"There are no rules anymore,” says Washington interior designer David Mitchell. From his Connecticut Avenue office, Mitchell overlooks the bustle of Dupont Circle. His enormous vintage work table is bare, except for a silvery laptop. The underpinnings of rooms-to-be occupy every other available surface. Rolling tubs stashed under tables hold thousands of fabric swatches. Smooth ceramic pots, familiar shapes to Mitchell fans, await transformation into table lamps. A carved wood artifact from America’s agricultural past is stationed temporarily atop the mantel, a worn fragment of our collective memory. Such inspired objects only hint at the textures, soothing colors and subtle patterns that Mitchell combines to make fresh, livable interiors.
David Mitchell has long been known for richly combining the elements of the trade. In less judicious hands, mixing patterns and textures could create undercurrents of distraction. But whether the décor is on display at a show house or in the home of a private client, Mitchell applies his Zen-like dedication to calm. His prime mission is achieving harmony.
“It’s all about how subtle it is,” he says.
In the home of a young family in Bethesda, Mitchell varied textures, colors and surfaces to achieve a rare mix of serenity, sophistication and practicality. (The household includes three children under the age of eight.) A bold trove of nature-inspired textiles, with motifs ranging from Moroccan to Folk Art to Scandinavian Modern, is the lively result. “It’s an old house,” says the designer. “We wanted to interject a young spirit.”
The entryway introduces the color palette. Folk-art inspired floral wallpaper climbs the stair wall. Its loosely accurate botanical forms exude shades of rust, blue, green and gold. A settee is upholstered in bittersweet wide wale corduroy welted in pale blue cotton. An embroidered pillow from India “helps to carry the story of the house,” Mitchell says. An antique Oriental rug protects the floor.
“The entrance hall is so welcoming that it sets the tone of the house,” says Mitchell. “It’s not only sophisticated, it’s fun.”
In the living room, the owners’ Hudson River landscape painting provided a starting point. Its companions now include vintage, antique and contemporary furniture as well as plenty of comfortable upholstery. Mitchell chose a pale blue linen textile to cover a deep Jean-Michel Frank sofa. The walls were painted celadon. “There had to be a blue-green palette,” Mitchell says, to reflect the importance of water in the landscape painting.
In order “to build a textural story,” the designer chose a rug with a pattern based on the form of an old Irish metal gate. The colors—soft blue, leaf green and natural, punctuated with terra cotta—were customized to blend with the sofa and the bouquet of fabrics lavished around the room. Tailored “Fifth Avenue” chairs are covered in a small-scale leaf print in natural tones interspersed with blue. A generous, skirted ottoman wears embroidered cotton in a fantasy floral pattern embellished with warm terra cotta. Sofa pillows pick up the palette in an elaborate trellis print. Simple draperies in a matte fabric are woven with satin flowers, which shimmer at night.
Furnishings are subtly dramatic. A minimalist wood coffee table started life 800 years ago as a gilded Chinese prayer table; its mottled surface now glows with age and protective coating. Lacquered “gourd tables” are stationed beside cushy upholstered chairs.
A dozen smooth white ceramic pots from Belgium occupy a long narrow table by the window, their glaze catching soft light from outside. Their rounded forms suggest the organic aesthetic of mid-century designer Eva Zeisel. Mitchell often turns them into contemporary lamps.
The blend of old and fresh extends to upholstery. Antique Empire chairs depart from the formal conventions of their era when Mitchell covers them in a simple cream-and-blue cotton stripe. An antique wing chair is updated with a cotton textile printed with lively ferns. With a house full of small children, stain- resistant treatments are a must.
Scale is key. “Nothing too big when you use a pattern on furniture,” Mitchell cautions. “You want it to ‘move,’ not to assault the furniture.”
In the dining room, pale aqua walls are glazed and combed to look like linen. “Paint adds the atmosphere in a room,” says Mitchell. The owners kept their round dining room table and added new chairs. “The backs of the chairs become more important with a round table,” Mitchell points out. Armless upholstered chairs with a slightly swooping profile have been dressed in a classic stripe for contemporary entertaining. Above the table, Mitchell chose a chandelier with almost industrial roots. The wood and stripped-metal structure is hung with rock crystals. By the window, a pale Gustavian bench is upholstered in a washed linen printed with an equally pale floral pattern. To give the bench an ethereal backdrop, Mitchell hung draperies of embroidered wool challis.
Stronger colors and patterns turn up in the sunroom. Swedish captain’s chairs are upholstered in caramel-hued cut velvet in a 1960s-like floral pattern. A vintage wicker chair gets a lighter touch, with two-tone cotton printed in a delicate Moroccan motif. Overstuffed pillows are dressed in “burnt-out velvet” or oversize bittersweet-and-green checks. The ottoman coffee table is upholstered in a tawny stripe. The pale floor rug is woven in a soft floral.
“Even if you like neutrals, you can interject color,” says Mitchell. “Just make sure everything harmonizes.”
Linda Hales, former design critic at The Washington Post, writes about architecture and design. Photographer Laura Resen is based in Chatham, New York.
INTERIOR DESIGN: DAVID H. MITCHELL, David Mitchell Interior Design, Washington, DC.