When the founding partner of a DC lobbying firm bought his Victorian row house in the 14th Street Corridor, he refurbished the three-story abode in a formal style to accommodate frequent fundraisers and large-scale entertaining. Ten years later, his needs had changed—and so had his taste. He hired Christopher Boutlier, who had decorated a residence in New York for him, to remake the space with a focus on comfort, livability and a contemporary aesthetic. “The house had begun to look dated and my client had become much more of a minimalist,” Boutlier explains.
In the interim, the homeowner had also become an avid art enthusiast, amassing a collection of conceptual work from the ’60s and ’70s and photography from the ’80s. “I wanted to make sure my collection would show well,” he says. “Chris did a good job making space for it. He made the house comfortable, functional and elegant.”
Detail the changes you made to the home’s aesthetic.
The previous style was more traditional, with maple floors, yellows and floral patterns. The owner now goes for graphic black-and-white, very spare and uncluttered.
The bones of the house are classic so he didn’t want a gut renovation, but we replaced the floors with custom-stained, reclaimed-oak planks from Arrigoni Woods, redid the bathrooms with black-and-white marble and gave the kitchen a facelift with white-painted cabinetry and new, honed-marble countertops. All the walls are painted white with black and dark-wood accents. And the furniture is either new or refinished to match the black-and-white palette.
What original design elements did you keep?
I love the two stainless-steel fireplaces in the living/dining room. We painted the surrounds white and stained the cupboard doors above them very dark to complement the floors (one hides the TV and one storage). We also kept a pair of light fixtures from Spain in the living room and added recessed lights that showcase the art. The existing stair railings stayed; they are stainless steel and glass and keep things light.
Describe the challenges of working in black and white.
A very high-contrast black-and-white look can seem cheap, without a lot of nuance to it. And whites are not all the same. To find a fabric you can put on the sofa in a certain tone of white, a natural rug that works with it and chairs—all these components can easily go wrong and suddenly you have a pink cast on something. It’s not a forgiving palette.
How do you bring a black-and-white palette to life?
The room has to feel layered so you have a range of tone and texture, and there shouldn’t be too much black. I used black accents in some picture frames and in dark-stained furniture. The dark-stained cupboards over the fireplace add drama and balance with the white.
Explain how you accentuated the client’s art.
The art collection is almost entirely black and white, and the interior palette was chosen partly so it would stand out. But when you have an all-white palette and all-white paintings, it’s tricky. We tried to keep the rooms quiet by picking one stain for the furniture and carrying it through; any piece that didn’t match was custom-stained. It was all in the interest of minimalism, of keeping things simple so the focus would be on the art. We tried to create what collectors call “prestige walls” for the owner’s favorite pieces.
What are your guidelines for framing minimalist artwork?
A frame can be used to enhance or detract from a piece of art. The white frames on white walls are there for protection, and hopefully they disappear visually to allow you to focus on the piece. But photographs need a black frame to draw your attention. I’m also big on uniformity in frames. We do all white or all black in a particular spot.
What are some tips for showcasing art?
Consider lighting carefully and think about vistas: Where do you stand or sit to view a piece? Also, give art room to breathe; cluttered spaces make it hard to see. You want to be able to absorb and think about it. That’s what good art does—it makes you think.
How did your design alter the furniture plan?
The previous plan utilized modular sectional sofas that could be taken apart and rearranged for parties. We didn’t want the separate seating areas anymore, so we chose a comfortable Ferrell Mittman sofa and Holly Hunt armchairs to anchor the seating area, with a Salvations coffee table. A Wendell Castle table is paired with Holly Hunt chairs in the dining area. We kept the furniture low intentionally because we didn’t want to disconnect the living and dining areas or block views of the artwork.
How do you create a sense of balance in a space?
Design is about how your brain interprets spatial relations. Think of a room as a seesaw. If I put something big and heavy here, what’s the counterweight to that going to be?
What is your process for furniture selection?
Spend time in the space. You have to get past that filter of newness. When we do floor plans, I go in with painter’s tape and block out the entire room. It’s not just for size, it’s for how things relate to each other. Also, think about how you’ll interact with all the pieces. It’s one thing to walk in and say “Oh, it’s beautiful.” It’s another thing to live in it.
What’s your design aesthetic?
I don’t design that way. When you learn the basic tools—scale, proportion, light—you can work in any style. Projects aren’t repetitive when each space is different.
Thoughts on sustainability?
I believe in reusing pieces if possible. Why throw things away if you don’t have to? The world doesn’t need more trash. Also, I feel a responsibility as a designer to work with small artisans when I can.
Design trend you’re not feeling?
Several designers in my office love the retro stuff. I’ve just never come back around to it—though they push me there!
What comes first for you in a design project?
l always like to start with the rug. There are a million fabrics and other elements but often just a handful of rugs. And they are a much bigger investment.
Favorite aspect of this project?
I love working with collectors. Even if you don’t connect to their passion, their enthusiasm wins you over.