Even diehard city dwellers find that urban living sometimes loses its luster after kids come along. A DC couple is a case in point. Owners of a grand 1910 Adams Morgan row house, they set their sights on a quieter, more family-friendly neighborhood after their baby girl was born.
The pair was charmed by a 1932 home for sale in DC’s Forest Hills. They liked its sunny interiors and English Country style. Faced with the prospect of ongoing renovations at their downtown home, the couple decided to sell it and make the move three miles up Connecticut Avenue—but worlds away from the late-night noise and traffic. “The new house had a very good vibe,” says one of the owners. They also liked the fact that it required no structural work. “From our perspective, the only thing we needed to do was move in and essentially decorate.”
Nestor Santa-Cruz, a design director at the international design firm Gensler in Washington, DC, had helped the couple design their two previous houses in Adams Morgan—the most recent of which was published in the November-December 2006 issue of Home & Design. There was no question that Santa-Cruz, who had become a close friend, would be the one to decorate their third home—a project that would involve repurposing as much of the owners’ existing furniture as possible into the smaller new residence.
Santa-Cruz’s work resonates beyond the typical labels of traditional or modern—a balancing act that is not as easy as it looks. His plan would combine existing furniture in new and novel ways—a process he terms “musical chairs.” But there’s more to it than child’s play. Trained as an architect, he channels a home’s inherent style through a carefully edited selection of furnishings and accessories.
Armed with the owners’ collection of new and antique furniture, Oriental carpets and art, he had an ideal foundation not only for creating room plans but for honing in on color schemes. Subtle, muted palettes filled their previous homes with shades of cream, celadon and café au lait. But this time the couple wanted to go bold. “We were looking to really bring out the warmth the house already has with all the bright colors,” says the homeowner.
“Color is one of the most difficult things to do for the educated and the non-educated,” says Santa-Cruz. “I had a good starting point from the main pieces I already helped them pick.”
The designer started with Benjamin Moore’s pale Edgecombe Gray in the entry foyer. “It’s not gray and it’s not beige,” he explains. “The center hall, two-story foyer needed to be neutral so that from room to room we could change colors.” From there, Santa-Cruz went progressively brighter room by room, making sure that the views from one space to the next would not be jarring. To the right of the foyer, golden shades in the living room wall color and the dining room wallpaper—both by Farrow & Ball—give way to deeper reds in the study that follows. And to the left of the foyer, the crisp white in the kitchen and breakfast room is punched up with orange accents, which transition to reds and more orange in the adjacent family room.
“When you look at the color,” says Santa-Cruz, “it fits very well with the English character of the house. There’s a historical precedent to use multiple colors in multiple rooms in English Country houses. This is a classical technique applied in a modern way.”
In the living and dining rooms, Santa-Cruz effectively “bumped up the volume five notches” from color cues found in his clients’ existing rugs and upholstery. Drapery selections were made to reinforce rather than compete with the wall colors. “That helped to create a new theme,” he says.
Throughout the home, a blend of classical antiques, mid-century furniture, abstract art and accessories creates a look that is fresh and hip. Santa-Cruz grounds it all with rugs from DC’s Timothy Paul Carpet & Textiles that put a simplified spin on Old World motifs. For example, though the reproduction Sultanabad carpet in the living room has a traditional pattern, “it is certainly a more modern colorway,” says Santa-Cruz, “which helps balance modern furniture and pieces of art with more traditional touches in a room like this.”
The client’s art collection also helps create a modern edge throughout the house. Santa-Cruz helped plan where pieces would go best, including a new painting by Jeannie Motherwell (daughter of Robert Motherwell) that his clients recently purchased in Provincetown. They were sure it would look great in the living room, until Santa-Cruz hung it in the study, where shades of red complement its palette. “Nestor hung it inside the bookshelves,” says the homeowner, “which I would never have thought of. And he’s totally right. It looks perfect there.”
All told, Santa-Cruz was able to furnish more than 50 percent of the home with pieces from his clients’ previous projects. The exception was the family room, where existing furniture proved too large for the space. Here he paired club chairs from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams with a banded and striaed Chinese woven rug.
In the kitchen, Santa-Cruz suggested a few surface changes. The owners decided to paint the cabinets white and modify millwork in the breakfast room to create a sense of symmetry. “We kind of evened out the architecture without destroying the original character, which we were all happy with,” Santa-Cruz explains. “We added color behind the bookshelves, which is a trick that I use a lot. In this case, the kitchen stayed monochromatic, but that punch of orange helped achieve a higher impact.”
While Santa-Cruz and his clients are still in search of a painting for the blue and cream master bedroom, their work on the home is essentially done. The whole process took only a couple of months, thanks in part to the cache of furniture and carpets they had purchased for their former residences. “Their previous investments went a long way,” asserts the designer.
The couple and their baby daughter are happily settled into their new home, enjoying daily visits to the park across the street. They don’t miss their Adams Morgan property, despite its grander stature. “We totally could have made it work as a family house but frankly it was too big,” says the homeowner. “We just didn’t need all of it.”
Santa-Cruz agrees. “We were able to move the chapters of a story from room to room without changing or creating a new story,” he says. “That really is what this project is all about.”
Photographer Angie Seckinger is based in Potomac, Maryland.
INTERIOR DESIGN: Nestor Santa-Cruz, IIDA, Gensler, Washington, DC.