Home & Design

A Passion for Art

Eric Kole, co-owner of Vastu, fills his Logan Circle penthouse with a vibrant collection of modern paintings and sculpture

A Passion for Art

Eric Kole relaxes on the steps of his Logan Circle penthouse beneath Absolut DC, a lithograph made for the vodka purveyor by Judy Brown. 

For Vastu co-owner Eric Kole, art doesn’t so much imitate life. Art is his life.The line blurs between a professional and personal passion for beautiful things in the same way that his chic Logan Circle furnishings boutique/ gallery and his swanky duplex loft in the same DC neighborhood share a consistent progressive design aesthetic. He calls his style “warm, comfortable modern.” But at home, as at work, it is this designer-entrepreneur’s devotion to fine art that really drives him.

“I grew up in Michigan, very, very poor. The first time I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and saw Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn, I got goose bumps,” Kole recalls. “Something happened that really transformed me.”

That transformation took time to flourish for the fit 43-year-old, who first came to Washington to enter the corporate world after graduating from Cornell with degrees in economics and design. “I rose to become a divisional vice-president for Computer Associates, but I didn’t totally use the design part of my education for 15 years,” he notes.

Creating attractive residential interiors began as a hobby for him during that period. Friends asked for help with their places and he kept redoing his own. “And that’s when I began collecting art,” he says.
About four years ago, he’d had enough of the corporate existence. “I couldn’t get up one more morning and put on another suit to sell something I had no interest in,” Kole recalls.

As the 14th Street corridor began its renaissance in 2003, he and co-owner Jason Claire opened the hip, contemporary Vastu. A new generation of professionals was just moving into the neighborhood and seeking the sleek, modern look. The store—which offers custom furniture, fashionable accessories, design services and, of course, affordable art pieces—was profitable from the day it opened, Kole says.

In 2003, Kole also placed an advance order to purchase a penthouse condominium in the vintage Cooper-Lewis Building. The residence would include a light-filled, bi-level 1,450-square-foot interior and a spectacular 1,100-square-foot, wrap-around roof terrace.

The complete rehab by the Metropolis Development Company was just launching, so Kole was able to make alterations to his floor plan. The most important structural change that he ordered, to showcase his art and fit his living requirements, flies in the face of recent trends. “I actually closed in the kitchen,” he reveals. The added walls allowed for about 60 to 70 percent more kitchen cabinetry and provided more

display space for his art collection.

Kole, who was finally able to move into the apartment building last year, had pre-planned where every painting would hang and where each piece of sculpture and furniture would be positioned. “I was able to throw a party in it within 72 hours of moving in,” he remembers.

It is that kind of enthusiasm and attention to detail that informs every part of Kole’s home. This becomes apparent from the moment you step onto the Brazilian cherry hardwood floor and behold the dramatic expanse, which is punctuated by vibrant canvases in representational themes. The foyer tenders an initial burst with a pair of Javier Cabada’s flowers, Red Lily and White Iris, hanging next to one another above a contrasting antique Tibetan cupboard.

“Except for a couple of these old cabinets and bookcases, every pillow, rug, window treatment and stick of furniture came from Vastu,” Kole says. “And I acquired about half of the art through Vastu. We have new shows every eight to 10 weeks for emerging local artists. I try to buy at least one piece from each of them. But my most important art, I’ve collected that throughout my life.”

Among those, on the right in the main hallway after the entrances to the cozy media/guest room and immaculate kitchen, is Reflections on Soda Fountain. It’s one of three lithographs Kole owns by Roy Lichtenstein, the artist known for his comic-strip style. Nearby, on the counter of the functional kitchen with its sleek Scavolini cabinetry, is another example of Kole’s love of pop art: a framed Campbell’s Tomato Soup label. It is one of a series originally signed by artist Andy Warhol for Campbell’s company employees after the artist’s own versions of the label gained international acclaim.

The pop-art genre fits Kole’s idea that the furniture should serve as a backdrop. “Classic sculptural pieces in a muted, neutral palette allow you to go brighter, bolder and bigger in art choices. Art needs to grab you.”

While Kole believes that furniture is secondary, it still needs to hold its own against the art. This is apparent in the soaring combined living/dining area, where an iconic Saarinen dining table with an arabescato marble top by Knoll anchors a swirl of forceful, large-scale compositions.

By comparison, a soothing taupe-gray master suite on the opposite side of the great room feels more like a private sanctuary.  Resting beside the leather and steel Vastu recalls the greater intention of the residence as an art repository.

Kole’s good taste, along with his personal identity, are reflected up the staircase, off the apartment’s cool second-story den with its high-tech metal fireplace.Suspended in mid-air is a specially commissioned sculpture, Julie Levesque’s Four Square. A stark white grouping of four symmetrical houses dangles together, each slightly different in its features, each one representing a member of Kole’s family as described by him to the artist. It is left open to interpretation, though, as to which tiny dwelling symbolizes his mother, father, brother and himself.

But when it comes to his full-sized dwelling, Eric Kole is unambiguous. “Art has no intrinsic value, no actual use. It’s not a chair. It’s about pure beauty. To know I can have something simply because it is beautiful, that’s what thrills me.”

Sally Kline, a Washington-area arts and culture writer for 17 years, is a regular contributor to Home & Design. Timothy Bell is a photographer based in Washington, DC, and New York City.

Suspended next to the second-story den that leads to the roof terrace (right), Julie Levesque’s Four Square symbolizes the four members of Kole’s family. In the living room (opposite), Kole juxtaposes two vibrant paintings, Blue by David DeBilzan and Crema by Carlos Davila Rinaldi, over low-slung furnishings from Vastu.

A Saarinen table brings a sculptural look into the dining area (opposite), where Popi’s Power of Money makes a dramatic statement. Sleek cabinets by Scavolini and quartz-stone countertops create a modern vibe in the kitchen (above). The framed soup-can label signed by Andy Warhol was made as a gift for Campbell’s employees after the artist’s Campbell’s Soup Cans gained international acclaim.

Kole’s comfortable media room (this page) boasts a Nelson bench, a sofa by Steven Anthony and a side chair upholstered in Knoll fabric—all from Vastu. UPC, a canvas by Genevieve Durang, echoes the lines in the bench. Serenity prevails in the gray-taupe master bedroom (opposite top), where Andy?Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes shimmers over the bed and Lichtenstein’s Venetian School covers a space where there was once a window.

A metallic and epoxy painting by Willie Little sets a tranquil tone in the master bath (opposite bottom).

Suspended next to the second-story den that leads to the roof terrace, Julie Levesque's Four Squares symbolizes the four members of Kole's family.

In the living room, Kole juxtaposes two vibrant paintings, Blue by David DeBilzan and Crema by Carlos Davila Rinaldi, over low-slung furnishings from Vastu. 

A Saarinen table brings an sculptural look into the dining area, where Popi's Power of Money makes a dramatic statement. 

Sleek cabinets by Scavolini and quartz-stone countertops create a modern vibe in the kitchen. 

Kole's comfortable media room boasts a Nelson bench, a sofa by Steven Anthony and a side chair upholstered in Knoll fabric-- all from Vastu. UPC, a canvas by Genevieve Durang, echoes the lines in the bench. 

Serenity prevails in the gray-taupe master bedroom, where Andy Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes shimmers over the bed. 

The den leads to the 1,100-square-foot wrap-around roof terrace, which offers panoramic views of DC and makes a great spot for entertaining.

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