"It had great bones,” says interior designer Marlene Weiss Alexander of the Northwest DC residence she transformed into an elegant home that seamlessly showcases large-scale contemporary art. “The house always had classic architecture: a beautiful grand foyer, large formal rooms, crown moldings, high ceilings and above all, lots of wall space.”
The homeowners’ wish list included a home office, spare bedrooms and ample space to entertain. However, even more important to them was creating display areas for their modern art collection, which includes works by Gene Davis, Rodney Graham and Christopher Wool.
The 8,500-square-foot English Country-style house, built in 1990, already had a mahogany-paneled study, an unfinished attic with potential and a flowing first floor, thereby meeting all the homeowners’ stipulations. However, it needed updating. The original architect, Stephen Muse, assisted with the renovation.
“We didn’t have to do a lot,” says Weiss Alexander. “It worked without a major redo. We put in two additional bedrooms, making a total of six, by converting the attic. We updated the kitchen and master bathroom. Mostly, we enhanced the overall space for the artwork.”
Getting the lighting right matters when hanging art. The previous homeowners had smaller-scale antique Dutch paintings, and the existing lighting was designed for them. Other than the spacious foyer, which was well lit from a bank of windows on the second-floor landing, the formal rooms were dark. The new homeowners’ big contemporary canvases had different requirements. Weiss Alexander increased the wattage of existing recessed lights and augmented them with additional fixtures, brightening up the whole house. And she installed simpler window treatments, which gave her clients privacy without blocking natural light.
The designer also traded the previously dark and overly traditional wall finishes for a lighter, fresher look. Because the formal rooms connected through cased openings, their wall colors had to blend well, while serving as a neutral backdrop for the art. The dining room went from red to cream, the living room from taupe to vanilla and the foyer from damask to striae-patterned wallpaper.
Weiss Alexander’s color scheme was inspired by the homeowners’ existing furnishings: a pair of lightly patterned terracotta chairs in the living room, and a red, cream and black rug in the foyer.
"I worked with neutrals,” she says, “beiges, greens and golds, with vibrant punches of red. I also used black accents. The palette is warm, but definitely more masculine, not feminine or frou-frou.” The colors work well to unify the rooms. None compete with the art.
In terms of décor, the homeowners’ taste in furniture ran traditional, yet they wanted their modern paintings to serve as focal points in any given space. “I used a lot of restraint because the homeowners did not want an overdone, decorated look,” Weiss Alexander says. “The drama had to come with the art. It was fun to watch the process. Every time a new piece was added, it got more dramatic—and layered.”
Once she set her palette, the designer used solid colors for the primary furnishings, layering in interesting textures, discreet patterns and varied finishes. For example, in the dining room, chairs in gold-hued waffle-woven velvet sit atop a low-pile, densely knotted Oushak rug with subtle floral designs. By contrast, the windows are framed in linear silk panels embellished with a tone-on-tone coral embroidered with a Greek Key stripe detail. Complexity of design was achieved without distraction from the quartet of paintings also in the room.
Throughout the home, the furnishings are eclectic. “Everything didn’t have to match,” says Weiss Alexander. “The homeowners didn’t like contemporary furniture—too stark, too competitive with the art—but otherwise, they were open. They liked traditional but were not afraid to mix styles.”
The result is a blend of clean-lined upholstered pieces and classic reproductions from a variety of periods, such as Regency, Empire and Federal. Weiss Alexander freely mixed materials including glass, iron and wood. The wood also has different finishes: natural, black-stained or painted white. Artwork provides visual continuity between the rooms.
“Juxtaposing traditional furniture with the contemporary art actually makes the art pop more,” says Weiss Alexander.
The owners are delighted with their traditional décor and how their modern paintings look in it. “They love the way the architecture, furnishings and artwork came together to create a cozy house they feel good in,” says Weiss Alexander, “one with a unique finished look.”
Writer Charlotte Safavi is based in Alexandria, Virginia. Geoffrey Hodgdon is a photographer in Deale, Maryland.
INTERIOR DESIGN: Marlene Weiss Alexander, Weiss Designs, Bethesda, Maryland. RENOVATION CONTRACTOR: Jim Boyd, Design/Build Inc., Silver Spring, Maryland. ARCHITECTURE: Stephen Muse, FAIA, Muse Architects, Bethesda, MD.