A Sense of Proportion

Interior designer Therese Baron Gurney infuses a traditional Maryland home with symmetry and modern style

A Sense of Proportion

January/February 2007

In front of the Colonial façade, a sleek modern bench by
artisan Douglas Thayer.
Moving into a new house often marks the end of a “honeymoon” period. That was the case for Susan Brett, who had just settled into the five-year-old Colonial in Potomac that she and her husband, Robert Shesser, thought was perfect for their family of four. However, as she started to adapt the home to her family’s lifestyle, its traditional trim and ornate draperies began to wear her down. A fan of the clean and simple design, Brett found herself longing for a modern house, yet trapped in a traditional shell.“I found this house and we really liked the location and I was sort of blind to the ‘issues,’” Brett recalls. “We liked the basic structure and size and location but there were a lot of pretty cheap materials all over the place. There were these amazing curtains, very big swags everywhere. At first, we thought, ‘Oh great, we don’t have to do anything quickly.’ Then, basically every day I started ripping them down.”Brett needed help. So she turned to Thérèse Baron Gurney, an interior designer who had just completed a home for one of Brett’s friends and whose portfolio includes a number of award-winning modern projects. Brett first invited Gurney over to help furnish the family room.At first sight, Gurney knew that the soaring space needed a lot more than a new sofa. The home’s two-story foyer culminated in a round area where two Corinthian columns led into the family room. The proportions were all wrong. “The big problem when we first came in,” recalls Gurney, “was it was such a large house, it was such a large space, how do we proportionally deal with the furniture and the furnishings?”

“The big problem when we first came in,” recalls Therese Baron Gurney, “was it was such a large house, it was such a large space, how do we proportionally deal with the furniture and the furnishings?”

Gurney’s solution for bringing scale to the family room also led to a total overhaul of the foyer. Once that was done, Brett and her husband wanted more. With Gurney’s help, they embarked on a whole-house transformation that included the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the master bedroom and bathroom, and the creation of a new sunroom.

By introducing a sense of scale, symmetry, and order, Gurney has achieved what many homeowners assume is impossible: going modern in a classic Colonial. Despite the home’s traditional façade, guests discover a sleek, modern foyer within. The original marble floor and standard wooden stair rail are gone, replaced by honed limestone floors and a custom stair-rail treatment of Gurney’s design made of stainless steel, sandblasted glass, and mahogany.

“I worked with scale and elements of modern architecture…but yet we used them in a way that I think is not cold or austere,” says Gurney of the foyer design. “Each of those groups of three columns works within a larger grid, so we created order where there wasn’t order. It’s interesting because it’s contrasted by this one continuous piece of mahogany, a handrail that meanders up and around. It kind of creates an interesting dynamic between the two.”

Metalworker Ed Stockman of Art Studio Iron spent months implementing the stair-rail design. “It was a very intricate, long, arduous process. He actually spent the night here one night,” recalls Gurney, who believes it was worth the effort. “To me, it’s really the most central, most important thing. It really changed the whole dynamic of the house.”

Gone are the fussy Corinthian columns in the foyer, replaced by weightier Doric columns that are more in scale with the soaring space. A wooden table by furniture maker Ted Boerner topped with limestone invites guests into the family room beyond.

Early on in the project, Gurney made another sweeping change, replacing the standard baseboards, moldings, and hardware throughout the house. “They were under the scale and weren’t in proportion to what the volumes we were working in really deserved,” she recalls. “The hardware was hollow and brass. The hinges were junky and painted. For me, changing out things that you normally don’t focus on changed the whole atmosphere and feeling of the house. They make it special and unique.”

Gurney zeroed in on a simple palette of colors and materials that would unify the interiors and create a sense of harmony from one room to the next. A consummate collector with a keen eye for modern design, Brett worked closely with Gurney on the selection of furnishings and art to complement her home’s new look. “Sue will be out and she’ll find something and she’ll call me and after her description, I’ll say, ‘Go ahead.’ I trust her completely,” says Gurney.

Homeowner Susan Brett and interior designer Therese
Baron Gurney. Low-slung Italian sofas coupled with a modern cocktail table set a serene tone in the living room. In the dining room, Gurney paired Brett’s existing dining table and buffet with new chairs upholstered in leather. A custom mirror from France and hanging pendant lights complete the formal yet pared-down look.

The family room required more custom work, again to tackle the proportions of the space. Gurney designed an oversized wall unit to house the TV and Brett’s collection of art glass. “It was such a large space,” says Gurney, “that any kind of furniture that was in there before looked dwarfed. So what I did was create an overscaled, large curio cabinet. It balances this very large vertical that was existing from the fireplace and grounds the room.”

Furnishings were selected for comfort and durability. The chairs swivel and the fabrics say Gurney, “are very forgiving for kids with greasy hands eating in chairs. And the sofa is curved because it accommodates a family of four and lots of friends.”

The family room opens to the kitchen and breakfast area. Kitchen designer Larry Rosen of Jack Rosen Custom Kitchens upgraded the space working closely with Gurney to select materials that would blend well with the rest of the house.

The next stage of the project focused on the design of a sunroom off the kitchen. Where there once was a basic deck, there is now an expanded, light-filled room where the family enjoys lounging and watching TV on comfortable new sofas and enjoying casual meals around a table of Gurney’s design.

Once the ground floor was complete, the designer and her clients turned to the master bedroom suite. An emergency-room physician, Shesser needed a tranquil place to decompress after long hours at the hospital. Though large, the existing master bath with its plain white cabinets didn’t quite satisfy the couple’s desire for a spa-like retreat, so they decided to renovate the bathroom before the bedroom. Gurney replaced the cabinets with custom, floor-to-ceiling millwork made of natural maple. An “implied grid” created by the cabinet seams establishes a sense of symmetry and order. The rest is a pure luxury: limestone floors, an air jet tub, an oversized shower with a wall of glass tile, a built-in TV and even a small beverage cooler. The natural materials and soothing color palette produce an immediate calming effect.

A custom stair rail of Gurney’s design, a honed limestone
floor, and retooled columns welcome guests into the foyer.
Creating harmony between the bedroom and bath, Gurney designed a new limestone fireplace surround in the bedroom. Above the fireplace, natural maple millwork complements the cabinetry in the bath. the project was a deviation from her strictly modern work, Gurney feels it proved a valuable point. “This was a challenge that I actually embraced. How do you bring a modern aesthetic or modern way of living into a shell that exists? You can do it by massaging gently and making subtle changes, bringing back scale and proportion to these overscaled houses. It can be done.”

When she considers the work of today’s greatest designers, Gurney notes a single common denominator. “The whole thing comes down to the appropriateness of the mass to space it relates to, whether it’s a large space or a small space. It’s the challenge of design. It’s what I embrace. It’s why I love doing what I do.”

Interior Design: Thérèse Baron Gurney, ASID, Washington, DC; Renovation Contractor, Main house: Kandel Construction Group, Potomac, Maryland; Renovation Contractor, Sunroom: Four Seasons Design Build, Rockville, Maryland

Photographer Anice Hoachlander is a principal of Hoachlander Davis Photography in Washington, DC.

The entry hall opens into the living room, which features
seating by B&B Italia and a painting by Thomas R. Walsh.

Gurney matched the owners’ existing dining room table
and buffet with new chairs upholstered in luxurious leather.

A maple “curio cabinet” displays the homeowner’s
glass collection. A sliding glass door hides the television.

The new kitchen includes maple cabinetry by Neff, Impala
black granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances.
The new sunroom features a seating area and a dining
table that takes in views of the wooded backyard.
Gurney echoed elements from the bathroom design in
the bedroom’s fireplace surround and cabinetry.
Gurney created a spa-like retreat in the master bathroom.