Betty and Jennings Connell were the original occupants of a three-bedroom, 1984 house in Vienna, Virginia. A couple of renovations over the intervening years had increased the home’s footprint—an added kitchen and family room in back, as well as a master suite expansion upstairs. But Betty was looking to hit the “refresh” button as their college-age twins left home and she and her husband became empty nesters.
“I felt a big change coming in our lives and I wanted the house to accommodate it,” says Betty. “Our kids are now young adults. We didn’t want to move, but we did want to create a space that felt grown-up.”
She hired Charlene Kennerknecht and Arch Williams, principals of Monarch Design DC, to help her achieve what she was looking for: a fresh, clean-lined look that, in her words, “wasn’t too sterile, but was warm and inviting.”
As Kennerknecht recalls, “When I did the initial walk-through, the house felt tired. But despite the pinks, teals and Hunter greens, I knew we could make it work.”
Williams set about creating “good bones” in the choppy floor plan. First, the downstairs rooms were opened up and spatially connected to each other by removing unnecessary doors, including the French doors separating the parlor from the family room. Next, the existing moldings and wainscoting were removed; the latter, especially, cut the rooms in half and made the eight-foot ceilings seem lower. “We then added fresh architectural layers like brighter, cleaner trim work,” says Williams. “With the parlor fireplace, we went oversized to make it an element that would lend architectural weight to the room.”
Perhaps the biggest stretch for the Connells was the designers’ suggestion to ebonize their floors. They resisted at first, but after looking at images and mulling it over, they decided to take the leap. The inky floors and gray walls not only provide visual continuity on the main level, but also set a casual yet elegant tone in the overall décor.
“Arch and I have a holistic approach to design,” says Kennerknecht. “We call it our ‘global plan.’ We prepare ideas for every room based on how our clients live and what they want to accomplish. These homeowners really love Charleston and are drawn to a Southern aesthetic.”
The Connells owned some family heirlooms including an antique piano that needed to be incorporated into the redesign. Otherwise, they were open to starting afresh with their furnishings. In general, Kennerknecht and Williams adhered to neutral, tone-on-tone linen upholstery on tailored and appropriately scaled pieces. For example, the furniture in the small parlor is diminutive in comparison to the hefty sectional in the larger family room.
The narrow parlor effectively demonstrates how Monarch creates “destinations” in a given room, no matter its shape or size. The parlor includes a music area; a work area with a writing desk; a sitting area by the fireplace for Betty and her friends; and a reading area for Jen, with his armchair dividing the room. “Jen and I never used the parlor,” says Betty, “except to listen to a kid play the piano. Now that it’s opened up—and the way it’s laid out—it’s become the core of our house.”
The designers added layers of texture to room plans that allowed for multitasking. “We laid down lots of sisal rugs,” says Kennerknecht. “There’s also nailhead trim outlining the furniture instead of fussy trim, and wrought iron, leather and cowhide furnishings. We integrated wood pieces to tie in the antiques.”
In keeping with the sophisticated Southern vibe, there are also subtle chinoiserie elements in the home, evident in black-lacquered wood details. Artwork purchased in Charleston adds pops of vibrant color to the serene spaces. A palette of greens, yellows and oranges punctuates the window treatments and other accents.
In the master bedroom, Williams added a peripheral soffit to hold recessed lights and create architectural interest. A cozy, tufted bed occupies center stage while a serene meditation nook is defined by upholstered walls. “We switched from grays to creams, and reversed the moldings, making them darker than the walls,” says Williams.
The twins’ bedrooms were also overhauled: The son’s sports his University of Virginia blue-and-orange, while the daughter’s is adorned in fabrics with a bohemian vibe to suit her personality.
“The house has such a good feeling,” observes Betty. “When our friends or the children’s friends come over, I keep hearing how everyone loves it. To me, it’s like a big hug, all comfortable and warm—which is exactly how I wanted it to be.”
Charlotte Safavi is a writer in Alexandria, Virginia. Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in Las Vegas.