Home & Design

A Modern Shift

Alex Stefan and Helena Pulyaeva transform their 1980s Bethesda home with clean-lined furnishings and a collection of expressionist art

A Modern Shift

A new stainless-steel door flanked by bands of clear and frosted glass, new stainless-steel railings and Achille Castiglion's Taraxaum chandelier set a decidedly modern tone in the revamped entryway.

After reading several books on feng shui, design devotee Alex Stefan discovered that while different schools contradict each other on specifics, they all agree on one overriding principle: Trust your gut feeling. “If you feel something is right, it probably is,” says Stefan. “And if something’s not right, you’re probably correct and you should explore why.”

In 2004, when Stefan and his life partner and business associate Helena Pulyaeva found their 1980s contemporary in Bethesda, both of these impulses were in play. A real estate-agent duo with RE/MAX 2000, the couple could see that while the home’s basic open design would suit their active entertainment schedule, a major renovation would be necessary to correct some inherent flaws. “When we walked into the living room and foyer area with its cathedral ceiling,” recalls Stefan, “it was as if we were standing at the bottom of a deep well. A massive stone fireplace dominated the room. The house, decorated in French Country style, was contemporary, but not contemporary enough for our tastes.”

The year-long transformation involved a well thought-out approach that simultaneously diminished the home’s excessive size while opening it in new and unexpected ways.

Essential to the transformation of the space, says Stefan, are the new stainless-steel-and-glass front door, flanked by  glass panels, and the stainless-steel railings that define the newly opened stairwell and overlook. Over the door a  triangular fogged window framed in wood was replaced with banded clear and frosted glass, reframed in stainless steel.

In the great room, the couple offset the overwhelming verticality of the two-story space by introducing a number of horizontal elements. A system of box-housed halogen lighting installed on the side walls infuses the room with enveloping warmth. Shoji screens with wider spacing than is seen traditionally cover the expanse of double sliding glass doors opening on to the 1,000-square-foot deck. The existing oak floors were replaced with Brazilian cherry in five-and-a-half-inch-wide planks to enhance the desired clean look and add richness. “The hardest decision was getting rid of the fireplace, the pride of the previous owner,” recalls Stefan. “But at 12 feet wide and 10 feet high, the thing defied furniture placement. We kept bumping into it no matter where we put the furnishings. We haven’t regretted the decision for a moment.”

The couple’s extensive contemporary art collection reinforces the modern look. The great room took on a new intimacy with the installation of a mobile by California artist Bruce Gray in the center of the room. Its eight-foot span helps to anchor the voluminous space. Friends and long-time collectors of the Russian exile artist Alexander “Sasha” Zhdanov (who died in his adopted city of Washington in 2006), Stefan and Pulyaeva own more than two dozen works by the expressionist master, many of them large-scale and museum quality.

Low-slung furniture and a decorative paint treatment on the walls reinforce the horizontality of the great room. Matte and glossy white paint in alternating horizontal stripes adds texture to the walls. The couple selected contemporary furniture in a white palette, complemented by accents in red and black. Pieces like the white wool and leather sofas and the occasional tables from Ligne Roset complement their collection of mid-century modern furniture icons, such as Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, the 1948 Eames fiberglass La Chaise and the 1962 Arco floor lamp by Achille Castiglioni. Taraxacum, the dandelion chandelier designed by Castiglioni in 1988, defines the foyer.

Low-profile furniture also distinguishes the adjoining kitchen’s breakfast area: namely, an oversized white table and Japanese-inspired seating from Ligne Roset. In the kitchen, Canadian maple cabinetry and an island in red laminate with a black quartz top sit on aluminum legs. “We didn’t want a purely industrial kitchen. We went with wood to soften the space,” says Stefan. “The legs give the kitchen a lighter look. The cabinetry takes on the appearance of furniture and there’s added cleaning ease.” A modular Miele cook top with gas and electric burners, two ovens by Miele and Gaggenau, a Marvel wine cooler, a built-in Miele espresso machine and two top-loading Fisher & Paykel dishwashers enhance the kitchen’s performance.

In the dining room and the master bedroom, also on the main level, the couple introduced dark floors with six-inch-wide planks. Venetian plaster walls created by McLean-based Faux Illusions add color and texture. “We decided to ignore the common wisdom of uniformity usually seen in contemporary design, where all the walls are white or off-white and the floors are the same throughout,” says Stefan. “We wanted to make each space unique.”

The dining room furniture departs from the low profile seen elsewhere. An oversized square table in dark wood with polished chrome inserts complements and contrasts with the sleek polished aluminum of the Philippe Starck Hudson chairs.

A mobile by California artist Bruce Gray helps establish a sense of intimacy in the great room.

After reading several books on feng shui, design devotee Alex Stefan discovered that while different schools contradict each other on specifics, they all agree on one overriding principle: Trust your gut feeling. “If you feel something is right, it probably is,” says Stefan. “And if something’s not right, you’re probably correct and you should explore why.”

The only structural change made in the house took place in the master bedroom. Walls were removed and part of the attic opened to create a library bound by a stainless-steel railing and accessed via a spiral staircase in the same material. Black slate with aluminum inserts replaced the traditional fireplace. When entertaining, the couple uses dividers to screen off the bedroom and allow guests to access the fireplace seating area and the loft library.

“We had 100 people here recently and the house did not feel crowded at all,” says Stefan. “Just as we imagined—with some major adjustments—in the beginning.”

Judith Turner-Yamamoto is an art historian and features and fiction writer based in Washington, DC. Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia.

Alex Stefan and Helena Pulyaeva.

Venetian plaster walls warm up the dining room, where Philippe Starck's classic Hudson chairs and the chandelier by Terzani provide contrast with the dark wood table and floors.

Japanese-inspired seating and an oversized white table, all from Ligne Roset, reinforce the color scheme in the kitchen.

The red laminate island by Artcraft infuse the room with "the warmth of a red pepper."

The only structural work in the home's renovation took place in the master bedroom, where part of the attic was converted into a library loft, accessed by a stainless-steel spiral staircase.

Alex Stefan, a photographer in his spare time, shows his work in a gallery space on the home's lower level.

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