"I am a designer who listens to my clients and takes into consideration their ways of living,” says David Mitchell during a conversation in his office near Dupont Circle. “I don’t force a signature style on them.” After listening to his client, Gloria Story Dittus, Mitchell transformed her Kalorama home into a gracious setting for the social gatherings the public relations maven frequently hosts. Practical seating blends with rare antiques and bold artwork to create a welcoming setting for guests.
“David’s style worked really well for me,” says Dittus, who bought the house in 2004. “It is elegant and comfortable. People don’t feel like they can’t touch anything. You can put your feet up in these rooms.”
Entertaining is a priority for the Georgia-born businesswoman, who just launched a new public affairs and marketing firm called Story Partners after her successful company Dittus Communications was acquired in 2005 by Financial Dynamics. She is well-known as a Washington hostess who enjoys throwing A-list bashes attended by power brokers from Capitol Hill to K Street. One of the recent parties held in her remodeled digs celebrated veteran reporter Helen Thomas’s 50th year of covering the White House.
Dittus also likes organizing smaller events such as sit-down dinners and casual cook-outs around her outdoor kitchen and swimming pool during the summer months. “I’ll have 300 people one night and eight the next,” she notes. “I needed a house that could entertain more easily than my previous one in Georgetown. It was narrow and didn’t have great flow.”
What attracted her to the 1923 Kalorama residence were the spacious rooms and “great bones” of its Beaux-Arts architecture. As she explains, “It just needed some TLC to bring out the great patina and make it work for today’s world.”
Once owned by diplomat Sol Linowitz, who helped negotiate the Panama Canal treaty under President Jimmy Carter, the brick-clad residence is organized so the “public” spaces are on the ground floor. The second level, with its master suite, exercise area and den, serves as the owner’s private sanctuary while the third floor houses guest rooms. “I have lots of family and friends who are in and out of here on a regular basis. I’ve been known to call the house the Embassy of Gloria,” Dittus jokes.
In designing the main-level spaces for entertaining, David H. Mitchell played to the romantic architecture of the home with eclectic furnishings unified by rounded shapes, soft colors and floral patterns. He points to the curves repeated in the living room’s tall Swedish clock, the scrolled arms of an antique Russian chair and the circular, gold-framed mirror over the fireplace mantel, noting “they give an easier look to the room.”
The large living space measures about 17 by 30 feet, so the designer divided its expanse into two seating areas to accommodate both crowds and cozier gatherings. The more intimate section features club chairs, a damask-covered sofa and a sculptural bronze coffee table arranged around the fireplace. Grouped at the other end of the space are armchairs, covered in the same damask found elsewhere in the room, and a chenille sofa. Antique Russian chairs and a graceful wooden coffee table add sculptural interest to the upholstered pieces.
Every element is carefully considered, even the empty area under a console table where Mitchell added a small ottoman upholstered in an embroidered fabric. “It provides a wonderful texture and fills up the blank space,” he explains. Teal green glass beads edging the linen draperies and floral fabrics on the pillows repeat the pale aqua of the painted walls.
Enlivening the understated décor are contemporary objects and artwork not typically associated with such a stately house. “I am pretty eclectic in my tastes, from very modern to very traditional,” says Dittus. “What makes this house interesting is that we put them together in the same room and they really work.”
Custom lamps made of chunky quartz crystals from Africa flank a dark landscape by California painter Wade Hoefer mounted above the rear sofa. Orderly rows of photographs to either side of the fireplace depict details of stone carvings on bridges in Central Park, while on the adjacent wall an abstract painting by Rhode Island artist Ron Ehrlich supplies a jolt of expressionistic color. “When you layer modern art on top of traditional furniture, it gives a fresh feeling to the design,” says Dittus.
Mitchell felt most of the furnishings from his client’s previous residence were too small in scale for the grand Kalorama house, but he incorporated several of the best pieces into his design. New Orleans painter David Harouni’s Cajun King now hangs above the regal Sheraton sideboard from Dittus’s Georgetown house to make for an unexpected pairing in the entrance hall.
A fresh approach was called for in the dining room, where Dittus hosts dinner parties of varying sizes. Mitchell’s solution was to design a mahogany and satinwood table ample enough for 20 and have it fabricated in England. Instead of adding matching chairs, he mixed Swedish antiques with contemporary designs, while extending a sofa below the windows for more seating. A 1930s Art Deco credenza that Dittus purchased at a Paris flea market provides storage along one wall.
“Those spontaneous finds are really important to building a room,” says Mitchell. “I am always trying to create houses with distinctive personalities. You can’t do that by matching all the furniture.”
A feminine personality emerges within Dittus’s bedroom, where an imposing four-poster bed is gilded in sections and hung with lacy curtains. The light-filtering drapes create a screen of privacy for the busy hostess who sometimes can’t get rid of her guests.“The house is so inviting that when I have events here, people linger in the living and dining rooms and they don’t want to leave,” she explains. “That’s a great tribute to its design.”
Washington, DC-based Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to HOME & DESIGN. Photographer Jeff McNamara is based in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
INTERIOR DESIGN: David H. Mitchell, David H. Mitchell Interiors, Washington, DC.