Home & Design

A Warm Embrace

A design team transforms a faded circa-1880 Georgetown rowhouse into an elegant and feminine retreat

A Warm Embrace

Studio Nuovo designers Ricardo Ramos and Sheree Friedman relax with Nancy Morris and poodles Sophie and Tennyson in the rear garden of her Georgetown home.

Interior Design: Sheree Friedman and Ricardo Ramos, Allied Members ASID, Studio Nuovo, Bethesda, Maryland
Landscape Architecture: Mark White, GardenWise, Inc., Arlington, Virginia

Like a promising new employee or blind date, a house can look great on paper but lack the personality to sustain a lasting relationship. That was precisely the dilemma for homeowner Nancy Morris, who’d dreamt of living in Georgetown since she decided to move back to the DC area several years ago. When a circa-1880 rowhouse came on the market, she jumped at it despite the fact that it exuded no real warmth to embrace Morris, her two beloved standard poodles and her vast collection of pieces from travels to Asia.

Enter Studio Nuovo’s Ricardo Ramos and Sheree Friedman, who transformed the paper-perfect vision into a multidimensional home that not only befits its dignified neighborhood, but also serves as a personal extension of Morris’s life.
To be sure, the design duo and landscape architect Mark White had their work cut out for them. The house had great bones—including gracious entertaining spaces and a coveted deep rear garden. But the garden had lapsed into a mud pit and the rooms, while sizable by Georgetown standards, lacked any sense of continuity. The living and dining areas had largely been ignored and while the previous owners had upgraded the kitchen with stainless-steel countertops and commercial-grade appliances, they left the rest of the room spare and cold.

The living room needed to be able to gracefully segue from a cozy hangout for Morris and her dogs to a space to host gatherings of various sizes. With no hallway and a width of only about 15 feet, the challenge was creating multiple sitting areas without cluttering the space. “When I saw all the furniture they were planning for, I asked, ‘Are you sure all this is going to fit in here?’ ” Morris recalls.

Not only do the pieces—including a poodle-proof leather sectional, a spoon-back side chair and sumptuous floral club chair—fit in perfect proportion, but a new built-in alcove provides important recessed lighting and electrical outlets. The nook also serves as the perfect spot to showcase Morris’s love of all things canine as three rows of dog etchings preside on the wall. “They’d been scattered all over the house before,” Friedman says. “When we saw them we thought, why not bring them all together and really showcase them.”

Ramos and Friedman created an additional congregating area at the front of the room with a pair of Lee Jofa slip chairs that flank Morris’s own box table. An oversized framed Hickory Chair mirror rises proudly from the floor, bringing the room a touch of whimsy and creating the illusion of a larger space.

The dining room needed similar personalization. Restoring the room’s most compelling existing element—an intricately carved wood mantel that had been buried under layers of paint—was the first order of business. Ramos and Friedman enlisted Lisa Tureson of Faux Creations to bring the mantel back to form, then added new marble columns that both complement the surrounding furnishings and provide a stronger frame for Morris’s most prized pieces, a pair of 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty statues of dogs (circa 206 BC to 220 AD) that stand guard in the hearth. A large watercolor painting above the mantel provides a punch of color and complements Morris’s upholstered chairs, while an oversized chandelier nods to the Eastern-flair furniture in the room.

Exposed pipes, another hand-me-down inherent in vintage homes, called for another creative Studio Nuovo solution in both the dining room and upstairs bedroom. “The challenge with some of the windows was there were pipes going around them, and we needed to conceal the pipes in a way that it didn’t look like they were coming out at you,” Friedman says. The answer? To bring the crown molding forward from the wall and hang roman shades and lush curtains under the molding to conceal what’s behind it.

The designers set out to warm up the adjacent kitchen—literally, and figuratively. “It was a very modern room,” Ramos says of the stark kitchen. “There were no upper cabinets at all, there was nothing inviting about the room. Warming up the space was our main goal.”

Like many older homes, this one had outdated ductwork, which meant rooms with exterior walls such as the kitchen tended to run chilly. Ramos and Friedman installed a slim, barely noticeable heat panel on the back wall of the kitchen, and replaced cold vinyl tiles with cork flooring that’s both environmentally friendly and pampering on the feet.

To provide aesthetic warmth—and much needed storage—upper cabinets were installed across one wall of the kitchen all the way up to the ceiling. The opposite wall became home to a row of pantry-style cabinets and a TV/computer nook that extends to a small curved island where Morris, an attorney, often enjoys her morning coffee. Ramos and Friedman relocated the former dining room chandelier to the kitchen and added a floral Roman shade on the window above the sink to bring a delicate touch to the room. “It now has a feminine feel without being girly,” Ramos says. “We needed to bring out a softer side.”

During the project, the designers created an intimate seating arrangement with a pair of Lee Jofa slip chairs in the living room. The chairs are upholstered in Maharam fabric; the custom Roman shade is Fabricut.

Having finished their work on the first floor, the duo turned their focus to the entry and staircase, where the lack of a front banister was unfinished, design-wise, and unsafe. They created a new rail and newel post to match the existing ones. And they turned to Lisa Tureson to create a smooth luster on the walls of the entry and stairwell.
Heading upstairs to tackle the master bedroom, they stretched fabric across an odd-shaped window alcove to transform it into an elegant and understated backdrop for the bed’s slatted Century headboard.

As a finishing touch, the Studio Nuovo team created the ultimate primping spot, converting a built-in bookshelf into a vanity complete with recessed lighting and a well-appointed Fabricut decorative skirt.

Yet for the bounty of reasons to stay indoors, Morris finds plenty of time to spend on her patio, too. Landscape architect Mark White transformed the previously ignored space into a tranquil Zen garden, another bridge to Morris’s fascination with the East and an extension of the home’s interior. She enjoys meals at a table under a bamboo-topped pergola, which canopies a mother-of-pearl lantern, while an oversized ceramic vase turned into a gurgling fountain encourages visitors to just sit and relax. “We really wanted to have a water feature,” Ramos says. “Anything with water is magical.”

Catherine Applefeld Olson is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia. Erik Johnson is an Alexandria, Virginia-based photographer.

A new built-in alcove provides recessed lighting and electrical outlets and a spot to showcase Morris's collection of dog etchings.

Respecting the narrow scale of the space, Friedman and Ramos created several seating arrangements in the living room, including a secretaire near the window and an Oscar de la Renta club chair and a dog-proof leather sectional.

A large crystal chandelier makes a dramatic statement in the dining room, where a vitrine houses antique artifacts Linda Morris has collected on her travels.

The carved mantel, which had been hidden by coats of paint was revived by decorative artist Lisa Tureson, who gave it a wood-grain treatment. To complement the original marble on the floor, she also created a marble look on the existing columns.

Ramos and Friedman added much-need wall cabinets, replaced the cold vinyl tiles with cork flooring and created a curved island where Morris enjoys her morning coffee.

A similar Zen is achieved in Morris's bedroom, with its Asian-style furniture from Century and its luxurious silk custom bedding.

The kitchen leads to private garden, where landscape architect Mark White of GardenWise, Inc., combined some plants typical of the traditional English garden—such as the climbing rose on the arbor—with elements of Japanese style, including the pergola made of stone and cedar and topped with bamboo. He converted a glazed urn into a water feature that created a soothing sound in the tranquil space.

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