Eleanor Niermann’s world is filled with memories of her parents’ boundless talent for creating beautiful furnishings. The Maryland company they founded in 1978—maker of elegant, handcrafted furniture, lighting and accessories sold to the trade only—has literally formed the fabric of her life. As a teenager, she acid-washed metal beads to create a patina for the Niermann Weeks Iron & Crystal Chandelier, deemed an “iconic 1970s design” 30 years later by Interior Design. When successive models of Joe Niermann’s first coffee table sold to designers right out of the family’s living room, she noted its changing dimensions because she had to adjust her position while watching TV. In fact, observing her father parlay his knowledge of antique restoration into the creation of new pieces for their growing furnishings business helped mold who she is today. Small wonder Eleanor has furnished the Eastport house she built across Spa Creek from Annapolis with so many beautiful prototypes from her life and family business.
“See my model of a 17th-century Southern Maryland brick manor house under the console in the study?” Niermann asks during a tour of her 3,100-square-foot, two-bedroom frame house. “I loved the ornamental brickwork so I built a model of it for a high school project.” Her father’s artwork hangs above the Frascati Console, which her mother and sister also own in different finishes. “My sister Claire and I helped my father create the Palissy Lantern,” Eleanor says, pointing to one hanging above a velvet-draped center table. “Claire has since designed a Palissy fixture for low ceilings as a result of living in a 1960s rancher. Traditionally, Niermann Weeks’s best designs originate from the ideas we get furnishing our own homes.”
Eleanor Niermann, half of the sister team now directing Niermann Weeks in Millersville, Maryland, took over a share of her mother, Eleanor McKay’s, marketing duties and her father’s design tasks in 2012 when they retired from the company. The fact that she had completed her own house in 2009 was a boon, as her new responsibilities send her to showrooms across the country promoting collections. When she returned home following the recent New York launch of designer Amanda Nisbet’s collaboration with Niermann Weeks, she was grateful for the refuge of her own personal oasis.
“I’ve actually lived in Eastport since 1996, so I’ve experienced how relaxed this sailors’ destination across the drawbridge from the Annapolis Yacht Club is,” she says. “I built my house because a lot came up for sale that promised unusual privacy.”
Despite her love of the laid-back, water-oriented lifestyle, Niermann drew from the formal symmetry of Annapolis’s 18th-century architecture when she and her father brainstormed her home’s design with Annapolis architect Gary Schwerzler. “I used a symmetrical center-hall plan with two ways out of every room,” she says. “I took liberties with the windows, bringing them all the way to the floor to get as much light in the house as possible.” She created modern contrast in the interior architecture with a staircase that fills the rear center hall with a luscious curve. “It’s made of steel with drywall and spackle filling in the base,” she says. “People seeing the house always comment on how contemporary the inside feels.”
Niermann’s choice of stark white walls and lightly bleached wide-plank pine flooring provides a neutral backdrop, or “canvas,” as she thinks of it, for her treasure trove of furnishings. “It’s second nature for me to stage my things because I do all the showroom displays for Niermann Weeks,” she observes. “But sometimes I think of my house as an excuse to gather furnishings I admire.”
The practice of assessing and promoting furnishings for their beauty originates with her father. “Dad can take a classic antique and hone it to an essential shape for a new piece that is exactly right for today’s living,” Niermann says. “My sister and I like to think we’re carrying on his talent.”
Niermann mixes periods and styles, combining antiques with more contemporary furnishings and pieces from prominent designers. In the living room, Amanda Nisbet’s Pike Occasional Table and Niermann’s own sunburst design for a fire screen make a bold contrast with the Niermann Weeks Tramezzo Screens, inspired by ancient Rome, in the windows. The frisson between worlds is exactly what she’s after and it may be that extra element she and her sister encourage with their new generation of the company’s offerings.
“I’m not into layering,” Niermann says. “I like making a statement.” For example, two Petunia Pendants from Amanda Nisbet’s spring collection deliver task lighting over a kitchen table/workspace. But with their funky, blue serrated petals and gold-leaf interiors, they slant the straightforward kitchen in a more personal and eccentric direction.
Though color has real presence in Niermann’s rooms, she tends to use it sparingly. The pink velvet-draped table in her study, for example, is there for sentimental reasons: “It’s the same one from the living room of a Beaux Arts house my parents rehabbed in Memphis when they were just starting their business,” she says. Her favorite celadon paint finish, most noticeable on the dining room chairs, floats through the house as verdigris furniture finishes, or on upholstery fabrics and ceramics. The color pay-off comes on the floor of the living room at the back of the house: Vibrant orange hues in a large antique Oushak rug explode in an intense complement to the room’s calming blues.
Creating beautiful furnishings for the home is a business for Niermann. But in her own home, it’s also a compulsion and a pleasure. Trained from childhood with a discerning eye, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Susan Stiles Dowell is a writer who lives in Monkton, Maryland. Photographer John Magor is based in Stafford, Virginia.
INTERIOR DESIGN: Eleanor Niermann, Niermann Weeks, Millersville, Maryland. ARCHITECTURE: Gary Schwerzler, Fourth Street Deign Studio, Annapolis, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: Steve Park, S.D. Park Builder, Annapolis, Maryland.