An Eames lounge chair and a Knoll Barcelona table add classic modern lines to the family room.
In the entrance hall, a Thomas Pheasant lamp sits atop a table from André Arbus.
An abstract print and slipper chair occupy a corner of the living area.
Santa-Cruz reshaped and reupholstered existing pieces for the living room.
The dining room centers on Zentique chairs and a Barbara Barry table.
The couple's sideboard was stained and set with metal lamps from Gumps.
The library/study boasts painted shelving and a desk paired with a stool from Zentique.
The living room prior to Nestor Santa-Cruz's redesign.

A Subtle Shift

Nestor Santa-Cruz transforms an outdated McLean home into a stylish retreat

Consulting an interior designer for the first time can be intimidating, especially when it means throwing out cherished belongings and starting from scratch. But for a couple of empty nesters who decided to redecorate their McLean home, the process turned out to be calm and reassuring under the guidance of District designer Nestor Santa-Cruz. 

“I never felt pushed into anything,” says the wife, a substitute teacher for Fairfax County Public Schools. “Nestor considers your color preferences and what you already own as part of the design. He really listens.”

The homeowners selected Santa-Cruz, a design director at Gensler who also runs an eponymous residential practice, based on his interiors in the law offices where the husband works. “I liked his sense of style, color and space,” says the attorney. “He made the experience fun. And he got us some ‘wow’ factor.”

Instead of demanding a complete makeover, the designer suggested a “decorative lift” by selectively refurbishing some of the owners’ furnishings and complementing them with new pieces to create a sophisticated suite of rooms on the main floor. “It was a way of establishing trust through familiarity, a way of transitioning to a more contemporary design than what they had,” says Santa-Cruz. 

The change came after the couple and their daughter had lived in their home for 16 years. The pair bought the four-bedroom Colonial in 1995 after deciding to move from a smaller town house in Alexandria. “The home was new and we liked the open floor plan,” says the wife. “But after living here for a while, some of the furniture was starting to go and it was time to upgrade.”

In 2009, the homeowners remodeled the kitchen, adjacent butler’s pantry and laundry room. Distressed, painted cabinets and granite countertops replaced counterparts in plastic laminate and Corian. About a year after completing that project, the homeowners moved on to refresh the rest of the ground floor where mahogany furniture, muddy paint colors and heavy draperies made the rooms feel dark and claustrophobic. 

Before suggesting a style, Santa-Cruz presented a floor plan showing the furniture placement in each space. “Having this map allowed us to work as a team to develop the design over time,” he says. 

In the revamped rooms, an envelope of dark stained wood floors and pale painted walls was established to set off furnishings in similar contrasts. Reproduction Turkestan rugs in subtle, neutral-colored patterns extend under living and dining furniture to offer softer versions of the Oriental carpets previously in the rooms. 

“Before, each space had its own independent coloration,” the designer says. “Now the rooms flow and provide access to daylight.”

Instead of insisting on all new seating in the living room, the designer reshaped the couple’s old sofa and slipper chairs, and reupholstered them in solid fabrics. “When Nestor looks at a worn piece of furniture, he sees the design possibilities,” says the wife. The only new seat in the space is an armchair that repeats the curved shapes of the older pieces. They also kept mahogany side tables owned by the couple, along with a bold, abstract print salvaged from a room in the basement. 

In the adjacent dining room, the homeowners’ sideboard was partially stained to impart a more graphic look. A new Barbara Barry table and Louis XVI-style chairs were paired under a delicate, 1925 French crystal chandelier. 

Tucked off the entrance hall, the library/study recycles a wood shelving unit, a leather-topped desk and a chest of drawers, all refreshed with paint. A new Eames leather office chair now serves both computer station and desk, and an Indian print of a horse complements the small sculptures of bronco busters owned by the couple. 

Next door, the powder room was turned into a miniature townscape with Piero Fornasetti-designed wallpaper depicting rows of Mediterranean-style buildings, some with golden domes. “We never would have picked wallpaper like that on our own,” says the husband. “I fell for it the moment I saw it and smile whenever I look into that room.”

Softer wallpaper in a subtle floral pattern extends through the foyer and stairway to harmonize with the light colors in the adjacent rooms. “At first I wasn’t sure about the design,” admits the wife. “But I’m glad we did it because it breaks up any sense of uniformity.” 

In playing off the traditional décor preferred by the couple, Santa-Cruz suggested several reproductions of Deco pieces by French designer André Arbus from the late 1930s and ’40s. The ebony cocktail table and ivory “Indochine” credenza in the living room and the marble-topped table in the entrance hall add rich finishes and streamlined shapes to the more conventional furnishings already in the homeowners’ possession.

Off the kitchen, the family room was updated with comfortable armchairs, a leather Chesterfield sofa and a clock from Restoration Hardware. A classic Eames lounge chair and a glass-topped Mies van der Rohe table raise the modern design quotient.

Santa-Cruz, who is trained as an architect, upgraded the room’s fireplace with an elegant mantelpiece of his own design. Inspired by the work of French designer Jean-Michel Frank, the mantel’s crisp moldings and limestone hearth epitomize the simplicity and restraint evident throughout the interiors.

Since completing the redesign, the homeowners say they now spend more time in every room, including the rather stately living and dining areas, than they did in the past. Says the wife, “We are not formal people, so it was important to make every space comfortable and usable.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to Home & Design. Photographer Angie Seckinger splits her time between Potomac, Maryland, and Spain. 

INTERIOR DESIGN: Nestor Santa-Cruz, IIDA,  LEED AP, Nestor Santa-Cruz Decoration, Washington, DC.