When attorneys Betsy Karmin and Manny Strauss traded the Bethesda home where they raised their two daughters for a penthouse in Kalorama, they decided to start with a blank slate. First, they called on Sandy Spring Builders to overhaul the outdated interiors, which encompass a kitchen, dining room, living area, office and master suite on the main level, with a loft and roof deck above. Then they tapped interior designer Joanne Fitzgerald to make what was an empty shell their own. “They were divesting themselves of all the hand-me-down furniture they had for their whole lives and were starting from scratch,” says Fitzgerald.
“We wanted that feeling of calm beauty you get from a Japanese garden, so when you walk in you have this sense of wanting to take a deep breath,” says Karmin, who visited Japan with Strauss before they embarked on the re-do. “But we also wanted it to look upscale, urban, cool and hip.”
Working with cabinet and stone selections the couple had already made for the kitchen and master bath, Fitzgerald presented them with plans that marry comfort and a shot of “glam.” Her subtle palette not only creates a soothing vibe but also lets stunning views of the Washington Monument and Taft Bridge take center stage.
Now that the job is complete, the owners’ grown daughters enjoy staying over on Murphy beds in the loft. Strauss and Karmin also love to entertain guests in their chic city haven—and on its renovated roof deck. “We just pull out the margaritas,” says Karmin, “and feel like we’re on vacation.”
EXPLAIN HOW THE COLOR PALETTE CAME ABOUT.
Before the project got underway, my clients discovered the work of artist Mindy Weisel and bought four of her colorful glass pieces. We wanted them to be front and center, flanking the fireplace. We decided on a neutral palette so the pieces would sparkle.
HOW DID YOU CREATE A SENSE OF DRAMA?
We knew the fireplace needed to be a dramatic focal point when you step into the space. One of my favorite ways to accentuate a fireplace wall is to create a “tower” of stone; we surrounded this one with dry-stacked black quartzite. Once the fireplace was done, we pulled the thread all the way through the house. We stained the white-oak floors black, painted the orangey oak spiral staircase black and selected black finishes for the furniture. This created drama because all of these elements sort of talk to each other.
WHAT CRITERIA DROVE YOUR FURNITURE SELECTION?
My goal was to make the home look like it had evolved. I can’t stand a space that looks like everything was trucked in the same day and it all matches perfectly. Our goal was for each piece to have a personality of its own but to work with the ensemble. Each item should be exciting, but not so exciting that it takes up too much attention. For example, the acrylic table in the loft almost looks like a piece of art.
HOW DOES TEXTURE ACCENTUATE THE AESTHETIC?
Metal accents on the furniture, shimmery textures and rich, glossy wood finishes lent themselves to the glam feeling we were after. On the Powell & Bonnell chair in the seating area, there’s an exquisite Romo satin—and we also used the satin for a kidney pillow on the facing chair, which is covered in rich, supple mohair. The fabric on the sofa is quiet, but it also has a slightly sexy shimmer.
WHY IS ART SO INTEGRAL TO A FINISHED PROJECT?
Art makes all the difference in the world. There’s nothing that makes a space more interesting and individual than the art people collect. It’s always such a pleasure to work with clients who already have excellent art collections or appreciate original art. When people say they need help finding art and they don’t want to spend a lot of money, I say go down to Torpedo Factory and find art that makes you happy.
WHAT WAS ONE OF YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGES?
There are no straight walls in the home because of the angles of the building. The bedroom was particularly problematic since the window wall has an incredible angle. A sofa—one of the only pieces the owners kept from their previous home—was perfect along that wall. And drapes behind it also help minimize the angle.
WHAT TOOK YOUR CLIENTS OUTSIDE THEIR COMFORT ZONE?
I showed them Phillip Jeffries’ beautiful Bloom wallpaper for the powder room. At first they said, “That’s not really what we envisioned.” But I told them this room could be a tiny jewel box if we could just introduce a little flavor and color. Finally they agreed, and now they love the space. They call it “Joanne’s powder room.”
HOW DID THE LOFT’S BLUE COLOR SCHEME EVOLVE?
Hardwood Artisans, who made the Murphy beds, offers a blue cabinetry finish. It dawned on me that instead of more expected colors, this would put a twist on the rest of the scheme. Plus, the loft is like a tree house. I thought, “How cool to walk up to this ethereal ‘sky space’ and find a gorgeous blue that verges on hyacinth?” We found the blue rug, which is a work of art on its own and echoes the blue shade downstairs in the powder room.
WHAT DESIGN ELEMENT IS OFTEN OVERLOOKED?
Using standard “ceiling white” paint is a lost opportunity. Painting a ceiling in a unique color brings subconscious warmth and interest to a space.
NAME A PRODUCT YOU CAN’T WAIT TO TRY.
I just discovered an eco-friendly surface called Iron Moss by Neolith. It looks just like iron and would be great for kitchens, baths or fireplace surrounds.
WHAT AFFORDABLE FIND DELIVERS HIGH IMPACT?
One thing that’s getting more accessible is really interesting tile. There are tiles that mimic wood, tiles that mimic linen and beautiful encaustic-cement tiles. They’d all make an enormous impact in a renovation.
EXPLAIN YOUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH WALLPAPER.
Today’s wallpapers are breathtaking. What you can get for the price and style it brings to a house is amazing. It’s really great when they’re washable and are going to last for 10 years.
IS THERE A TREND THAT YOU DREAD?
I’m worried that shabby chic is coming back. That’s not a style I ever loved.
Interior Design: Joanne Fitzgerald, Gatéga Interior Design, Washington, DC. Contractor: Sandy Spring Builders, Bethesda, Maryland. Deck Renovation: Landis Architects/Builders, Washington, DC.