Home & Design

A Balancing Act

A design duo augments their clients' furniture and art collections with the right pieces to marry modern and traditional styles

A Balancing Act

Two 19th-century Biedermeier chairs, 1940s French
plaster sconces and a bronze chandelier found
in Argentina set an elegant tone in the entry gallery.

A year and a half after Ann Roddy and Jill Johnson moved into their new foursquare house in DC’s Palisades neighborhood, they hit the design equivalent of a brick wall. The paint colors they’d chosen were at war. The dining room chairs they’d ordered from a high-end catalog were too large. And the furnishings they’d salvaged from their previous home were too modern for the couple’s traditional new environment.

“This is something we’ve done by ourselves for a long time, but with the scale of this house, we didn’t know what to do,” recalls Roddy, a former teacher who now stays home with the couple’s three young children. “We had a fair amount of modern stuff in the old house and we didn’t know how to integrate it with our more traditional pieces.”

Their frustration level peaked in October 2006 as they anticipated Thanksgiving in a dining room that remained, in their eyes, undone. “It was starting to feel depressing being here because it didn’t look like we lived here,” recalls Roddy. “It didn’t have any of our personality.”

As luck would have it, the couple met interior designer Nestor Santa-Cruz, who was decorating their former home in Mount Pleasant for the new owners. Roddy and Johnson liked what they saw, and hired him on the spot. Known for his modern commercial work and residential interiors at DC-based SKB Architecture and Design, where he is a partner, Santa-Cruz collaborated on this project with Lisa Lambert, a mutual friend of his and the homeowners.

He and Lambert started by taking stock of the home’s interiors. The couple had purchased custom draperies and new furniture that they hoped to mix with modern pieces from their previous home. “We had already bought things that we loved beyond their material value,” says Johnson, the executive director of a Washington, DC, nonprofit organization. “Nestor came in and he listened really well about how hard it would be to hand it over to somebody else.”

When deciding what would stay and what would go, Santa-Cruz realized that most of the home’s rough spots could be ironed out by changes in placement, proportion and color selection. A master at combining different styles, he set out to acquire the necessary furnishings and objects that would tie many seemingly disparate elements into a stylish and cohesive whole. “We wove in another layer of detailing,” he says. With a few fixes here and there, he and Lambert would be able to utilize nearly all of the couple’s furniture and artwork.

Johnson and Roddy are avid collectors of figurative and abstract art. Their collection would become an important element in the overall design. “An art collection is one of those areas where the personalities of the owners come across. Jill and Ann have a sense of tradition and a sense of abstraction and liberal minds and it all comes across in an understated way,” Santa-Cruz says. “I gathered all the pieces in one room and I started moving the art, mentally grouping it. I look at scale. It’s almost like a game, figuring out, ‘Where does this image go?’”

He knew instantly that the self-portrait by Cape Cod artist Leslie Packard belonged in the living room above the couple’s new sofa (which he planned to nip, tuck and reupholster). A pair of Florentine gilded screens cast an elegant sheen in the space. An Italian chandelier that Santa-Cruz purchased in Buenos Aires completed the room’s traditional feel.

Once the living room was finished, it set the tone for the rest of the house. “I have a love for doing living rooms and establishing a sense of what a house should be,” explains Santa-Cruz. “Jill is from Texas, Ann is from Atlanta…and I’m from the deeper South [born in Cuba and raised in Central and South America]. In this house, they wanted a combination of a Southern classical touch and a modern sensibility.”

Santa-Cruz deftly achieved this aesthetic by maintaining a minimal, uncluttered canvas and a precise sense of scale. The dining room is a perfect example. Santa-Cruz preserved the couple’s blue walls and silk drapery, the Murano-glass chandelier and the Regency-style sideboard and dining table, but the massive chairs they had purchased from a catalog had to go. In their place, Santa-Cruz selected smaller Directoire-style chairs in a white ivory wash, upholstered in brown cotton velvet, that better fit the proportions of the room. But the pièce de résistance was the rug that he found at Timothy Paul: a modern interpretation in blue of Indian and Asian motifs. A pair of transparent Philippe Starck Ghost chairs plays off the chandelier and brings a playful, modern element to the space. “When he brought in that rug,” recalls Johnson, “I knew Nestor was our guy. He got it right away.” Much to the homeowners’ delight, the dining room was ready in time for Thanksgiving.

A gilded Florentine screen in the living room provides the perfect foil for an oil painting by Cape Cod artist Leslie Packard.

A proponent of mixing “high and low,” Santa-Cruz showcased the practice in the study, where a shaggy Flokati rug from IKEA provides a child-friendly play spot in front of a vintage Chinese-style ebonized desk. Elsewhere in the house, a mirror from Crate & Barrel and candlesticks from the sale bin at Anthropologie mingle with priceless antiques. “Nestor has convinced me to buy a pair of lamps that cost $6,000, but I know we are going to make that up somewhere else,” says Roddy.

A sense of fun prevails in the family room. Dubbed “country modern” by Johnson and Roddy, the space incorporates classic modern pieces, from an Arne Jacobsen egg chair to a Noguchi side table.

In the breakfast room, the couple utilized other mid-century-modern pieces that had been relegated to storage after they moved into the new house: a Heywood Wakefield table and chairs. “Nestor didn’t come in and say, ‘Buy this, this and this,’” Roddy recalls. “Instead, he said, ‘Why not use it as a kitchen table?’ He brought us back to our personality. The house now reflects our taste in furniture and in art.”

The latest project Santa-Cruz and Lambert are tackling is the porch, located off the family room. A Mexican jute rug, gauzy white drapes and a ceiling painted Hermès orange will boast a comfortable indoor/outdoor vibe.

Santa-Cruz and Lambert were able to create a successful dialog with their clients that ultimately helped them achieve a look that makes Roddy, Johnson and their kids feel at home. “There was a real care to the placement of art, the styling. It looks like we’ve been collecting this stuff for 40 years, but that’s not the case,” says Roddy.

By mixing different styles, periods and provenances, Santa-Cruz and Lambert seamlessly achieved a look that reflects their clients’ design sensibilities. “How do you have that right scale, placement, balance of color and texture?” Santa-Cruz asks. “I’m a true believer that anything goes with anything. It’s a question of how you make it sophisticated. If you can find that common language, it works.”


Photographer Erik Johnson is based in Washington, DC.

Interior Design: Nestor Santa-Cruz, IIDA, SKB Architecture and Design, Washington, DC, and Lisa Lambert, Washington, DC


ENTRY HALL 19th Century Biedermeier Chairs: Tone on Tone, Bethesda, MD. Upholstery Fabric: Gretchen Bellinger through J. Lambeth, Washington, DC. Rug: Timothy Paul Carpets + Textiles, Washington, DC. 1940s French Plaster Sconces: Gore Dean

The living room laid the groundwork for the rest of the house, blending Southern classicism with a modern sensibility. Nestor Santa-Cruz discovered the Venetian chandelier in a Buenos Aires antique shop.

Antiques, Washington, DC. 1940s Bronze German Chandelier: Flavio Serrati Antiques, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

LIVING ROOM Sofa: Custom Design by Nestor Santa-Cruz. Sofa Fabric: Manuel Canovas, Paris. Accent Pillows on Sofa: Larsen. Sofa Upholstery & Pillow Fabrication: Pilchard Designs. Coffee Table, Bagues Floor Lamps: Tommy Parzinger. Candlesticks,18th-Century French Directoire Chair & Antique Boxes on Coffee Tables: Gore Dean Antiques. Florentine Gilded Screens: Good Wood, Washington, DC. Crystal Chandelier: Through Flavio Serrati Antiques. Lounge Chair Fabric: Timothy Paul Carpets + Textiles. Upholstery: Pilchard Designs. Gilded Italian 1950s Vase on Mantel: Millennium, Washington, DC. Pillows on Side Chairs & Lavender Glass Vase on Coffee Table: Baker, Washington, DC. Bronze Side Table: Jacques Garcia for Baker. Vintage Saint Louis Crystal Vase & Vintage Orrefors Purple Glass Bowl on Side Table: Good Wood.

DINING ROOM Table, Side Board, Chandelier & Gilded Mirror: Owners’ Collection. Rug: Timothy Paul Carpets + Textiles. Mirrored Obelisk: Baker. Blue Austrian Glass Vases: Good Wood. Blue Opaline Glass Candlesticks: Sixteen Fifty-Nine Mid-Century Antiques, Washington, DC. China, Silverware, Glass Goblets & Linens by Hermès, Bernardaud, Christofle: Nieman Marcus. 1940s Venetian Glass Floor Lamp: Good Wood. 1940s Louis XVI-Style Chairs: Gore Dean Antiques. Upholstery Fabric: Gretchen Bellinger. Upholstery: Pilchard Designs. Acrylic “Ghost” Chairs by Philippe Starck: Design Within Reach, Washington, DC.

STUDY Ebonized Chairs with Original Upholstery: Tommy Parzinger, Cherry Antiques, Washington, DC. Chinese-Style 1960s Ebonized Desk: Sixteen Fifty-Nine Mid-Century Antiques. Art Deco Table: Owners’ Collection. Industrialist Copper Desk Lamps: Moss & Company, Washington, DC. Vintage Painting on Desk & 1970s Yellow Ceramic Table Lamp: Good Wood. Flokati Rug: IKEA.

FAMILY ROOM/DEN Sofa, Coffee Table & Side Chair: Owners’ Collection. Table Lamp: Anthropologie, Washington, DC. Side Table: By Noguchi for Knoll. Pillows, Floor Lamps & Rug: Timothy Paul Carpets + Textiles. Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen: Furniture from Scandinavia.

BREAKFAST ROOM Vintage Table and Chairs: Owners’ Collection. Paper Chandelier: Isamo Noguchi through www.noguchi.org. Fabric on Bench: Calvin Fabrics through Donghia, Washington, DC. Pillows & Runner Rug: Timothy Paul Carpets + Textiles.

MASTER BEDROOM Sofa Bed & Side Tables: Owners’ Collection. Rug, Forged Iron Floor Lamp & Accent Pillows: Timothy Paul Carpets + Textiles. Faux Fur Throws on Bed: La Maison de la Fausse Fourrure, Paris, through Bergdorf Goodman, New York, NY. Bedside Table Lamps: Good Wood. Gilded & Marble Tables: Gore Dean Antiques. Silk Pillows on Sofa: Baker. Vintage Wood Side Tables: Sixteen Fifty-Nine Mid-Century Antiques.


Santa-Cruz likens the dining room to a blue Tiffany box, "and the jewel is what's inside." A modern take on Asian and Indian motifs, the rug from Timothy Paul was a serendipitous find. A pair of translucent Philippe Starck Ghost chairs complements the Murano blown-glass chandelier.

A Flokati rug from IKEA and a 1970s mod ceramic lamp add an element of playfulness to the library. The room blends vintage finds, from the 1960s Chinese-style ebonized desk to the industrial copper desk lamps from France.

Modern classics like an Arne Jacobsen egg chair, a Noguchi side table and a pair of Modernica chairs create a casual vibe in the den, which features an anonymous abstract painting purchased at Galerie L'Enfant in Georgetown.

In the breakfast room, a paper Noguchi chandelier and bold new pillows complement the owners' vintage Heywood Wakefield dining table and chairs.

A new rug helps define the sitting area in the master bedroom.

Creamware lamps found at Good Wood grace the bedside tables.


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