One of the must-have skills of a residential designer is the ability to convince a homeowner to toss out familiar furnishings for a fresh look. Setting an example for his clients, interior designer Robert Shields jettisoned his antiques, baby grand piano and Old Master paintings for minimalist décor when he moved from Rosslyn to Georgetown in 2007.“I was starting to formulate ideas of my own about what contemporary spaces could be,” says Shields, who tested the concepts in his newly purchased, two-level condominium. " I wanted my surroundings to feel better than any spa, like I was on vacation when I came home.”
His airy duplex achieves that goal with an almost all-white space that soothes the eyes. Judiciously placed against the bleached backdrop are sooty shapes supplying graphic contrast.“The challenge in a white space is how to handle the darks,” the designer says.“If you don’t balance them, the room can feel lopsided.”
He points to the equilibrium struck by the living room’s symmetrical arrangement of brown sofa pillows and bronze lamps. Overhead, dramatically angled espresso-painted beams direct the view to opposite ends of the space. The open kitchen continues the light-dark motif with white and chocolate-veined marble covering the countertops and backsplash in contrast to dark and light cabinetry.
In addition to banishing clutter, Shields made the interior seem larger by raising the ceiling more than a foot and connecting the entire space with seamless white flooring. He opened the stairwell leading to the upper bedroom level and extended the wall at the end of the foyer so it would align with the kitchen.
Once the renovation was complete, the designer limited the furnishings to the essentials. Seating in the living area is pared down to an Italian L-shaped sectional and a chrome-and-leather chair, plus two small, movable stools. Breaking with all the streamlined modernity is the bold, organic shape of an ebony coffee table made from a teak tree trunk. In the dining area, chrome-legged benches instead of the usual chairs reinforce the sleek lines of the milky glass-topped table.
Shields, who frequently entertains, says the living/dining space can easily accommodate parties of 50 or more. When the crowd gets too big, he slides open the glass doors so guests can step out onto a terrace lined with potted bamboo and bonsai trees.
While embracing a contemporary aesthetic in his 1,300-square-foot condo, Shields didn’t entirely abandon the belongings from his former home. He kept some of the pieces from his silver collection, including the Scottish soup tureen and English candlesticks now displayed on his dining table. Knowledgeable about such treasures, the designer recently formed a partnership with Grant Antiques in Kensington, Maryland, where he operates his studio.
Shields stores more of his silverware in a bar cabinet, one of several furniture designs he created to fit his new home. He also devised the end tables flanking the sofa so they incorporate openings for some of his many books.
The combination of select antiques, the tree-trunk coffee table and variously textured materials keeps the snowy living space from looking too sterile. Literally warming up the transition between the living and dining areas is an ethanol-burning fireplace on a wall of textured white marble.
Not entirely absent, color is limited to the contemporary artwork on the walls. “In my former space, this art didn’t look great with the things I had," admits the designer, pointing to a vibrant painting by New York artist Steve Miller. Now the abstraction looks perfectly at home in the spare, gallery-like setting. A former decorative painter, Shields is a trustee of the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) and acquired some of his collection at the annual WPA auctions. Several others are purchased from G Fine Art in DC, including a triptych by photographer Barbara Probst that hangs in the stairwell to mirror the perspective in Probst’s pictures.
In contrast to the main living floor, the upper level features cozy rooms framed by dark-stained woodwork. A small TV lounge is filled with built-in shelving and a sectional sofa. Next door, the bedroom is small but luxurious with a tufted headboard and shelves filled with antique books. Two tall bookcases flank the door to the master bath, which Shields created by combining two smaller rooms.
Like any good minimalist, the designer spent time perfecting all the details. The stairs combine a shiny metal railing with a strip of forged iron held together with a bronze spike. Upstairs, pivoting and pocket doors create seamless transitions between the bedroom and the bath. “What a lot of people don’t realize is simplicity is expensive—less costs more,” says Shields, admitting the clean lines of his home were no exception.
The designer’s investment has paid off in impressing some of his Washington clients to leave their traditionalist comfort zone for edgier style. So far, Shields has completed “white projects" for two homeowners in Georgetown. He is also helping to transform Grant Antiques into an emporium of eclectic design.“My purpose,”he says, “is to repackage the antiques with contemporary art and upholstered furniture so people can see the older pieces in new ways.”
Frequent Home & Design contributor Deborah K. Dietsch is based in Washington, DC. Gordon Beall is a photographer in Bethesda, Maryland.
INTERIOR DESIGN: ROBERT SHIELDS, Robert Shields Interiors, Kensington, Maryland. RENOVATION CONTRACTOR: TONY KING, King’s Home Works, Silver Spring, Maryland.