A robust discovery phase yielded copious insights as Fabiola Martens set out to reimagine an 1820 Georgetown row house for its new owners. “I always like to get a lot of information in the beginning about my clients’ lifestyle, hopes and dreams—what they are looking for at this time in their lives,” the designer explains. As she recalls, a single nugget the wife shared with her established a framework for the entire project: “I want to smile when I walk in.”
The couple previously lived in a rambling Potomac home set on several acres. Having launched their two adult children, the empty-nesters were looking to downsize and move closer in, where they could enjoy Washington’s walkability. The 5,500-square-foot, Federal-style abode situated in the heart of the Georgetown Historic District, which they discovered in 2013, aligned with their vision. Its dreary, dated interiors, however, didn’t quite stack up.
Last renovated decades before, the house needed a refresh throughout—and a few spaces warranted complete overhauls. Martens recommended BarnesVanze Architects for the collaboration. “It was mostly an interiors project, bringing the house up in standard and finish,” reveals founding principal Ankie Barnes. “The owners wanted to be sure that the core of the lifestyle that they enjoyed [in their previous residence] could be delivered by a much smaller house. They wanted it to feel intimate, yet at the same time have room for the children to come back and to entertain at a very high level.”
As Barnes notes, the home’s “general arrangement was very strong,” so the team kept its existing layout intact. In that floor plan, a long entrance hall opens to double parlors (a living space followed by a piano room) on the right. Beyond the curved staircase are located the dining room, butler’s pantry, breakfast room and kitchen. The second floor comprises the owners’ suite, a study and a guest room; the top level boasts two additional bedrooms. A staff suite, media room and exercise zone populate the lower level.
The renovation plan focused on transforming three areas: the pantry/breakfast room/kitchen; the owners’ dressing area/bath; and the study. It also addressed the couple’s request for an elevator to accommodate their aging parents.
Before, the kitchen and breakfast room sat closed off from one another. According to architect Ellen Hatton, that outmoded design “didn’t fit the way the owners wanted to live.” The team retained the wall delineating the two spaces but strengthened their connection by widening the opening. Now, conversation carries from the breakfast banquette to the kitchen. The expanded opening also invites more natural light into the kitchen, Barnes adds, “so you don’t feel like you’re buried in the bowels of the house.”
Martens’ design and selections amplified the kitchen’s glow. Lighted cabinets display decorative plates from the owners’ collection. As the designer notes, “When you dim the lights, the cabinets are so attractive and make the kitchen feel more homey.” Luminescent, back-painted glass tops the island.
Harkening back to the wife’s “I want to smile” edict, Martens wove a palette of lively yellows and calming grays throughout the house. To start, she scoured far-flung sources for antique rugs. A buying trip to New York unearthed an Agra rug in her ideal colors. That fortuitous find became the “cornerstone” of the front parlor’s scheme; its hues flow into the adjacent piano room. Window panels crafted of silk in a sun-kissed shade add verve and unite the two spaces without blocking the light. As the designer explains, her client “wanted a happy house, so we kept everything feeling warm and sunny.”
The goal, she adds, was to create “elegant but not formal” interiors for a couple who regularly host charitable events (or will resume doing so post-covid) yet crave a relaxed home life. Presented with a largely blank canvas on the main floor, Martens deftly mixed old and new across a spectrum of styles. An Art Deco cabinet, marrying ebonized wood with vellum panels, graces the entrance hall; a pair of sculptural, cast-bronze chairs sits companionably with two transitional-style sofas in the living space.
“It’s totally fine to mix and match as long as it works well together,” asserts the designer. “You don’t want everything to look alike. It’s more interesting to have a bit of surprise and a little tension between pieces. You want stopping points.”
To furnish the second-floor guest room, Martens pulled from the owners’ existing collection. A coat of soft-yellow paint on the walls and tonal Roman shades at the windows reinvigorate the beloved pieces.With the final touches installed, the designer orchestrated a big reveal for her clients. As Martens reports, the wife’s reaction affirmed the project’s success: “She walked in and said, ‘I’m smiling.’”
Architecture: Ankie Barnes, FAIA, LEED AP, founding principal; Ellen Hatton, AIA, project architect and principal, BarnesVanze Architects, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Fabiola Martens, Fabiola Martens Interior Design, Washington, DC. Renovation Contractor: Glass Construction Company, Washington, DC.
Persian Rug: Antique. Two Armchairs: capertoncollection.com. Armchair Fabric: janeshelton.com. Armchair Trim: samuelandsons.com. Ottoman: ferrellmittman.com. Ottoman Fabric: osborneandlittle.com. Fireplace Andirons: johnlyledesign.com. Rose Cumming Silk Drapery Fabric: wellstextiles.com. Drapery Fabrication: Pilchard Designs; 202-669-8760. Paint Color: #103, finepaintsofeurope.com.
LIVING ROOM/PARLOR #1
Sofas: madelinestuart.com. Classic Cloth Sofa Fabric: wellstextiles.com. Pillow Fabrics: fortuny.com; tallia-delfino.com. Coffee Table: dennisandleen.com. Cast-Bronze Chairs: johnlyledesign.com. Rose Cumming Silk Drapery Fabric: wellstextiles.com. Drapery Fabrication: Pilchard Designs; 202-669-8760. Rug: nazmiyalantiquerugs.com. Chest & Armchair: Owners’ collection. Paint Color: #103, finepaintsofeurope.com.
Antique Art Deco Chest: karlkemp.com.
Chandeliers: jonathanbrowninginc.com. Bar Stools: donghia.com. Sconces: urbanelectric.com. Paint Color: DKC#62, donaldkaufmancolor.com. Built-in Cabinet Design: barnesvanze.com. Built-in Cabinet Fabrication: winchesterwoodworkingllc.com. Island & Display Cabinetry Design & Fabrication: forteinteriorsdesignbuild.com. Island Cabinet Paint Color: Chelsea Gray, benjaminmoore.com. Island Faucet: hansgrohe.com. Refrigerator: subzero-wolf.com.
Armchair: capertoncollection.com. Armchair Fabric: jacquesbouvet.com. Side Chairs: donghia.com. Rug: starkcarpet.com. Banquette Fabric: osborneandlittle.com. Chandelier: vaughandesigns.com. Paint Color: Cream # 44, farrow-ball.com.