Businesswoman Joan Bialek and her husband Louis Levitt, an orthopedic surgeon, approach art collecting as a spontaneous activity. The couple routinely purchases artwork from street artists and church fairs on their travels and also buys from respected galleries in the Washington area. “Lou and I have similar tastes in art, pieces that have a little humor, something unique and colors that grab us,” says Bialek, who heads Bialek Environments, a healthcare furniture company in Rockville, Maryland. “We go for whatever strikes us. The art has to make us feel good when we look at it.”
Contemporary paintings, prints and sculptures—the result of collecting over decades—accent nearly every space of their home in the Avenel neighborhood of Potomac, Maryland. Their vivid colors and abstract shapes stand out in pale and earth-toned rooms framed by well-crafted architectural details. Just inside the entrance foyer, a quirky, steel “fantasy fowl” sculpture by Florida artist John Olsen competes for attention with the gracefully curving staircase. On a nearby wall, three elongated figures stare out from Canadian artist Helene Kronstrom’s large canvas, which was discovered on a visit to Montreal.
“All the homes in Potomac look the same. We wanted something different, a house full of character,” says Levitt on a tour of the three-level residence. “I always wanted a paneled library and a staircase with a window.” He and Bialek now enjoy those features and more in a traditional home designed by Georgetown architect Jerry Harpole. Clad in stucco and fieldstone, the “classic Americana house,” as Harpole calls it, features a wealth of elements typical of historic homes, including a welcoming front porch. “The homeowners wanted something more than the typical suburban house so we said ‘Let’s concentrate on beautiful proportions and scale to create a jewel,’” the architect says.
Levitt and Bialek built the home in the late 1990s in anticipation of being empty nesters, once their daughter Alexa had gone off to college and their son Jeremy was in high school. “We decided to downsize and get the type of house we really wanted,” says Bialek.
Since the family never used the formal living space in their previous home, Harpole eliminated it from his design. Instead, he positioned a mahogany-paneled library-study for Levitt off the entrance vestibule and created a large family room at the opposite end of the house. Lined with built-in bookshelves, the study features a large Palladian window at one end and a wood-burning fireplace at the other. Hanging on one wall is an illusionary scene of bicyclists by Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves that the couple purchased for their 25th anniversary.
The study is connected to the family room through a hallway extending past columns framing the dining room. Inside the dining space, abstract felt tapestries by Israeli artist Calman Shemi brighten the walls to either side of a glass-topped table paired with oval-back chairs.
At Harpole’s recommendation, the homeowners tapped Rob Brown and Todd Davis of Brown Davis Interiors of Bethesda, Maryland, and Miami Beach to decorate the rooms. “They wanted a transitional, classic feeling in the furnishings, not modern but not old-fashioned,” recalls Brown. He and Davis combined comfortable, upholstered pieces with their own furniture designs, including the dining room chairs and the family room’s sectional sofa, chairs and coffee table. They also placed the couple’s art to complement the architecture of the rooms and tied some of the paint colors to individual works hanging in the spaces. In the dining room, for example, the lavender ceiling repeats the purple hues in Shemi’s tapestries.
After living in the house for about a decade, Levitt and Bialek called on Brown and Davis to refresh several rooms with more unexpected splashes of color. “I wanted to do something different without changing the basics of the design,” says Bialek. “So we recovered the sofa in the family room, added new pillows and a rug and added more color and texture to our bedroom.”
The designers reupholstered the large family room sectional in the same tan chenille as the original, while accenting the piece with fuchsia-patterned pillows. In the adjacent dining nook, they applied the same cut-velvet on the pillows to curved-back chairs and turned complementary floral cotton into draperies at the French doors leading to the rear garden. The resulting blend of hot patterns and rattan furniture creates a playful, tropical look that enlivens the otherwise subdued room. “They brought a wonderful energy to the fabrics,” says Bialek of the designers. “Since the remodeling, I’ve added more color to my home and wardrobe. It really picks you up.”
For Brown and Davis, the injection of color and pattern brings out the bright shades of the artwork while adding new life to the home. “You can refine, layer and update your home if the bones are good in the first place,” says Davis.
“You certainly don’t have to throw everything out and start all over again.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to Home & Design. Photographer
Lydia Cutter is based in McLean, Virginia.
ARCHITECTURE: JERRY HARPOLE, Harpole Architects PC, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: ROB BROWN + TODD DAVIS, Brown Davis Interiors, Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, and Miami Beach, Florida. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: SCOTT BRINITZER, Scott Brinitzer Design Associates, Arlington, Virginia.