A couple moving from a bungalow to a modern abode in Northwest DC brought their traditional furnishings with them—along with some trepidation about how to navigate their new environment. “They told me they were almost intimidated by how modern and open their new house was,” recounts interior designer Kate Ballou, who guided their transition from cottage to contemporary. “It wasn’t something they were familiar with. They loved the style but wanted it to still feel cozy.”
Saltbox Architecture | Construction came on board to renovate the double-height main floor of the 1979 house. The kitchen was redesigned and the wall separating it from the family room removed. The family-room ceiling was lowered to make the space feel more intimate. Meanwhile, Ballou helped her clients select modern furnishings with an emphasis on natural materials like stone and wood.
An existing walnut console and sideboard provided the jumping off point for modern pieces, including iconic mid-century classics purchased through Furniture from Scandinavia, where Ballou works part-time. A palette of gray, blue and purple was inspired by vintage posters collected by the husband, a speechwriter, and evocative black-and-white images photographed by the wife. The finished house “feels spare and modern without being sterile,” Ballou says. “We were able to give them something they are happy with.”
What’s unique about the new kitchen?
The clients love walnut, so Touchstone Remodelers put in gorgeous custom-walnut cabinetry. We chose the locations for the walnut and white upper cabinets carefully and used dark-gray porcelain tile for the kitchen floor. A row of cabinets topped with honed granite separates the kitchen area from the family room.
What was your rationale on furniture selection?
My clients were ready to invest in really good furniture that they will keep forever. I introduced them to modern Danish design. I’m a big believer in using iconic pieces where you can. So to make those purchases possible, we went with other mid-priced items like a Room & Board sectional and ottoman in the family room, then paired them with an original Oda Chair. Most of the carpet is wool broadloom that’s been bound—it’s durable, feels good to the touch and is budget-friendly so we could put more into the beautiful, sculptural pieces they both fell in love with.
How did you create warmth in a modern context?
Furniture with circles and curves, high-quality, natural materials and fabrics that have that tactile, luxurious feel. The owners gravitated towards grays, so I tried to choose gray upholstery with some brown in it when I could so it would feel less cold. And they love walnut, which has such warmth to it. Most of the wood pieces are made of walnut.
What challenges did the open plan present?
The living room was defined by an existing lowered ceiling, but at one end there’s a space with a double-height ceiling that leads out to a porch. The clients were stumped by it. They said, “It feels like a gallery to us; we don’t want to necessarily fill it with furniture.” We decided to make it an indoor-outdoor area, to transition outside. Plants sit on loose beds of stones, broken up by a porcelain-tile pathway to the porch. It works great.
How did you make your fabric selections?
The owners loved the process of picking out fabrics. They wanted everything very monochromatic, so we looked for variations and textures. For example, they have an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair in the living room, and we chose a warm, gray-brown fabric for it. A purple window seat cushion on the far wall provides a little fun back there.
How did you liven up the monochromatic look?
Texture. That’s my big thing. For instance, in the master bedroom I chose a Tai Ping custom carpet that is carefully custom-cut for the odd shape of the room. It’s a gorgeous, wool-and-silk blend in slate blue with a soft sheen. It’s subtle but eye-catching.
Talk about the furniture arrangement in the living room.
When I worked for [architect] Hugh Newell Jacobsen, I learned how to create formal seating arrangements, where sofas line up perfectly to give everyone the same distance to the coffee table. In this case, I lined the sofas up with a solid-walnut coffee table where one table can be pushed underneath the other or both can be pulled out. The concept was to be a little flexible but still adhere to the rules.
Advice for clients getting started?
Focus on the big picture first and on how you want to invest in your furniture.
How do you blend price points?
I mix investment pieces with high-quality mid- and low-range furniture. I recently combined a cb2 credenza for $500 with an Egg Chair for $8,000.
Besides name, why buy original?
Imitations don’t last as long or feel the same. Fritz Hansen has been manufacturing for 80 years; they have their methods and proportions. Everything is designed for the body and for the eye. It makes a huge difference.
Why is accessorizing important?
It provides the finishing layer that makes a project feel lived in and gives it character and personality.
What is your personal style?
I like to mix mid-century and newer designs that reinterpret that era; also vintage pieces with modern upholstery. They make a home feel collected over time, a goal of many designers.
Renovation Design: Alan Field, ASID, NCIDQ, Saltbox Architecture | Construction, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Kate Ballou, Hendrick Interiors, Washington, DC. Builder: Ben Srigley, Touchstone Remodelers LLC, Bethesda, Maryland.