Inveterate world travelers—they’ve been on every continent during their long marriage—this couple first began collecting art to commemorate their travels 35 years ago. “In the beginning, we were traveling mostly for pleasure, buying small things,” recalls the wife. “We started seeking out one special piece of art we liked on each trip, and sometimes there was something to buy, sometimes there wasn’t.”
Today their extensive collection, a thoughtful melding of East and West that features pieces in every medium ranging from a Rembrandt etching to Steuben and Lalique glass to a towering New Guinea war spirit mask, enjoys a museum-quality showcase in their new Potomac home designed by Jim Rill of Rill & Decker Architects and built by Adam Prill of the Prill Construction Group.
“We wanted this house to be less formal and square than our former Tudor-style home, and we wanted single-floor living instead of a two-story home,” explains the husband, a retired executive. “Our goal was to highlight the art we love in spaces we would really use, and to enjoy a connection to the outdoors.”
Responding to his clients’ desire for a more relaxed lifestyle, Rill developed plans for a low-lying house with a European country style expressed in the natural materials of stucco, mahogany and limestone and in colors that would further tie the house to the landscape and showcase the art. “The challenge,” says Rill, “was to avoid the rest of the program—areas for exercise, guest rooms, a playroom for the grandchildren—encroaching on these main rooms, so we would be able to effectively highlight the art.”
The scale and massing of the house is broken into three volumes; variations in the roof elements avoid symmetry. An expansive foyer runs through the house, connecting the interior with its gardens and wooded setting. Rill carried materials used on the exterior inside to further reinforce this link. The limestone found on the entrance portico floor and around the infinity-edge pool are echoed in the polished limestone floor of the foyer and the custom limestone mantel in the great room. And the mahogany of the supporting beams, shutters and front door carry through in the mahogany floors throughout the house.
“Rill was wonderful to work with,” says the wife. “We knew what we wanted and he accommodated those needs. This was the third house we had built. Our familiarity with the building process made us challenging clients.”
The project was a collaborative effort among architect, builder and their experienced clients. During the design phase, the couple cataloged every piece of furniture and art in their collection with photographs and dimensions and pored over drawings with Rill and Prill to make sure every item would have a place in their new residence. “It’s unusual for us to receive so much detailed information about where things were going to go. The clients really did understand the process, how to visualize, how to look at drawings, how to think about inches,” recalls Rill. “They would red-line sets of drawings with specific information. They knew which lights they wanted, where the art would go and the colors they would use to pull everything together.”
Adam Prill brought extensive experience and engineering skills to the table; he was the project manager for the construction of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Under Prill’s direction, the clients spent a great deal of time looking at new and innovative building materials. He also brought in a lighting consultant whose system of strategically placed spotlights creates focal points for art throughout the house.
This level of planning and attention to detail required hard work and a tremendous amount of coordination that all paid off in the end, says the husband. “It took extensive coordination by the contractor to frame the house so that it would accommodate the lighting system. Normally when you build a house, you don’t worry about that. But there was no question about where we were going to hang things when we moved in. The house is a result of good design and hard work by the builder to get it done correctly and with a high level of quality,” he says.
The foyer sets the tone for the couple’s eclectic global art collection and its artful display. To left of the entrance hangs a painted antique Chinese door inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl and a watercolor by Chinese artist Z. L. Feng; to the right a pair of porcelains discovered in Hong Kong depict spring and summer. Opposite an 18th-century Chinese antique elmwood altar table are two antique ladies’ chairs, which at first glance appear to be a pair, displayed with a Chinese water bucket that rests on its carved stand. White Bearded Storyteller, a diptych by Ji Cheng, a former professor of art at Beijing University, hangs behind this grouping.
Rooms open to either side of the foyer: The wife’s study and the master suite are to the left; the dining room and great room begin the living area on the right. The master bedroom suite is on center with the great room. Double pocket doors provide seclusion as needed. A dramatic carved and gilded headboard from a Chinese opium bed holds a floor-to-ceiling mirror, commanding and calling out the uniquely positioned master bedroom. Elsewhere a 19th-century dresser, an 18th-century French tapestry and English needlepoint pieces further accentuate the room’s unique character. The master bath in Emperador marble features an open shower with a sloped floor; the tub fills from a concealed faucet in the ceiling.
The wife was deeply involved in the design of the kitchen and the bathrooms. She determined the layout with pieces and unique features that she put together, while Rill developed drawings for her to critique. In the kitchen, an oversized lapidus granite island accommodates casual dining for family and guests. Custom-designed mantel pieces accent the cooktop. A drainboard was grooved directly into the granite countertop.
The great room extends into the outdoors. With banks of windows to the left and back of the room opening respectively onto the pergola-covered terrace and the woods and infinity-edge pool, as well as clerestory windows, there is plenty of natural light throughout the day and the seasons. In this expansive living area, an Asian-inspired chest holds a collection of liqueur glasses—small finds like an antique Baccarat piece discovered for ten dollars keeps company with a Chinese porcelain statue whose large striding stance makes it rare. A large-scale still life by Johen Labriola, Two Red Anthuriums, defines the mantel area. Nearby, above the 19th-century French country sideboard, hangs a beautiful contemporary painting by Douglas Hoffman. A soaring seven-faced New Guinea war spirit mask dominates the opposite side of the fireplace.
The crown molding in the great room was stained to capture the tonalities of mahogany. The trim accentuates the beamed and vaulted 14-foot ceiling, providing visual continuity while making the ceiling appear more domed to accentuate the couple’s art. “It was an extremely difficult challenge to have all of that crown molding aligned—it’s a real tribute to Adam Prill’s abilities as a builder,” says Jim Rill.
Custom cabinets in the wife’s office and the glass built-ins at the entrance to the dining room house collections of small art pieces, antique porcelains and glass. In the dining room the vignette includes a Shirley Thompson Smith sculpture, Tewa Hopi Potter with Frog Woman Bowl, an expressive bronze statue discovered in Santa Fe, which sits in front of a painting by Italian painter Elvio Minardi. The marble dining table, which seats 14, is accented by pieces of Venetian glass in a persimmon glaze found in London.
“We never thought about what something was worth, or listened to someone else’s projection of the future value of a piece,” says the husband. “We bought things that resonated with us, things with which we’d like to share our lives. That’s what makes for good collecting.”
Judith Bell is an art historian, features and fiction writer based in Washington, DC. Photographer Timothy Bell has studios in New York and Washington, DC.