Shimmer and Light

Artist Rob Vander Zee furnishes his new Washington home with a vibrant collection of paintings, sculpture and found objects


The colors in Rob Vander Zee’s condo play off his collection of art, while furnishings tend towards the contemporary. The living/dining area features seating by Ligne Roset and a rough-hewn dining table from Indonesia. Behind the table is a large wood sculpture.

Abstract paintings and sculpture share space with a pink pig, fossils and a mango-topped dining table in artist Rob Vander Zee’s new DC condominium. Everything is meaningful to this artist whose boyish good looks belie years of education, travel and the ongoing quest for artistic growth.

“My whole life is focused on the pursuit of beauty, so if I am surrounded by drab, ugly things, I am not feeling inspired,” says Vander Zee. He purchased a condominium in The Chastleton, an early 1920s building listed in James Goode’s Best Addresses. Since its recent major renovation, the interiors have been transformed into semi-loft-like spaces with the living, dining and kitchen areas merged into one room, a totally different concept of living than when General Douglas MacArthur and Wallis Simpson (later to become the Duchess of Windsor) called the building home.

Gargoyles top the exterior of Vander Zee’s windows. His view from the kitchen/dining area surveys the classical columns and friezes of John Russell Pope’s monumental Temple of the Scottish Rite. Across the street, the red-brick Tourtorsky mansion, albeit in disrepair, recalls the historic mandate to create an exceptional avenue of mansions along 16th Street in the nation’s capital. Inspiration lies outside and in.

Art of all forms comes first for Vander Zee, so interior colors must play off his collection of art—abstracts, landscapes and sculpture that include his own work and the work of friends, students and fellow artists.

Vander Zee works in his Alexandria, Virginia, studio, where he also runs a non-profit art school, passing on his knowledge and philosophy of art to adult students. He calls himself an aestheticist, proffering the term to his students. “Our approach to art is: We all love beauty. Obviously, beauty can come in many different forms and many different fashions.” This philosophy extends beyond his chosen career, becoming an essential ingredient of his everyday life.

Vander Zee’s new home is coming together with the help of his friend, interior designer Bunny Thomas of Style Infusion. “It has been particularly fun working with her. We have been having a blast because she is an interior designer who is also an artist, and I am an artist, so we are bouncing ideas back and forth,” says Vander Zee.

For Vander Zee, who considers himself a colorist, each hue is a significant element in the overall creative process. This carries into his private living space: One Benjamin Moore “Split Pea Green” wall in his living room reflects the vibrant hue in his painting over the sofa, reverberates in the paintings at the end of the hallway and is further echoed in the large work over his bed. It is one example of this artists’ awareness of repetition in composition and its bearing in the real world.

Vander Zee’s work draws on transparent earth tones coupled with brighter hues as he layers paint and glazes on box-frame, luan wood panels. “I am using the same techniques as the old masters, the glazing techniques, but I use them in a very contemporary way,” he explains. “When I layer the glaze in just the right way, adding just the right amounts of pigment, there is a shimmer from within when the light hits it.”

Vander Zee used the same technique on the crown molding in his living area, which required five layers of glaze. “That was a lot of work,” he notes. Inspiration for the treatment came from the orb-shaped chandelier over the dining table, a post-World War I, Swedish, alabaster fixture. The blend of golden yellows and oranges deepening into warm browns is found in many of his landscapes—and in his den, where the walls are painted in Benjamin Moore’s “Golden Retriever.” Otherwise, walls throughout the living area and master bedroom are a neutral “Cool Platinum,” their expanse punctuated by effervescent paintings.

The orb chandelier is only one of the many antique and vintage pieces that Vander Zee has collected. “I love art in every form and fashion, so when I collect something I am responding in an aesthetic way,” he explains.

Vander Zee’s functional furnishings tend toward the contemporary. The large ottoman-coffee table fabricated from maple with mahogany trim and topped with dyed cowhide was a collaborative effort with Thomas. At first, Vander Zee was unsure about using the nail-head trim, but now he is pleased—it hints of tradition.

Carved wood chairs surround his Indonesian dining table, the top of which was fabricated from a single slab of mango wood. A portrait and abstract paintings lined along the walls are punctuated by stunning sculptural glass forms by fellow artist Dino Rosin.

Vander Zee sees his den as the “Thinking Room,” explaining, “I played with the idea of ‘the age of enlightenment library’ kind of thing.” Two large cabinets dominate the small room, one of heavily carved wood and glass featuring an artist’s palette on the lower half, and by contrast, a steel medical cabinet with glass doors. Inside are shells, fossils and rocks; an old wood plane from his grandfather’s workshop in the artist’s native Michigan, along with a long wood drill once used to bear down into the river ice so it could be cut and brought to the family farm; the back of an old chair; and an incense burner from Poland—just a few of many cherished objects.


Throughout the residence, Vander Zee evokes nature in a contemporary way. His blue piece, Aqua, was inspired by the waters and coral reefs of Costa Rica; it hangs next to Balancing Rocks, a glass sculpture by Dino Rosin.

Among the treasures in his bedroom is an old, painted Tibetan trunk that is about 250 years old, he estimates. “I bought this because I love the beauty of it—that is how I am responding to it. I want to wake up to beauty…to be inspired by what is around me,” says Vander Zee.

Opposite his bed hangs one of his cityscapes. Although lacking the vibrancy of most of his work, Vander Zee sees these somber-hued pieces as full of life. “They need to be gutsy and almost vibrate…to have a sense of place that talks of the liveliness of the city” he adds. “They are meant to create an atmosphere, a real rugged sense of the elements of the city.”

Next to this cityscape diptych hangs a still-life by his friend Christophora Robeers. He is also very fond of the work by fellow artist Tracy Silva Barbosa. Working in mixed media, she incorporates photography, cut-outs and printer’s ink numbers with acrylics. One of her pieces hangs over his bed next to his lively and colorful abstract, an unexpected pairing with delightful results.

A sleek contemporary black bed from Ligne Roset dominates the room. “I love combining antiquities with the contemporary. I think it is an interesting connection because it is all aesthetically based,” he emphasizes. Natural fiber wallpaper on the ceiling adds texture, giving character to the room without overwhelming the art. The 36-year-old artist studied under Larry Blovitz at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and later delved into the painting process and contemporary art theory at Michigan State University, where he earned a prestigious College of Arts and Letters Merit scholarship.

Extensive travel since then has taken him to places off the tourist radar, cities where he exhibited his art, lectured and taught: Cluj, Romania; Sighnaghi, Georgia; and more recently Tallinn, Estonia. He brought back not merely the colors and the images of these destinations, but the total sense of place: the people and the culture that are emerging after years of Communism. He saw the similarities and the differences, all subtly merging into his aesthetic.


In his “thinking room,” Rob Vander Zee conceives new works of art surrounded by many of his favorite collected objects.

Vander Zee’s landscapes, portraits and cityscapes are becoming more abstract as he matures. “I think abstraction is the natural path to any artist who is searching for growth. I think if you keep painting realistically there is a wall there. How realistic can you get? But if you just let yourself evolve as an artist, then abstraction is a very natural direction,” he says.

He talks of Rothko and the artist’s ability to paint realistically before he moved into abstraction. “My philosophy has always been, the more formal aspects of art that you understand, the better the abstract painter you can be. I think that has always been my drive, to become good enough at these other things where I would naturally evolve into an abstract painter.”

As for the pink pig, he comes from New York; a bit of humor to keep everything from becoming too serious, says Vander Zee.

The colors in Rob Vander Zee’s condo play off his collection of art, while furnishings tend toward the contemporary. The open living/dining area features seating by Ligne Roset, an ottoman-coffee table topped with dyed cowhide and a rough-hewn dining table from Indonesia. Behind the dining table, Vander Zee has displayed a large wood sculpture by Forest Taylor and a self portrait, Inner Vibrations.

Throughout the residence, Vander Zee evokes nature in a contemporary way. His blue piece, Aqua, was inspired by the waters and coral reefs of Costa Rica; it hangs next to Balancing Rocks, a glass sculpture by Dino Rosin (above). Deep Forest V, Vander Zee’s work above the sofa (right), also brings an element of the outdoors into his new urban space.

In his “thinking room,” Rob Vander Zee conceives new works of art surrounded by many of his favorite collected objects (above). One of his students, Judith Judy, painted the landscape on the table. He tries to collect one piece of art from each of his students when they graduate. In his own work, such as Forest Edge Valley II (right), Vander Zee pairs transparent earth tones with brighter hues


In the bedroom, Vander Zee created a serene, Zen-like painting to anchor his low-slung bed from Ligne Roset. A piece by Tracy Silva Barbosa hangs to the left.

A hallway leads to the bedroom and study. On the left are two paintings by friend and fellow artist Susan Finsen. The pieces by Vander Zee at the end of the hall were the inspiration behind the color scheme that he and designer Bunny Thomas incorporated throughout the residence. The artist’s Terra Firma hangs on the right in the hallway. In the bedroom (above), Vander Zee created a serene, Zen-like painting to anchor his low-slung bed from Ligne Roset. A piece by Tracy Silva Barbosa hangs to the left.

Opposite the bed is a still life by Christophora Robeers and one of Vander Zee’s cityscapes, Sunday in Soho. It was inspired by an afternoon the artist spent in New York and the detached sense of separation one feels in the city’s thrall. By contrast, his landscapes, such as Summer’s Edge IV (right), incorporate more vibrant colors.

Vander Zee’s work draws on transparent earth tones coupled with brighter hues as he layers paint and glazes on box-frame, luan wood panels. “I am using the same techniques as the old masters, the glazing techniques, but I use them in a very contemporary way,” he explains. “When I layer the glaze in just the right way, adding just the right amounts of pigment, there is a shimmer from within when the light hits it.”


Opposite the bed is a still life by Christophora Robeers and one of Vander Zee’s cityscapes, Sunday in Soho.