding path where shaggy lilacs and intrepid honeysuckle wrestled together in the heat of a summer twilight.  A small, clapboard cottage with deep porches and long casement windows, it was elegantly proportioned if not grand.  Even then, though the eaves were swept clean of spider webs and the beds jealously guarded against weeds, it was a house in genteel decline.  The paint on the siding was crackled and dry; the tin roof sagged ever so slightly, a sway-backed horse too long in the fields.

It was Mrs. Hansberger’s house.  There was a Mr. Hansberger, too, but somehow it was the wife to whom everyone attributed the ownership of the place.  It may not have been an ownership of deed and dollars, but rather the heart-felt possessiveness of steward to keep.  I only went there once, standing in the dimness of the living room with a handful of other children from the church, come to check in on the elderly couple.

Mrs. Hansberger showed us things from their travels in India and Africa: a pierced fan that smelled of spices; a bentwood screen that cast curly shadows on the wall; the doors of a walnut armoire groaned as she opened them.  Within the case, her mix of fine china gleamed brightly.  It had been a long time since they had a dinner party, she said, taking out a saucer and tracing a finger over the design.  As I recall it, she seemed wistful.  But perhaps her memories warmed her.  A night under a tent in Africa, laughing into a tilted glass of wine while a hand-cranked phonograph played a drowsy waltz.   Beyond the wash of lamplight, there came a rustling from the grass.  Birds called from the tops of trees that melted against the sunset.

The devilish keeper of the flame, rendered in brass, looms from the shadows of the dining room.

The devilish keeper of the flame, rendered in brass, looms from the shadows of the dining room.

I’ve grown poetic, slightly cinematic, in attributing to plump little Mrs. Hansberger memories that more justifiably belong to the life of Karen Blixen.  But that is the romance of old homes, fine old things.  They can transport us to times when there was elegance in the smallest domestic rituals.  It is marvelous to live in an era of medical advancements, social progress, and ever-evolving communications.  Yet the keepers of antiques carry our past into the rooms of our futures, reminding us that even as we download the latest app onto our phone, we might choose to light candles tonight as if it were our only light, to take out our best china, setting the table as if a baroness were coming to dinner.



Stairway to Heaven

The latest design concept we’re loving is facing stairwell risers with vinyl patterns from Spicher and Company.  These floor covering cut easily with a straight edge and an X-acto knife, so they can conform to just about any curve or twist in the stairs.  The best part is they clean up with lightly sudsy water, so they’re as family-friendly as they are beautiful.

spicher rug mix

Here’s our tip for deciding which pattern and style you like.  Unless you’re a math genius, it may be hard to match the scale exactly with our method, but you can get close enough to help you visualize the outcome.  Simply take a picture of your stairwell in clean crisp lighting (flood with a work lamp if your own light is insufficient) and then use a box cutter and a straight edge to cut the risers out of your printed image. Slide printouts of the patterns that intrigue you under the image so that they appear in the cut away spaces.  We recommend printing the image on card stock to make cutting easier. Below, our own project:

Interior Design, Northern Virginia

Interior Design, Northern Virginia

The vinyl sheeting also makes for unexpected and striking kitchen backsplashes, so you can spread the love to the kitchen, too.  Have fun trying it out yourself!

Happy Nesting!


I’m a furniture snob.  It comes from nearly twenty years in the design business.  But I’m not a snob in the way that many of my colleagues are.  I don’t care about name brands (although I tip my hat to makers of fine things who’ve earn a deserved reputation) as much as I care about the integrity of the piece.  That is: what is this item trying to be and does it work?

In my dining room – a tiny square where the cat likes to nap, where everyone has to draw in their chairs to pile in around the table – the furniture is a mix of the primitive, cottage-made and the formal and elegant.  Using color, the craft of placement, and a curated mix of art and accents, the pieces compliment the scale of the room and each other.  They function and they please me, two criteria never to be undersold.

However, why the curly French chairs and the boxy little corner shelf play well together is mostly due to their inherent honesty.  As objects, these pieces have distinctive characteristics.  We can change their narrative to a degree by shifting their context, but unless we get out a saw and start lopping away at them (thus rejecting their truth) we must honor the very things that make them unique.  It is, after all, the contrast between the objects that makes for an interesting room.

If a physicist who played fiddle, an interpretive dancer with a passion for soup-making, and a human rights activist who blew off steam at the shooting range were stuck in an elevator together – well, that would make for a pretty interesting dynamic.  Yet if they each felt they should imitate the other, then the highs and lows of their differences would fade away.  In life, we do feel the need to find common ground for brief, sometimes awkward social encounters. Thus, the fiddling scientist, the prancing epicurean, and the gun-wielding idealist discuss the weather until the mechanic gets them safely out.

Design is where ideas and things come together.  The illusive magic of imagination finds expression through tangible goods.   The more sincere the objects, the more truthful the space.  And the more varied and personal our collections, the more compelling and intriguing the design.

If you’re to be a snob about design, it’s better to be one about whether a space is interesting, rather than about what it cost.  Buying quality is important, but purism of influences leaves me cold. We might as well be discussing whether or not it’s going to rain.

The Ten Year Mark

Last night we celebrated a milestone for our design business: the ten year mark.  I spend little time thinking about the road behind, imagine largely (perhaps grandiosely) what lies ahead, and now and again the present stands still, surprising me into a moment of stillness.  There is a magic to those seconds when the essence of the immediate arrests us, reminding us to be out of our heads. For big-picture thinkers and creatives, we are often dualistically both believers in ‘of the moment’ awareness and hostages to the millworks of our own seething imaginations.

hurston quote narrow

Being brought into the moment is a gift.  Light shifts on a street to highlight the overlooked; a song we once had a fling with is playing in the checkout line; a whiff of shampoo in an elevator reminds us of an aunt who passed too young.  In the midst of a hectic work day, we’re transported to the past, to summers spent with relatives.  We recall our aunt’s little rituals, the morning exercises, a smudge of lipstick on her coffee mug as she took her last sip before heading to work.  She left her geranium red mark every day, a seal to close the last home hour before returning to her beloved grind.

There are truthful lessons tucked into our past; they assert themselves in these sharpened moments.  For instance, the aunt.  A newspaper editor who was faithful to her craft for decades, she belonged to no professional meet groups, took no bows at dinner parties, never climbed onto a dais to receive an award.  Small towns don’t award journalism – good, bad, or indifferent.

Yet she loved her work, took pride in accomplishing her constant mission: to draw together the events of the week, yanking the national from the AP, overseeing a small flock of reporters for everything local, checking in with ad salesmen and photographers, finally to work late of a Wednesday while the printer pieced the content together the old fashioned way, by letter press. Along with her staff, she rendered the week of her town and her nation, every seven days, into a package that, when folded twice, could just about fit in a dog’s mouth to be carried up onto a porch come Thursday.

When I opened my design business ten years ago, I was thirty years old, felt invincible, played at being  humble, too, though it comes harder to the young.  My weekly rituals included running two miles every other day and drinking eighty-four ounces of water between sunup and sundown.  In my memory, I was bolder and more lusty in my wants than I was aware of at the time.  I didn’t pause to consider my undertaking: I simply did the daily work needed to keep the wheel rolling forward.

At the five year mark, the economy turned, I had to let go of a treasured employee, and I lopped away at the fledgling business until only the essentials remained: the workings of an interior design firm.  I put aside the part of that dream that included a retail presence, a showroom that shifted with outgoing and incoming inventory, that invited my creative urges to play with each new setup, and that kept an open door to the world and to my street.  And I survived through hard times, watching with empathy as other businesses closed, cheering the adventurers who chose that moment in time to risk their own enterprises.  More than anything, I found in my mid-thirties a deeper humility and gratitude than my thirty-year-old self could have understood.

When the economy strengthened,  I relaxed my bear-mother hold on my company and breathed just a little easier.  I could allow myself to take big-picture stock of things.  What became evident to me was that I wanted to be bold again, to dream as I had done at thirty.  I wanted doors cast open onto the street, I wanted the creative fulfillment of shopkeeping along with the satisfying work of interior design.  They are, after all, twin loves of mine, each stimulating a different aspect of visual composition, imaginative thinking, and dynamic problem-solving.

I wonder how often my aunt paused to audit her progress, to mark her place in the arc of life’s dreams.  I hope it was just often enough to find her gratitude – or to quicken her passion for the next thing.  The trick is not to check in too often, not to trip over yourself as you play sidewalk supervisor to your own journey.  Rather the way is to stick to the work of the day, allowing the weeks to string together until they form a rhythm, trusting that everything in the universe will collide just often enough to make you lift your head and think, “That’s right; I’m here.”  A shifting light, the forgotten song.

Last night,  my energetic staff, my husband, beloved friends, cherished clients and patrons gathered around me, one of those ‘of-the-moment’ moments found me. I came up out of the place in my mind where I  still dissected the little defeats and triumphs of the last week, and I was in a beautiful room, with chatter, live jazz and laughter blending in cool air, fragrant with summer cocktails.  I was forty, bold and bright, happy in my accomplishments, poised for more.


Comfortable Elegance

In the project pictured below, our mandate from the clients was precise: comfortable elegance.  To achieve formal balance, we exaggerated the architectural symmetry of the room through the use of matched pairs in lighting, furniture, and drapery.  Our selections of textiles bore features of elegance, such as embroidery and damask-like forms, but were uniformly soft to the touch and devoid of the pomp glossy finishes might have suggested.

Living Room, Hearth Room Shenandoah Valley

Living Room, Hearth Room
Shenandoah Valley

Using rich, dark woods in flooring and furniture, we suggest the gravitas of age, while allowing that the newly constructed home is of today.  The client’s Persian rug – dramatically figured in chocolate, taupe, and pale aqua – provided us with the basis for a light-handed color palette that keeps a densely-furnished space from feeling cluttered or engulfing.  Custom upholstery allowed us to tailor the sofas for maximum seating.

Lighting, Interior Design Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Lighting, Interior Design
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Perhaps the most pleasing detail of a room filled with beautiful elements, is our selection of four dramatic pendants, a choice that eschewed the architectural draft calling for a single, central chandelier. The quadrant of pendents spreads the overhead lighting more evenly in the space and, resembling to some extent the fixtures in old cathedrals, references the very architecture that inspired vaulted ceilings such as these.  Additional recessed lighting and sconces (not pictured) fill in the lighting gaps, while dimmers on all lighting provide a variety of mood options for any use of the space.

Living Room, Interior Design Detail Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Living Room, Interior Design Detail
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

From the large overview to the smallest detail, we enjoyed finding the balance between elegance and comfort.  A lovely project for lovely clients, this one stands out as a memorable recent exercise in thoughtful restraint.


Small Closets & White Walls

Recent endeavors in self-improvement have taken me to New York over the course of eight consecutive weekends.  On each visit, I’ve stayed with city friends in their city apartments.  In each place, one prevailing element strikes me: life explodes dynamically in every corner of the spaces. Put another way, New York apartments don’t have a lot of closets.  And while it must be the greatest nuisance to the dweller, I find an unexpected charm in the outcome.

At first, I thought it was just the white walls that made me feel so comfortable, so poised for a satisfying adventure.

As a designer, my fifteen year relationship with color has taken me through valleys and forests of dense, saturated tones and brought me up on shores of glinting white sand.  A dash of red, the occasional umbrella;  a swath of green and orange as a towel is unfurled.  Said more prosaically, I used to love high-drama hues in every room.  Now I’m happier with pops of color in larger plains of clean, comfortable white.

It’s not surprising that I gravitated to rich color when I began this journey.  The year I started my internship, jewel tones had just peaked and what was left in their wake was a highly specific and uniformly popular palette: butter yellow, tomato red, and sage green.  It was a color scheme that sounds like a terrific garden sandwich in retrospect.

Having lived in a house of white rooms as a child, my first Benjamin Moore color deck was the display case of a proverbial candy shop in which I soon gorged myself.   I ran headlong at the color wheel and shortly thereafter my home bore the results.   Room by room, I’ve dialed it back over the years as our collection of art and just stuff has diversified, demanding a more subtle setting to be fully appreciated.

There is something about white walls, about living in shells you are forbidden or discouraged to personalize, that permeates the residence with a vacation-house feel.  Yet more likely, I’ve decided, it is that – limited on storage – most New Yorkers must leave the evidences of every personal interest out in plain sight.  Although not the custom of my largely suburban clientele, who have basement and garage space aplenty, I find something inspiring and refreshing about seeing a bicycle parked in the kitchen;  unfinished canvases cocked in gentle disarray against the living room wall; or a tumbler of brushes with paint-speckled handles posing as a bouquet of flowers in the well of a window casing.  Rather than being relegated to forgettable outposts of the home, here hobbies are forced into plain sight, reminding the dweller to go for a ride around the city or to finish the art project that inspires their soul.

I’m sure to a one, each New York dweller would stare at me in miscomprehension before saying flat out, “You’re crazy. We’d love a place to store all this stuff. You think I like hanging my kayak over my sofa?”

All the same, as a designer who more and more places sincerity over all else in good homes, I cannot feel there is a takeaway from these cramped quarters.  If nothing else, it’s a clarion call, a reminder to keep your loves out where they can speak to you.