Washington-based Nestor Santa-Cruz first discovered the work of the late French designer Jean-Michel Frank when he was 17 years old and an aspiring architect. “I used to get ten dollars from my grandfather every month and I would buy Architectural Digest,” he recalls. “One of my first copies was a 1976 issue with the Paris apartment of Yves St. Laurent that was believed to have been designed by Frank.” The same issue featured an essay on Frank by Van Day Truex of the Parsons School of Design in Paris, where Frank taught a class and designed the classic Parsons table. Santa-Cruz has admired Frank’s pared-down interiors and iconic furniture designs ever since.
Today a design director for Gensler who also has his own residential interiors practice, Santa-Cruz often pays homage to Frank in his work. Such was the case in an Alexandria, Virginia, home, recently completed for a couple and their three sons. They approached Santa-Cruz after seeing his work in magazines and a show house. “Of his projects I’ve seen, even though there are threads of commonality, they are very much suited to the client,” says the wife. “With Nestor, I knew I wouldn’t get another cookie-cutter design. I felt like I was going to get my own look.”
She and her husband asked Santa-Cruz to create quiet, slightly masculine interiors in the elegant Belle Haven home that they had recently updated with help from Texas-based architect Pedro Aguirre. The 1948 residence, with its stone façade and simple form, lent itself to a restrained approach. “To me, there’s a Puritan kind of lack of decoration on the exterior that makes sense with my clients’ interest in a minimal look—not a lot of tchotchkes or unnecessary things,” he explains. “It fit very well to do this sort of pared-down minimalism that is warm and comfortable.”
Before he lifted a pencil, Santa-Cruz introduced the homeowners to Frank. He gave them a copy of The Stylemakers: Minimalism and Classic Modernism 1915-1945, written by his friend Mo Amelia Teitelbaum, which details the designer’s work in Europe and Argentina. “I wanted to help them understand that this current design aesthetic—minimalism—comes from the history of design and show them how we could connect it to modern living,” says Santa-Cruz.
“When you look at Paris and what was going on at the time, Frank came out of that brilliant era,” says the wife. “I saw where Nestor was going and just loved it.”
Once the vision was clear, the designer set about furnishing rooms with a spare touch—emphasizing precious materials and textures but, in true Frank style, limiting art and accessories to a few carefully chosen pieces. An overall palette of grays and creams creates a subdued backdrop that the designer likens to a cashmere sweater.
In the foyer, he juxtaposed an English-style console with a modern stool of his own design, inspired by a Frank piece. A classic sofa in chenille and two Holly Hunt bergères invite repose while a waterfall table in shagreen—one of Frank’s favorite materials—lends texture and pattern to the look.
In the dining room, a Murano glass chandelier found in Argentina adds a hint of color above the table. Shades of gray reappear in the kitchen, where Aguirre combined the latest appliances with marble countertops and other details that suit the home’s vintage.
Santa-Cruz achieved a sense of serenity in the master bedroom. A parchment bench, a Louis XVI chair and a Niermann Weeks table lamp called Le Michel all pay tribute to Frank’s aesthetic.
Aside from the study, the homeowners have left the windows bare to make the most of views that include glimpses of the Potomac River during the winter. But remaining open to change is part of the Modernist oeuvre. “The house really became a canvas they can build upon,” says Santa-Cruz. “We may add draperies; maybe not. But in the meantime the story is complete with their intent.”
The homeowners could not be happier. “It is amazing what Nestor put us in touch with—pieces from Paris, Argentina, L.A.—that we would never have known about. He’s so well traveled and able to pull from his sources all the time,” says the wife.
“We ended up with this little jewel of a comfortable home,” Santa-Cruz observes. “I was certainly influenced by the work of Frank, yet it has its own personality.”
Photographer Angie Seckinger splits her time between Potomac, Maryland, and Spain.
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE: PEDRO AGUIRRE, Pedro J. Aguirre Architect, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: NESTOR SANTA-CRUZ, IIDA, LEED AP, Nestor Santa-Cruz Decoration, Washington, DC.