Washington designer Karen Bengel launched her firm Design Milieu in 2004 when a business executive asked her to remodel his small house in Arlington, Virginia. Two years later, the single homeowner decided to purchase a pair of one-bedroom condominiums in a Rosslyn building designed by Cunningham | Quill Architects. Before the construction was even finished, he tapped Bengel to join the adjacent apartments into a seamless suite of spaces with a contemporary vibe.
“He has very modern tastes and appreciates textures, materials and subtle, sophisticated colors,” says the designer of her client. “He liked the openness of this space and all the windows on three sides.”
For the next couple of years, she worked on every detail of the loft-style penthouse to define areas for living, working, entertaining and sleeping. “I contrasted the light-filled, voluminous spaces with cozier spaces where you can be comfortable,” says Bengel, who is trained as an architect. “My design starts with paying attention to walls, floors, ceilings, doors and windows, and how spaces relate to one another.”
Once the two units were combined, the designer converted the kitchen in one unit into a spa bathroom with a freestanding tub. She then enclosed that space and the remaining kitchen in the other unit with maple-clad partitions to create what she calls “the two cubes” at the center of the residence.
The area in between the cubes, just off the front door, was turned into a small library closed off by sliding glass doors to allow sunlight to penetrate the space. On the walls, bookshelves appear to float but are supported by steel rods anchored to beams hidden in the ceiling. “It’s a space where the owner can relax after work, have a glass of Scotch and read the paper,” says Bengel, pointing to the room’s pair of comfy “Papa Bear” armchairs, reproductions of 1951 creations by Danish designer Hans Wegner.
Beyond the cubes, each end of the penthouse offers a spacious living area and a bedroom suite. The more formal spaces extend from the galley kitchen where the designer made the most of every square inch. “It was challenging to build in efficiency and get a lot of storage into such a small space,” she notes.
Cabinets are positioned on all sides of the kitchen and even below the peninsula on the side facing away from the appliances. A sculptural chandelier of nesting orbs hangs over a walnut table to define the dining area within the larger living space.
This side of the condo is mostly used for entertaining, so Bengel arranged the streamlined furnishings to accommodate groups. The eclectic designs include the sculptural Eames “La Chaise” and Italian sofas and an ottoman arranged on a geometric-patterned cowhide rug. A ponyskin-covered armchair is paired with a 1950s floor lamp to create a reading nook. A leather bench is positioned by the floor-to-ceiling windows to capture the best view in the house—a scenic juxtaposition of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
Just off this living area, the master bedroom reflects the owner’s corporate pedigree in wool wallpaper resembling pinstriped suiting fabric. Bengel designed the king-sized bed to incorporate a buttoned-up shagreen headboard and a drawer within the base for linens.
In the adjacent dressing area, a leather-covered wall above a built-in chest of drawers extends the masculine décor. The master bath features more unusual natural touches, including baseboards made of bamboo rings set into epoxy. “I’m a minimalist, but I like a lot of textures,” says Bengel. “Subtle variations in color can make a big difference to a design.”
At the opposite end of the penthouse, the casual living space centers on a media area with an eco-friendly fireplace designed to burn denatured alcohol. A nearby wet bar and beverage center are handy for movie nights. Behind the maple-paneled media wall, a home office extends next to the guest suite tucked into the corner.
The TV-watching area is furnished to emphasize the textural contrasts found elsewhere in the home. A high-backed leather sofa is combined with a coffee table made of tree branches and a Danish wicker chaise for contemplating the view. A large print by Czech artist Jiri Anderle, one of many works of art collected by the owner, is displayed on an easel in the corner.
Just outside the windows, a narrow terrace wraps around the three sides of the condo to create a serene buffer from the city. Staircases at both ends of the penthouse lead to a second terrace at roof level. The long, outdoor spaces are made more intimate with container gardens, bamboo, clustered seating and fountains designed by J. Mark White of GardenWise, a landscape firm in Arlington.
Bengel played a part in providing access to the lower terrace off the library and kitchen without the intrusion of a staircase. Her solution was to design wooden panels that lie flat to the wall, but can be pulled up and flipped out to create steps.
“The owner is one of my rare clients willing to invest in details like these,” says Bengel. “He had a real vision for what he wanted. It’s so amazing to work with someone to make his dream come true.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to Home & Design. Photographer Stacy Zarin Goldberg is based in Olney, Maryland.