Jewel Tones

Inspired by our tour of parts east, our love affair with jewel tones has gone from slow burn to colorful blaze.  In the semi-precious stone floors at Cappelle Medicee’s Chapel of the Princes and again in the crimson damask at Windsor Castle, a rich rainbow of tones affirm that great palettes are always in style.  And in humble taverns and cozy teahouses, we were reminded that European design has long celebrated dynamic color. Even in the modern aesthetic, pops of kelly green, coral, and cobalt punctuate spaces designed around light-handed neutrals.

Here is a smattering of the colorful treasures we toured; view more by following our gallery on Instagram here.

prince chapel floor

Ruby and Emerald, Semiprecious Stone Floor, Chapel of Princes, Cappelle Medicee

Sapphire and Gold Heart, Milan

Sapphire and Gold Heart, Milan

Mosaic, St. Peter's Basilica

Vivid Azure, Mosaic, St. Peter’s Basilica

Inner Courtyard Ceiling, Rome

Pungent Yellow, Inner Courtyard Ceiling, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo, Florence

Sapphire and Crimson Robes, Santa Maria del Popolo, Florence

Heraldry Reds, Fischer's, London (David Collins Studio, Designers)

Heraldry Reds, Fischer’s, London (David Collins Studio, Designers)

Blood Ruby, Renaissance Religious Art, Musee Accademia, Florence

Blood Ruby, Renaissance Religious Art, Musee Accademia, Florence

Sapphire and Terracotta, Pop Art, Murren

Sapphire and Terracotta, Pop Art, Murren

Arrivedarci,  Auf Wiederluege, and Au Revoir!




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.

Winter White Seduction

Day three of snowy weather has me contemplating the allure of white rooms. A few years back I had a client with a three year old who wanted an all-white living room.  Imagining pudding stains and crayola shenanigans, I lobbied for something less pristine.  We compromised on bright sand; cream tones seemed dirty to her eyes.

As impractical as it is, I have to say I get it.  Like a blank canvas, the white room is pleasingly simple.  The people who visit it bring the color in their garb; vibrant brush strokes that come and go at our invitation.

However, on a day to day basis, the all white room may be more satisfying in theory than in practice.  Humans like to be stimulated visually. What I have learned is that we use color to make space more engaging and interesting. When we edit it from the space, the forms and textures that remain have to be all the more dynamic to fill the aesthetic gap. The photo below, from House Beautiful, is a good example of how to keep a white space soft, warm and compelling.  This is a crisp, romantic take on the all white room.

white room best

  •  This is not a ‘color pop’ kind of space; it’s more delicate and soft and less about mod vibrancy.  Using black and white art instead of color [the collection on the wall to the left] and eschewing patterned rugs is a subtle but excellent commitment to detail.  The Lesson: Keep the concept focused.
  • Dynamic installations provide the drama that we otherwise find in color.  The sheer size of the rough hewn door to the rear creates a focal point in a space that’s been blown open architecturally.  The Lesson:  Up the ante on accents and installations for drama, but make sure they’re used to enhance the bones of the room.
  • Form and composition are building blocks to good design.  The massive potted plant and spherical chandelier in this space establish a rhythm of mass that prevents our gaze from getting stuck on the over-scaled central column.  This open space soars when the eye is not grounded in just one area.  The Lesson: Without color to tell the eye where to roam, it’s more important than ever to get the styling right.
  • This room is well-edited and interesting, mixing refined and primitive elements equally.  The whiteness provides punctuation between each piece and the collection finds unity by virtue of its setting.  This is not unlike the art of gallery curating.  The Lesson: Embrace the innate gift of a white space: that it allows and even demands a diverse mix.
  • Texture, texture, texture.  The primitive table in the foreground, the dappled painting over the bombe chest and the organic tangle of branches are all fantastic use of texture to add depth to this design.  Replace the table with its sleek lacquered sister and swap out the art for a gleaming mirror and the room instantly grows colder.  The vase of branches reminds us of nature and is a peaceful connection. The Lesson: Grainy woods, coarse finishes and natural elements offset the pristine elegance of white and keep spaces feeling friendly.

The Irish House

Here is a book of photographs that inspired me early on in my design career.  The photographer, Ianthe Ruthven, visited homes across Ireland that ranged from palatial estates to wonky little cottages.  Although I loved the mansions in the way so many of us love the sets of Downton Abbey, the character of the humblest homes impressed me the most.  Close inspection revealed all the things we’re schooled to think of as inferior [crude finishes and dilapidation], but the confidence of the interiors was an education.


Rather like the old woman we all love because she still slaps on lipstick and wears outrageous clothes, these little Irish homes wore their colors like a banner.  The homeowners were less concerned about hiding lamp wires and more concerned about surrounding themselves in color and comforts.  It helped me befriend our home, which we called Hodge Podge Cottage with good reason.

These rustic environments seem more relevant now than they did when I first fell in love with them. In the aftermath of the economic melt down, the emerging generation of home buyers are turned off by opulence and formality and more intrigued by simplicity of layout and innate character of materials.  The McMansion seems a relic to young buyers today; certainly it will be a symbol of an era, good, bad or indifferent.

It has been twelve years since I stumbled upon this volume in a Shepherdstown bookstore, but it still teaches me lessons.  Hopefully you’ll check it out and other works by Ianthe Ruthven, like her book The Scottish House.

Dark Haven

This room is the kind I’d call preppy bohemian.  The collection implies travel and taste, but the deconstructed arrangement says the person who lives here is comfortable with a bit of chaos.  If the appointments were arranged more formally – no stacks on the floor, no art left leaning – the space could feel dour and heavy.


The styling of the room is pitch perfect.  Here is why it works:

  • The rich red ceiling strengthens the statement of the collections of red atop the wardrobe and in the window sill. Due to the darkness of the room, the reds balance magically being both a color and a neutral. The Lesson: Don’t fear bold decisions like ceiling color, just make sure they support the overall design.
  • The dynamic geometric rug is not crowded with other patterns; textures and organic motifs alone fill in the blanks. (See our first post for more about that.)  In this room the books are textural specifically because their spines are not precisely aligned. Through repetition, unexpected objects become a tactile part of the overall design. The Lesson: Think beyond fabrics and wall finishes when adding texture.
  • Pops of color break the palette like beams of sunlight in a forest. Black, white and shades of honey brown are the primary neutrals here. They establish the rhythm of dark and light, warm and cool.  Editing out the brilliant yellow and blue book spines or the cheery peonies in the foreground would flatten the palette. The Lesson: Celebrate colors that are a little more saturated and playful than the rest. Cleverly woven into the mix, they give design its kick.

Hope you enjoy the photo, which is from Elle Decor and found via Quite Continental.



Pretty in Pink

I read it in Elle Decor, so it must be true.  Pastels are in vogue again.

In fact, I’ve been noticing the trend and dabbling in it a bit this year.  At least, I’ve been drawn to the slightly more saturated versions of what we think of as pastels.  Namely, a particular shade of fuchsia I ordered for our shop last January.  They are not exactly pastel, but they have the sweetness of tone one associates with those hues.  


What really intrigues me, though, is whether the trend will keep our swooning chairs from the upholsterer.  I picked these up in 2007 at a shop in Vermont and have debated the exact nature of the ‘re-do’ ever sense.  The trendsetters may have helped me put off a decision a little longer…


Graphic Design @ Home

The layers of paint on my living room walls show  my personal evolution: grass, sapphire, gold and now beige. Designers love color but with expertise comes knowing when and how to use it.  I’ve edited my aesthetic a lot over the years.

But I’m not alone.

Today’s design stresses texture and form over intense layers of color.  It’s everywhere: flexible neutrals playing it cool while rustic finishes and boldly graphic prints carry the lion’s share of interest.  Interior design is taking its cues from graphic design.  Function trumps affectation. Details are thoughtfully edited – sometimes witty – and white space is golden.  Although richly detailed, the photo I captured and edited below reflects the aesthetic of now.


The weight of the barn to the right is balanced with the white space or empty mass of the sky. I stripped away the color to better focus on the textures of wood and weed. What comes forward is the composition and the organic atmosphere. It helps that the wild grass yearns toward the open sky and carries our gaze outward with it.

So how does this idea of graphic composition come into play in the home?  Every house is different and everyone has their own threshold for ‘stuff’.  (I’ve heard a lot of husbands muttering darkly about toss pillows.)  Yet there are some general principles to keep in mind:

  • Bare walls and empty corners are the white space of the home landscape.  They provide a rest for the eye between focal points.  The mind digests the information in the space better when emptiness is allowed to punctuate the statements.
  • When it comes to accessories, think tree and not forest.  In other words, if the accent is dynamic enough, it may lose impact if other, lesser objects are clustered around it.  We may feel comfortable in a group, but something like this Stoney Lamar sculpture needs no companions.
  • Clean the shell of your room by painting the walls and trims the same color.  This is particularly effective in older homes where the moldings are traditional but the desired aesthetic is modern and subtle.
  •  When I cut my design teeth, most designs included the magic three: a big gutsy floral, mid-scale plaid and what we called a ‘ditsy’, a sweet little pattern that kept the peace.  Today we see things differently.  Dynamic fabric and wallpaper prints are nicely supported by textures alone.
  • In color, don’t connect all the dots.  Against a pleasing neutral backdrop, one or two vibrant shades become your color pops.  The design doesn’t get better marks because you used all the tones in the rug; the art of color is knowing when to let a hue exist in the room without highlighting it.

This is my first entry on this blog and I’m feeling my way through it.  The goal is to match ideas to photo content whenever possible, to offer how-to tips and to bring a little down-to-earth perspective to design.  Please share your thoughts to help me do good work!