The Modern Mystique

Interior designer Paula Schumann and her client outfit his Woodley Park residence with vintage 20th-century furniture, art and accessories

The Modern Mystique

A Maxwell MacKenzie photograph over the Macassar ebony buffet becomes the focal point of the dining room. Demi-lune consoles from the 1940s flank the entrance to the space.

No antiques,” emphasized the homeowner as artist-cum-interior designer Paula Schumann zeroed in on her client’s affinity for Modernism and design from the early 20th century. It was an era when new and innovative concepts for living defied the over-zealous, often ad hoc, ornamentation of the past. Schumann watched her client eye Christian Liaigre sofas in the Jean-Michel Frank style and two club chairs of the period.“I think we should look at the real thing,” she told him. Known as vintage furniture, first-rate pieces are the antiques of the future and currently included in the collections of major museums in the U.S. and abroad. The period’s once-revolutionary ideas for living have made their mark and continue to influence design today. Schumann sees these early examples of modern furniture as art, and her client, a real-estate developer and an art collector himself, couldn’t agree more.

After her client moved into his capacious 1960s co-op apartment in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, he set about furnishing it under Schumann’s tutelage. She drew on her knowledge and experience as both artist and interior designer, pulling together a livable home of collectible art and furnishings, expertly designed and judiciously edited. Scavenging and selecting “involved six trips to Paris, six trips to London and roughly 40 to 50 trips to New York,” the homeowner recounts. Plus, as rows and rows of books reveal, the process entailed a copious amount of research about the period, the artists and their lives.

“Part of the context for him was learning as he went, and I learned too,” says Schumann. “Once you start, it is easy to get hooked.” As the design process developed, his rooms became rich in lore, with a story for every piece, perhaps about its designer, the acquisition process or the spirit of the early Modern era.

Yet all is not vintage in this residence. The owner’s art collection is comprised mainly of contemporary works from recent years, including a Maxwell MacKenzie photograph in the dining room. “I had seen Max’s work 10 or 15 years ago. I was just struck by how colorful and powerful it was. So, when I had a wall, I bought one,” the homeowner says.

The open layout of the rooms draws the eye from one work to another. As Schumann focused on the walls, she considered the need for the eye to light on a painting or object and then rest a bit before moving on to the next. She selected a pale custom tint in the living room, which both tempers and accentuates the bright hues in the adjoining foyer and dining room. “The wall finish is not supposed to be the focal point. It is the backdrop,” she explains.

Hand-screened wallpaper in a muted gold wraps the walls of the foyer with this same layered richness, a perfect foil for the assemblage of self-portraits by Dutch painter Phillip Akkerman. “They are so strong, they work on that wallpaper—not everything would,” explains Schumann. Nearby, an Axel Salto vase sits atop a 1936 Andre Sornay smoker’s table. Careful examination of the top of the table reveals tiny decorative nail heads, a signature element in many of Sornay’s pieces.

At the far end of the living room, a poster from the 1962 film Lolita reflects on an earlier time in the owner’s life. Once a doctoral candidate in English literature, he recalls, “I was going to write on Nabokov and the modern novel or something like this,” he laughs. The poster was an early acquisition along with a first edition of Nabokov’s provocative novel.

Schumann juxtaposed T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings end tables with James Mont lamps in the living room—a move that would probably have both artists rolling in their graves. Robsjohn-Gibbings was an architect and furniture designer whose work embodied a clean-lined, Modernist style along with respect for classical elements. By contrast, Mont was known in some circles as “decorator to the mob,” laughs Schumann. Many of his designs are flamboyant, now bordering on funky. These lamps represent one of his more restrained designs.

Typically, the rug is one of the first items selected for a living room, but in this case, the 1950s French carpet came late in the process. Trying many over time, Schumann and her client refused to settle for other alternatives, waiting until they came upon one that truly belonged.

In this century, ashtrays and cigarette lighters have all but disappeared. But in this apartment, a 1940s glass lighter by Italy’s Carlo Scarpa and a cut-glass ashtray by Vicke Lindstrand, circa 1940, on the Paul Frankl cork and mahogany coffee table are reminders of an age when smoking was chic and sophisticated. Despite these bits of nostalgia, this room is anything but dated. Rather, it is a fresh interpretation of the mid-20th-century aesthetic.

Oer the sofa, Ken Aptekar’s painting “I Looked at the Landscape…” resonates with the homeowner. The artist took Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles and made it his own with his words. “I like the whole idea of art that combines not only painting, but words,” the homeowner says. “I like the story, I like the image and I like the conceptual idea of the art where one artist takes another artist’s work and puts an interpretation on it.”

The work of Italian designer Geo Ponti dominates in the den. Schumann and her client snagged a rare find at an art furniture fair in New York: a 1955-1956 Ponti desk. They were able to secure a Ponti chair to accompany it sometime later; again, Schumann and her client refused to be rushed by necessity. The side chair, also by Ponti, came from one of the hotels he designed in Italy. Stools from the 1940s are attributed to Raymond Subes. Unable to find end tables to fit well into the room, Schumann created her own in a complementary glass-topped, angular design.

In the bedroom, the 1930s Guglielmo Ulrich chest-of-drawers covered in parchment and mirrors is one of the owner’s favorite pieces. “I love the texture and the look. I got that at auction at Sotheby’s two summers ago and I just fell in love with it and paid way too much for it, but that’s okay,” he admits. Designers of this period are being copied as their styles gain popularity and the value of the originals has skyrocketed. Schumann’s client knows this well, but in the spirit of a true collector, he buys what he loves and enjoys.

His collection is not static: the Colby Caldwell painting that once hung over the Ulrich chest has been moved to another location, the pair of contemporary lamps on the Macassar ebony buffet in the dining room has been replaced by vintage Royere lamps. Schumann recently found her client a smaller Thomas Stearns vase to complement the tall one on the living room coffee table.

The artist Marcel Duchamp once said, “You can ‘paint a collection’ together by choosing your works and bringing them into a context.” The homeowner came across this quote when he and Schumann were pulling together the decorative scheme, the art, the furnishings and the accessories in his apartment. To this day, these sage words articulate the successful and ongoing collaboration between a passionate collector and a visionary interior designer.

At one end of the living room, four vintage arm chairs surround a Macassar ebony game table by Jean Royer, circa 1940. A contemporary diptych by Washington artist Robin Rose and a vintage Lolita poster demonstrate the delightful mix

Interior Design: Paula Schumann, Paula Schumann Studio, Washington, DC

Contributing editor Barbara Karth resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maxwell MacKenzie is a photographer based in Washington, DC.

Persimmon walls in the dining room are tempered by the buff hue of the walls in the living room, where a vintage rug and coffee table harmoniously coexist with a contemporary work of art by Ken Aptekar.

The den pays homage to mid-20th-century Italian architect/furniture designer Geo Ponti, who created the desk, the desk chair and the side chair. The owner puts his feet up on the vintage Subes stools.

In the bedroom, the 1930s Guglielmo Ulrich chest-of-drawers covered in parchment and mirrors is one of the owner’s favorite pieces. A pair of Jacques Adnet lamps in nickeled bronze and Baccarat crystal from 1935 complete the 1930s-style vignette.

Schumann designed the bed to complement the vintages pieces in the bedroom. The table lamps were designed by Felix Agostini. A triptych by Robin Rose hangs above the bed.