A New Perspective

Fabiola Martens helps her clients make the most of their cherished possessions when they downsize to a house in Avenel.


Andy Warhol’s portrait of Mao presides over an antique French mantel in the double-height living room, a blast of color in an otherwise muted environment of serene gray-green.

For empty nesters, downsizing offers a seductive opportunity to cast previous lives to the wind and start anew. But when the past involves generations of memories, a trove of cherished antiques and collections that range from contemporary art to old English biscuit tins, throwing things away is not an option.

A Potomac couple recently downsized their living space by 3,000 square feet by moving from a period residence to a 20-year-old dwelling overlooking the golf course at Avenel in Potomac, Maryland. With help from Washington designer Fabiola Martens, they preserved the delights of several lifetimes while turning the new house into a gracious, almost custom-designed home. Now, Andy Warhol’s portrait of Mao presides over an antique French mantel in the double-height living room, a blast of color in an otherwise muted environment of serene gray-green that Martens describes as “the color of warmth.”

The owners, a retired neurologist and his politically active spouse, had no trouble giving up a three-acre lawn for a view of the 12th hole from windows across the back of the house. “It’s totally private,” the wife says. “We call it ‘beachfront property’ because of the sand trap and stream.”

Fitting prized belongings and the couple’s active lifestyle—working, entertaining and visits from grandchildren—into fewer and smaller rooms presented a challenge. For starters, the Avenel residence has 5,000 square feet on three floors, but it “looked totally like a model home,” says Martens, who is married to a custom homebuilder. The owner remembers that the rooms were painted “blizzard white. We used to wear sunglasses.”

Martens, a Belgian lawyer turned decorator, started by adding architectural character and removing dated features, such as the “Romeo and Juliet” balustrade overlooking the living room. Shell-shaped niches in the foyer were redesigned with clean, contemporary lines. Shiny brass light fixtures were artfully painted over. Textured finishes and a few moldings added depth to plain walls.

Accommodating the wife’s family heirlooms and the husband’s ongoing collecting passion became a plus, rather than a problem. The wife had inherited good pieces from her family, including French chairs and chests and her grandmother’s Chinoiserie cabinets, which now seem to wink at Mao across the living room.

The owner jokes about the portrait, saying, “We’re not Communists. I’m a big fan of Andy Warhol.” She keeps bipartisan decorations in the entryway—a majolica elephant and donkey—for potential contributors of either persuasion.

It was important to her that “every room has something of my family,” she says. Crystal sconces were removed from the old house and installed in the hall and dining room, where they make excellent companions for a collection of mercury glass and old silver. A gilded mirror from the owner’s mother adds distinction to the powder room, beneath an heirloom chandelier.

The move to the new home did allow Martens to transform upholstery from faded chintz to a contemporary palette of pale neutrals. Except for fabrics and floor-coverings, “we did not shop,” says Martens. “We could pick and choose the best pieces. I think it’s so much better to use what you have. That’s what a good house is—where the owner looks good, because they know every thing.”

A step-up library off the living room holds more majolica than books, with objects arrayed to the ceiling on shelving tailor-made to keep the breakables safe, but also perfectly illuminated when sun is not streaming through the generous window. Martens opted for understated upholstery, except for a bold cotton print on a plump but tailored sofa.

Martens believes that “good color and warmth” can substitute for space and architecture. Her theory was tested in the dining room, a potentially claustrophobic space overlooking an exterior brick wall. She blocked the view with plantation shutters and treated the walls to a mesmerizing concoction of combing and stenciling in a shimmering ice-blue Fortuny motif. A creamy silk rug and a chemically aged mirrored wall now provide a glamorous environment for dining. The owner’s mahogany dining chairs are hiding under soft blue paint with touches of silver leaf. In a dining room, which is used most often at night, Martens says, “very understated” sparkle can work well.

The living room walls, which required six coats, are a custom mix of green, black, taupe and yellow. For the kitchen, the decorator chose Benjamin Moore’s Desert Tan right out of the can. “Every room has a freshness to it,” Martens says, in part because she kept the floors simple.

On a recent afternoon, the lady of the house gave a tour, pointing out prized pieces of majolica from her husband’s collection, which numbers in the hundreds of pieces. An 1870s English Stilton cheese dome in the shape of a thatched cottage and a tiered oyster server enjoy pride of place in the living room.

A Jasper Johns on the stair wall points the way to the lower level, which contains his-and-hers offices and a seating area that converts to a media room. One wall is devoted to a collection of English biscuit tins made in the shape of handbags.

Back in the living room, with Martens by her side on the sofa newly covered with salmon linen velvet, there are no more paint chips or fabric swatches to consider, and the owner sounds a little wistful.

“Thanks to Fabiola, it’s just such a wonderful home for empty nesters,” she says. “I’d like to start all over.”

Linda Hales has been a design writer and editor at The Washington Post for 17 years. Angie Seckinger is a photographer based in Potomac, Maryland.


The dining room walls were treated to a mesmerizing concoction of combing and stenciling gin a shimmering ice-blue Fortuny motif.


A gilded mirror that belonged to the owner’s mother hangs in the powder room.


Martens added depth to the white walls with decorative finishes and carefully chosen moldings.


On the lower level, one wall is dedicated to a collection of English tea biscuit tins in the shape of handbags.


The family room-kitchen was updated by replacing white Corian countertops and dark wood cabinets with pale green granite counters and matching cabinets.


Colorful antique plated are displayed in racks and a stunning array of white ironstone pitchers carries the kitchen theme into the sitting room.


A step-up library off the living room hold more majolica than books in custom-made shelving.