Evelyn Avery knows a thing or two about displaying art. For almost 20 years, the proprietor of Avery Studios has been a go-to source for top designers seeking European period paintings and one-of-a-kind custom frames for their clients. Until recently, Avery would travel to DC from her home base in Atlanta and settle into a suite at The Willard or The Jefferson, where she would show designers her latest artwork and frames, then take special orders back to her factory. But last August Avery made a bold change: This Southern doyenne of gold leaf and gesso shuttered her Atlanta studio and relocated her workshop to Alexandria, Virginia. She moved into a permanent residence in DC’s tony West End that doubles as a gallery where she welcomes clients by appointment almost every day of the week.
Since Washington has accounted for more than 90 percent of her sales in recent years, it made sense to head North when Avery Studios’ lease expired last summer. “I took a great big gulp and moved myself and the studio in six weeks,” Avery says. “It’s been the most monumental task of my life.” The move entailed shipping equipment and 50,000 feet of linear molding, building out a new 5,000-square-foot workshop and furnishing her modern new penthouse, which offers fabulous vistas of Georgetown, Rock Creek Park and the National Cathedral.
With glass walls on three sides, the residence is hardly the typical backdrop one would expect for an 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century European art collection. But just as she embraces the challenge of creating a unique frame, Avery tackled head-on the dilemma of how to display classic art in such a hip, modern setting. Luckily, she also had some help from friend and longtime client, interior designer Barry Dixon, whom she first met in the mid-1990s when they collaborated on a show house.
In drawing up plans for Avery’s pied-à-terre, Dixon addressed the fact that its main open living area left precious little space for hanging art. He suggested dividing the main room with screens made of woven bamboo panels. “We created a gallery on one side of the screen and a working/dining space with a big table where Evelyn can spread art out on the other,” Dixon explains. “On each end of the large rectangle, you have living spaces, one more intimate and casual and one a little bit more formal as a reception area for clients.” The screens provide a sense of intimacy without blocking light.
Furnishings are a mix of antique and new pieces—many designed by Dixon. They complement the art in the modern space because of the designer’s fresh take on scale and proportion. Shades, rather than draperies, control light while curvaceous elements, from a large ottoman at the dining table to a round rug in the casual seating area, add a sense of play to the apartment’s clean lines. “I needed to throw in a curve or two, literally,” Dixon explains.
Avery displays her collection according to theme, with pieces carefully hung throughout the home. A visit can take hours because, like a well-curated museum, the apartment is full of works that capture the eye and the imagination—from timeless engravings to landscapes and portraiture. The formal gallery is devoted to 19th-century art while the kitchen houses still lifes. In the dining area, miniature mirrors showcase the many period frame styles that Avery Studios can create. A print room brims with works on paper, while the bedroom is reserved for tranquil seascapes.
Ironically, Avery, who has no formal training, found herself in the art business almost by accident 20 years ago. She began selling prints to help care for her ailing mother. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” she recalls. The petite blonde with a keen eye, boundless energy and a knack for salesmanship soon began collecting finer pieces, focusing on 18th- to 20th-century European art. A buying trip to London fueled Avery’s passion for restored and original frames. “To me, the frame is kind of the completion of the art,” she explains. “I decided I wanted to make frames and opened Avery Studios.” The company focused on restoring antique frames (and, later, furniture and lamps) as well as creating reproduction and modern frames using Old World materials and techniques.
Along the way, hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit and a series of fortunate breaks sealed Avery’s destiny. A few years ago, she was commissioned to procure and frame 1,000 pieces of art during The Jefferson Hotel’s multi-million-dollar historical restoration. And in 2010, her artists created a line of mirrors for Barry Dixon and Fortuny that are on display in the company’s New York and Venice showrooms, both recently designed by Dixon.
Barry Dixon envisioned an artist’s atelier while creating Avery’s apartment. “You’re visiting a home but also an art dealer. You used to see a lot of places like this in the ’20s and ’30s in Paris and New York,” he explains. “Though it has no street presence, there is a hidden gallery of possibilities in this penthouse. It’s as quixotic and varied as the artwork Evelyn might have for sale.”
Avery couldn’t be happier in her new DC home. “It’s been really nice to see the modern come together with the art,” she says, attributing the project’s success to Dixon. “Anything I’ve ever done with Barry over the years, whether it’s working on a show house or designing this apartment, has taught me. I’ve learned so much from him.”
Photographer Michael Ventura is based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
INTERIOR DESIGN: BARRY DIXON, Barry Dixon, Inc., Warrenton, Virginia. ART & CUSTOM FRAMING: EVELYN AVERY, Avery Studios, Alexandria, Virginia.
For a tour of Avery Studios click here.
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