Living with Art

Designer Skip Sroka creates interior spaces that boldly display his client's collection of American Realism


Reminiscent of a gallery space, the wide entryway is painted
deep ochre. Portrait of Joy, a painting of a young woman by
Robin Freedenfeld, reflects on simpler times. A landscape by
Douglas Osa leads toward the family room.

Five years ago a Maryland businessman bought a half-finished house in Potomac. The new home had plenty of room for his family and lots of space for his ever-expanding art collection. With a substantially completed exterior but an incomplete interior, the family could re-design the inside space according to their needs. But they needed help.

“We interviewed four interior design firms,” recalls the homeowner. “Skip Sroka talked about how we could do something spectacular with the art. Everyone else focused on furniture, but he focused on art.” And art is the passion of this self-proclaimed “incurable” collector of American Realism. Amassed over the past two decades, his acquisitions are not limited by medium (he owns works in pencil, oil and watercolor) or subject—except that the art must be meaningful to him personally. As the curator of his own collection, he “looks for something that I enjoy. Something that puts me in a happy mood, makes me feel good or reminds me of something in my past.”

The owner turned to Sroka to complete the interior of his new home. The designer set to work devising a floor plan and a lighting plan that would not only make the home livable for his client’s family but that would also best spotlight his art collection. “One of my goals was to make sure we’d have enough wall space; new construction tends to have less wall space,” says Sroka. “We inventoried the collection, actually placing the larger pieces to make sure there were walls to accept them.”

Sroka also added architectural details—from the right moldings to complement the home’s Georgian style to well-appointed fireplace mantels in the living room, family room, dining room, sitting room and master bedroom—to bring a more refined, tailored look to the interiors. “The mantel is always the heart of a room,” he says. “Every one had thought put into it so it would be warm and welcoming.”

From the start, Sroka stressed that an extensive art collection does not demand stark white walls. “If you go to the National Gallery of Art,” he says, “you see that art looks fantastic on color. The color of a room is not necessarily dictated by any of the paintings in the room. A great color shows off other objects and paintings.” To that end, every room in this client’s home is painted a different color, unified by crisp white woodwork.

The house’s traditional exterior belies the art collection inside. Guests step into a wide entryway painted deep ochre. One wall is dominated by an oil of a young woman with her feet dangling in a pond. On a rock next to her rests a pair of Converse high-tops. Like many subjects in the paintings of Robin Freedenfeld, the girl seems awakened from a self-absorbed, contemplative state by an unexpected intrusion. Freedenfeld’s work is characterized by brilliant color and clarity of vision. This painting is typical of the homeowner’s aesthetic; many of his paintings convey a strong sense of the past, reflecting on simpler times.

Sometimes the collector will point to a painting and explain, “This reminds me of where I grew up” or “I worked in that place for six months several years ago.” He is proud that half of his paintings are by women artists and emphasizes that he does not purchase art as an investment. Some of his most treasured pieces were the least expensive. “Art does not have to be expensive to be good,” he says. “There are marvelous places to look even in your own neighborhood.”

Sroka worked with his client to decide which pieces fit best in each room, giving each painting space to breathe and integrating the house’s dual functions of home and gallery. The dining room is a perfect example. The room is painted a paler version of the entryway’s ochre. A French chandelier hangs over an ornate dining room table. Flanking the fireplace are two watercolors by Karen Horn, one of an amaryllis and one of black tulips. Horn uses such saturated, luminescent color that it is difficult to believe that her medium is watercolor and not oil. “I don’t have any talent like that,” explains the homeowner, “so when I see what people can do, it’s just fascinating.”

Across the entryway, the living room is painted a bold claret. Recessed niches flank the fireplace and the furniture is scaled large and cozy. Two paintings on either side of this room command attention. On the west wall is Michael Pyrdsa’s interpretation of New York City, pre-September 11. Clouds roil the Manhattan skyline and the Twin Towers stand guard over the city. On the opposing wall is an intensely personal painting by Harvey Dinnerstein. A couple is seated on a motorcycle. The male driver is looking ahead into a romantic landscape, but the female passenger looks back wistfully, not sure what the future holds or if this is a path that she wants to take. Dinnerstein studied at the Art Student League with fellow students Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but for six decades has remained faithful to the precepts of representational art. This painting has particular resonance for its owner as he bought it for his fortieth birthday, a time of personal reflection. In the light-filled family room, another painting by Michael Pyrdsa dominates the space above the fireplace. As in most of his work, the painting depicts an active sky.

The stairs to the second floor provide an unusual pause in the private gallery. The colorful palette gives way to a quiet beige. Only one work, a three-dimensional sculpture of twisted metal, hangs on the landing between the first and second floors. Turn on a spotlight and it casts a shadow, forming a tandem bike. The artist is Larry Kagan, a professor at MIT. Kagan’s work has a unique duality: the object and its shadow. He wrote, “I found out that I could make continuous forms out of discontinuous kinds of steel elements. I found that I could make whole and complete forms out of pieces of steel that looked like they were flying every which way from a center… What I discovered was obvious—that the shadow isn’t just a line on the wall, but it’s really volume in space.” The homeowner was so taken with Kagan’s work that he commissioned the artist to create two sculptures: one of two slices of pizza installed over the television in the family room and another of his young nephews playing the piano, a gift for his sister.

The second-floor hallway is what Sroka calls the “Pencil Gallery;” the walls are lined with the owner’s collection of graphite art. For a medium that might be self-limiting, the work has astonishing variety and depth. One landscape has the dimensionality of an Ansel Adams photograph. Some of the pieces are intricately executed while others use the power of white space, minimally suggesting a scene or an object. Included in the collection are works by John Whalley and Don Pearson.

Color returns in the master bedroom. Another oil by Robin Freedenfeld hangs next to the window. This one has the cheerful nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell illustration. A young woman pauses long enough on her bike ride to be captured by the artist. On the other side of the room is a darker vision, also in oil, by Burton Silverman. Two women are standing together, one facing the viewer, the other staring to the side. There is something discomfiting about their relationship to the viewer and to each other, reflecting a darker side of American Realism. Sroka chose a peaceful palette for his client’s home office suite. The conference room is painted a muted tone that is “neither green nor gray nor blue” and the office is a complementary blue. It is clear that sentiment rules the art in this space: behind the desk is a large portrait by Bernard Safran of a rag tag bunch of children who look like refugees from a summer picnic. This home and gallery is collaboration between a man whose collection is governed by instinct and sentiment and a designer who knows how to set it off using bold color and scale. “In the beginning [the collection] was a free for all,” says the homeowner.

“But now I’m focusing on about 20 artists on my list.” Although his home/gallery is getting close to full, he says, “The beauty of what Skip has done for us is that you walk into these rooms and you have a different feeling in every room.”

Sroka explains, “When you love something the way they love their art, it’s just part of the fabric of their lives. You just weave their surroundings with it.”

Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington-based freelance writer and the editor of Tuscany in Mind, a Vintage/Random House book. Photographer Timothy Bell is based in Washington, DC, and New York City.


The living room is painted a bold claret. Two paintings on
either side of the room command attention: Michael Pyrdsa’s
interpretation of New York City before September 11th.

 


Harvey Dinnerstein’s Motorcycle Ride.

 


Though the dining room incorporates an ornate table and
chandelier, the artwork takes center stage. A waterscape by
James van Patten hangs above the sideboard, flanked by a
smaller piece by George Deem.

On the opposite wall, a still life by James Del Grosso
dominates.

House in Allenhurst by Michael Pyrdsa hangs above the
mantel in the family room.

And a sculpture of twisted metal by MIT professor Larry
Kagan casts a perfect shadow of a tandem bike on the
landing between the first and second floors.

Prague Café by Dale Kennington creates a focal point at the
end of the hallway leading toward the owner’s home office.

In the master bedroom, paintings by Ronald MacDonald
Graham, Gerald Mofchum and Burton Silverman surround
the fireplace.