Designer David Mitchell recently planted 115 daylilies, 25 dahlias and 16 hydrangeas in his backyard—every one in white to offset the other plants in his garden, which are all lime green. He also grows beets, heirloom tomatoes, eggplant and Russian black watermelon. “Remember the old green color people used to paint shutters, that Southern green?” he comments when asked about the melons. “They’re that color.”
Even in his garden, Mitchell leaves nothing to chance.
From his front porch to the interiors of the 1930s Colonial he recently renovated in DC’s Shepherd Park, the designer has masterfully manipulated color, texture and scale to create bold, graphic spaces. Envisioned as a “guy’s house” for the “designer who would rather be kayaking than buying antiques on a Saturday,” Mitchell’s home celebrates the outdoors in shades of olive and khaki. But aside from the occasional baseball cap, this designer’s home is far more stylish and sophisticated than your typical man lair.
Mitchell was drawn to the home for its beautiful proportions and mint condition. “I liked the fact that it was from the 1930s—I like ’30s stuff. And I was going to be the second owner. No one had messed it up with stuff I was going to have to rip out,” he explains.
As soon as he purchased it, Mitchell embarked on an update that respected the home’s original vernacular. Other than a single wall that he demolished to make way for a larger master bath on the second floor, the designer left the existing floor plan intact. On the ground level, he introduced a modern vocabulary by raising the height of the doorways between rooms by 16 inches and updating the fireplace in the living room with a clean-lined marble surround. He ripped out the old wall-to-wall carpet, exposing original hardwood floors, and completed a total kitchen makeover. He also screened in a side porch, adding a beadboard ceiling and porcelain faux-wood floors to reflect the home’s period style.
As the dust settled, it became clear to Mitchell that the house called for a departure from his regular oeuvre. “I’m known for doing ethereal houses with lots of blue-grays and golden colors,” he says. But after testing his favorite robin’s egg blue on the foyer walls, he recalls taking a step back and saying, “‘Well, this doesn’t work.’ I was trying to turn the house into something it’s not.
“My house is more graphic than what we normally do. It has a Pacific Northwest feel to it,” he continues, “mixed with a little bit of Southern heritage. Getting it to work together was a challenge.”
In less experienced hands, rooms in the compact, 1,800-square-foot house could have wound up feeling cramped and smothering. But instead of filling his home with diminutive pieces, Mitchell tricked the eye by selecting furniture with substance. For example, a tall walnut desk and large George Smith armchairs bring weight and balanced proportion to the living room. “People are afraid of big things in a small space. But they work really well,” the designer observes. “You just have fewer of them.”
Nature plays a starring role in the décor of this home located a stone’s throw from Rock Creek Park. In the living room, framed photographs hung in a grid pattern depict birds, deer and landscapes—“all things I love about my neighborhood,” Mitchell says. Rather than artwork flanking the fireplace, ledges are reserved for seasonal displays of tree branches, hydrangea or pussy willows, which the designer arranges in mammoth vases. “They bring a green element into the room,” he says, “and flowers or branches become part of the color scheme.”
The palette of brown, ivory and green offers a bold contrast to Mitchell’s well-honed collections, which include antiques, fine-art photography, creamware and ceramics. “I look for paint to be a backdrop,” he explains. “A lot of people are obsessed with matching paint; I think paint is something you should play with a little more.”
The author of his own no-holds-barred blog, “David Mitchell Uncensored,” he is never one to take his work too seriously—especially in his own home. Mitchell happily admits to pairing rarefied antiques and designer pieces with affordable flea market and retail finds. “I love high-low stuff. In my living room, I have a pair of original André Arbus chairs and I also have a West Elm rug.”
Mitchell is as proud of the priceless still-life photograph of a bay leaf plant in his bedroom as he is of the oversized marine blueprints covering one of the walls in his second-level TV room, which doubles as a guest room. Each one, printed in orange reverse, cost $15. “I design this way,” he says of the mix. “I think it’s what makes design so interesting nowadays.”
He is also a master at combining disparate and unexpected objects. In his home you’ll find étagères and a coffee table from his own collection for Salvations Architectural Furnishings; stone-glazed Chinese stools; African bone bracelets arranged as a dining room centerpiece; and in the kitchen, a curved metal table on wheels that began life in a Victorian animal hospital.
In Mitchell’s kitchen, color gives way to a calming palette. Pale gray cabinetry and slabs of marble on the counters and walls create a timeless, classic vibe.
The room will change next year, when an addition will enlarge the kitchen and convert the screened porch into a new TV room, making way for a dedicated guest room upstairs. Mitchell will also build a deck. “As much as I’m into gardening, a little less green space is fine with me,” he admits. “This spring I did find genetically engineered grass that only grows three inches tall. We’ll see if it works.
“I love learning stuff,” he reflects. “There’s always something new to learn.”
Photographer Angie Seckinger splits her time between Potomac, Maryland, and Spain.
INTERIOR DESIGN: David Mitchell, David Mitchell Interior Design, Washington, DC.