A couple, both in their forties, wanted to combine households. Each brought his own distinctive style and preferences to the table; one was coming from an all-white row house in Columbia Heights while the other occupied a contemporary Dupont Circle condo. They searched for a year before finally settling on a semi-detached 1927 residence designed by the prolific early-20th-century architect Harry Wardman, located near Washington National Cathedral. “It was perfectly livable,” says one of the owners. “It just hadn’t been updated in 15 or 20 years.”
To remedy the home’s problems, the owners—a communications executive and an attorney—turned to a mutual friend, architect and designer Patrick Brian Jones. They tasked him with drawing up architectural plans and creating an initial furniture scheme, then made their own interior selections based on Jones’ ideas. “The house was designed for a family of five,” he recalls. “We reimagined it for a professional couple who really like to entertain. They wanted to enjoy the entire house. We transformed the original spaces to do different things.”
During the year-long renovation, Jones and his clients altered every room on the home’s three floors, capitalizing on the property’s abundant natural light and cathedral views. The windows were replaced by black-rimmed custom panes from Pella’s Architect Series. The arched front door stayed, but the opening from the foyer to the living room was widened and is now centered on the statement-making original fireplace. The existing galley kitchen and large dining room were combined; in the new iteration, the kitchen—featuring a marble-topped center island complete with counter seating and a wine fridge—encompasses a sitting area that leads out to the deck. The open-plan space flows into the dining room, which is now smaller, as Jones borrowed from it to create the sitting area.
The second floor was completely reoriented. A large master suite was fashioned from three small rooms at the rear of the house and a small sitting room doubles as a home office. The former master bedroom became another sitting room with an adjacent bath. The laundry was moved to the second floor. Prior to the renovation, the third floor was only partially finished, with a long, skinny bathroom, an airshaft and not much usable space. Now, it holds a guest suite complete with a full bath, two roof decks and a wet bar.
When it came to aesthetics, says one of the owners, “The house is a marriage of classic and contemporary that pays homage to its original style, but updates it to maximize light, space and the outdoors. The objective was to create a serene and comfortable environment.” He and his partner had sold their previous homes furnished, so they were able to start with a clean slate.
“My clients have definite taste,” Jones notes. “They were very involved, in a good way. And the design phase went quickly, since we had worked together before.” They chose a neutral palette of pale gray with white trim as a gallery-style backdrop for original artwork that dominates almost every room. A graphic painting by local artist Nicolette Capuano leans above the mantel in the living room, while the bedroom showcases two commissioned canvases by Iranian artist Kazem Shirazi.
Furnishings include vintage wood-framed chairs in the living room, gifted by a friend in San Francisco and restored by the clients. Sisal carpets have been custom-fitted throughout the house and are sometimes overlaid by area rugs. The dining room table was custom-made out of fir timbers salvaged from the demolished wall between the kitchen and the dining room. A dramatic chandelier from RH is nearly as big as the tabletop, and the large-scale abstract painting in vibrant red was purchased at auction many years ago.
The move from their more urban neighborhoods gave the owners coveted outdoor space in a leafier part of the city, so Jones capitalized on the scenic location with French doors at the rear of the house that flow onto a deck. This comfortable outdoor-living area is semi-enclosed by cedar privacy screens. Jones executed the hardscaping plan and his clients spearheaded the landscaping themselves.
The home’s fieldstone façade was a big draw for the couple, who loved the story, told to them by neighbors, that the same stonemasons who built the nearby National Cathedral also worked on their residence. What they didn’t realize was how important the cathedral views would become to them. “The cathedral is one of the most enjoyable elements of the house,” says one owner. In addition to a convenient patio off the third-floor guest suite, he and his partner requested that Jones design a rooftop deck, accessible from the third-floor patio via a ship’s ladder. From that enviable perch, the spires of the cathedral are easy to see, rising just a few blocks in the distance.
Sofa: roomandboard.com. Wood-Framed Chairs: Vintage. Coffee Table: Custom. Square Glass-Topped Side Table & Yellow Table Lamp: williams-sonoma.com. Rug: abchome.com. Painting over Mantel: Nicolette Capuano through saatchiart.com. Painting by Entry: Tuscan watercolor, owners’ collection.
Bedstead & Nightstands: rh.com. Bedding: johnrobshaw.com. Console: ligne-rosetdc.com. Abstract Paintings over Console: Kazem Shirazi. Nelson Bench at Foot of Bed: hermanmiller.com. Rug: Custom. Sofa & Coffee Table: cb2.com. Eames Chair: dwr.com. Platner Side Table: knoll.com.
It was a grand collaboration. A young couple with strong design instincts engaged architect Christian Zapatka and interior designer Andrew Law to transform their conventional, 1930s white-washed brick cottage into a home with European sensibilities—but without grandeur or pretention.
The 3,000-square-foot house in DC’s Wesley Heights boasted good bones and a beautiful, quarter-acre lot, visible in the neighborhood from four sides. But it lacked presence, marred by small windows, an unimposing front door and wooden additions tacked onto the rear. Low ceilings made the third floor bleak and the basement dreary.
Zapatka drew on a classical vocabulary polished by a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. His plans retained only the core of the house, eliminating a side porch, the rear additions and the outdated front entrance. New, elongated windows replaced the smaller original ones and a full-height glass front door now brings light into the expanded front entrance, which is graced by elegant, Regency-style double columns and a zinc roof. The result, notes Zapatka, is “a face that is more robust without being over-scaled or ostentatious.”
Replacing the side porch is a portico with columns and a zinc roof to match the entry’s. The portico features a fireplace that shares its chimney with the living room fireplace. Off the back of the house, a new, curved addition encompasses a combined kitchen and family room with a semi-circular alcove forming a floor-to-ceiling bay window. All new construction is wrapped in repurposed brick that matches the original house.
Dramatic interior alterations produced a proper center hall with front-to-back circulation. Zapatka organized all the service elements—including kitchen, pantry and bathrooms—in a central core to allow for what the architect terms “clarity of circulation.” The original slate roof was replaced, then raised to accommodate new shed dormers and two bedrooms with en suite baths on the third floor. A basement excavation added several feet to the height of the lower level, which now features a playroom, an art room, storage and a garage.
The old stairs gave way to a straight, custom-milled staircase connecting all four floors; this strong design element became the home’s powerful spine, transforming a two-story house with a basement and attic into one with four full, integrated levels. The family’s usable space increased to 5,000 square feet without significantly enlarging the building’s footprint.
“You can make a difference with small gestures—in this case, a group of small gestures,” Zapatka notes. While clearly “a bigger, grander house,” he adds, “it sits lightly on its site. It contributes to the neighborhood rather than detracting from it.”
Like Zapatka, Andrew Law was charged with channeling a classic look. “The clients were interested in tradition, and in creating an interior that would work for years to come,” he says. “Our interiors had to be approachable; kids and dogs are part of everyday life for our clients.”
Law emphasized texture and patina throughout, using a mix of stained and painted woods. In the foyer, a Gustavian-era bench pairs with an antique Oushak rug. The living room is “used all the time,” says Law, adding that the custom sofa is upholstered in durable linen velvet that “holds up with dogs and kids and will gain a patina over the years.” A leather bergère chair sits next to a garden stool of cast concrete. The neutral sisal-wool carpet “relaxes the antiques in the room,” says Law.
In the dining room, the designer paired the clients’ table with new chairs upholstered in green leather. Waxed-linen draperies from Rose Tarlow frame an existing bay window enclosing an Italian, marble-topped table. The chandelier is from Marston Luce.
Several “gestures” appear on the second floor—and those details elevate both architecture and interior design. Another Gustavian bench and Oushak rug on the second-floor landing echo those in the foyer, creating a sense of continuity. And in the enlarged master bedroom, Law tucked a built-in desk inside a window alcove, creating a cozy spot for the owners to work. In the master bath, clad in Calcutta Gold marble with nickel fittings, a tub shelf extends into the shower to form a bench.
Zapatka and Law agree that the finished project perfectly synthesized the vision of clients, architect and designer. The homeowners, observes Zapatka, “had sophistication and an appreciation of good design. And they wanted their house to fit into the neighborhood.”
Adds Law, “They value custom artisanship and custom work. Because it’s a ‘forever’ house, they were committed to doing it once and doing it right.”
Renovation Architecture: Christian Zapatka, AIA, FAAR, Christian Zapatka Architect, PLLC, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Andrew Law, Andrew Law Interior Design, Washington, DC. Builder: Mauck Zantzinger & Associates, Inc., Washington, DC. Landscape Architecture: Amy Mills, DCA Landscape, Washington, DC.
Flooring: classicfloordesigns.info. Design for Built-Ins: christianzapatka.com. Fabrication: mauckzantzinger.com. New Windows: pella.com. Exterior Whitewash & Paint and Interior Paint: Darryl Ring Custom Painting (301-695-5938). Trim: themasterswoodshop.com.
Dining & Bay Window Tables: Client’s collection. Dining Chairs: deringhall.com. Chair Upholstery: Custom Leather. Chandelier & Sconces: marstonluce.com. Drapes: johnrosselli.com. Drapery Hardware: salvationsaf.com. Wallpaper: farrow-ball.com. Rug: mattcamron.com. Candelabra: dennisandleen.com through hollyhunt.com.
Bench: Vintage through scottantiquemarket.com. Bench Cushion: arabelfabrics.com. Rug by Front Door: mattcamron.com. Front Door: Design by christianzapatka.com. Door Fabrication: themasterswoodshop.com.
Skirted Chair by Fireplace: hickorychair.com. Chair Fabric: rosetarlow.com through hollandandsherry.com. Wood-Framed Chair by Fireplace: louisjsolomon.com. Chair Upholstery: michaelsmithinc.com through jambusa.com. Sofa: leeindustries.com through americaneyewdc.net. Sofa Fabric: rogersandgoffigon.com through cowtan.com. Bench on Rollers: romanthomas.com. Bench Fabric: georgespencer.com. Coffee Table: Client’s collection. Chest by Door: Vintage through scottantiquemarket.com. Tree-Stump Table: Formations through hollyhunt.com. Occasional Table by Sofa: Vintage through niermannweeks.com. Demi-Lune Table: marstonluce.com. Mirror over Mantel: Antique. Art over Sofa: Through callowayart.com. Rug: pattersonflynnmartin.com. Drapery: Great Plains through hollyhunt.com.
Window Treatment Fabric: victoriahagan.com through hinescompany.com. Chair: Clients’ collection. Rug: coecarpetandrug.com. Built-in Desk & Shelving Design: christianzapatka.com. Desk & Shelf Fabrication: mauckzantzinger.com.
Change Artist Paul Sherrill thinks of his apartment as a lab where he often shifts art, moves rugs or subtly tweaks the palette to add rich color here or neutral tones there. “I test things out and try new things,” explains the designer, a principal of the Washington-based firm Solis Betancourt & Sherrill.
What does not change is Sherrill’s underlying design philosophy. “There’s a unifying thread, whether a home is extremely contemporary or traditional,” he explains. “It’s the basic and classic elements of organization: scale and placement.”
For 26 years, Solis Betancourt & Sherrill has designed residential interiors for clients from Boston to San Juan. While the firm’s style defies categorization, its goal is “timeless rather than trendy,” says Sherrill. “We merge classical elements harmoniously with modern to create spaces that are peaceful and elegant.”
Sherrill’s 1,000-square-foot Washington apartment is no exception. It’s located in the Altamont, a Kalorama building with a classical pedigree. When it was built in 1916, the Altamont promised city life on a grand scale with four-bedroom units, 10-foot ceilings and servants’ quarters. It boasted a café, loggia, roof garden, billiard room, beauty parlor and barber shop. In the 1920s, the apartments were subdivided into smaller ones and in 1949 the building converted to co-op. Today, the Altamont still retains its stately reception rooms, dignified front desk, and ornate, manually operated elevator.
In Sherrill’s home, three grand rooms—living room, dining room and bedroom—flow one into the other, unified but separate. Along with the 10-foot ceilings, other architectural details give the home interesting bones, from the round dining room with soaring windows to the wood-burning fireplaces, one in the living room and one in the bedroom, that punctuate the apartment like parentheses.
Sherrill’s living room is an experiment in scale, style, and provenance. It’s divided into two distinct seating areas, one to the left of the fireplace and the other at a diagonal to the wall of windows to “break up the symmetry,” he says. Anchoring the space is a custom sisal carpet, its informality a contrast to the dramatic floor-to-ceiling draperies.
Modern and traditional elements blend in a surprising alliance. “I love 1970s modern mixed with Renaissance,” admits Sherrill. A large, abstract painting hangs over a Donghia sofa; in front of the sofa rests a 1960s chrome Milo Baughman coffee table. Matching Lucite consoles from Desiron flank the fireplace, which is topped by an ebonized, 19th-century Dutch baroque mirror. A Chesterfield sofa is paired with a 200-year-old red wingback chair from Ireland that belonged to a dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. Hung directly on a window, an 18th-century Italian landscape by an unknown artist, says Sherrill, “creates a nice view where one does not exist.”
In the round dining room, another seating area is tucked beneath the window bay. He commissioned Designer Workroom in Bethesda to fabricate the curved banquette and draperies using fabrics by S. Harris. When not set for a dinner party, the round gateleg table in the center of the room is layered with textiles and art objects. A nearby Anglo-Indian linen press stores dishware under a collection of Tiffany plates hung on the wall. A candle chandelier provides the only overhead lighting in the space.
Sherrill credits his North Carolina childhood as an early aesthetic influence. “I always loved going to the Vanderbilt mansion [in Asheville],” he recalls. “Perhaps my bedroom is an allusion to that.” Visible from the dining room and separated by a set of French doors, the bedroom features a marble fireplace mantel flanked by enormous Mexican wardrobes made in San Miguel de Allende. Near the windows is an English refectory table, an ad hoc workspace for a laptop.
Inspiration from the Biltmore Estate is evident in Sherrill’s dramatic bed. The headboard is a Venetian overdoor of hand-carved giltwood depicting the North Wind. Above it is a ceiling-height, flame-stitched canopy and at its foot, an ornately detailed trunk. As in other rooms, art is hung salon-style.
After a decade in his home, Sherrill is still trying new ideas. “The biggest thing that I learned was that I’m never here during the day; I only experience it at night,” he says of the evolving design. “So I started bringing in richer, vibrant color. Most of the lighting is low or just candlelight.”
He loves to entertain but admits that he doesn’t cook, joking that his closet-sized kitchen is just big enough “to open a bottle of Champagne.”
During parties, he points out, “guests can enjoy views of the fireplaces from the living and dining rooms. It’s an alley of spaces; you experience one space, then another. It’s both a procession and a decompression, as the spaces reveal themselves.”
Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington, DC, writer. Photographer Gordon Beall is based in Bethesda.
INTERIOR DESIGN: PAUL SHERRILL, Solis Betancourt & Sherrill, Washington, DC.
Living Room Carpet: meridastudio.com. Wall Covering: weitznerlimited.com. Painting in Window, Flemish Tapestry: Owner’s collection. Chairs, Table Lamp & Chest: darrelldeanantiques.com. Mirror: susquehannaantiques.com. Lucite Console: desiron.com. Lamp on Console: goredeanhome.com. Georgian Side Chair: johnrosselli.com. Large Sofa: donghia.com. Sconces: delapuenteantiques.com. Wingback Chair: osullivanantiques.com.
Dining Room Wallcovering: innovationsusa.com. Drapery & Window Seat Fabrication: designerworkroom.com. Drapery & Window Seat Fabric: sharris.com. Trim: samuelandsons.com. Pillow Fabrics: cowtan.com; clarencehouse.com. Bolster Fabric: pollackassociates.com. Ceramic Stools: Moss & Co. Antiques; 202-338-7410. Art, Drapery Holdback, Venetian parcel gilt: tone-on-tone.com. Lamps: marstonluce.com. Inlaid Italian Credenza, Ceramic Tiffany Plates: Owner’s collection. Alabaster Bust of Dante: L’Enfant Gallery; 202-625-2873. Georgian Side Chair: susquehannaantiques.com. Table Ware: meissen.com.
Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee bought the Federal-style
Laird-Dunlop house in 1983.
“Decorating should be appropriate,” says Sally Quinn, seated in the living room of her 18th-century home in Georgetown. “I never understand people who say, ‘I wanted my house to look like an English country house or I wanted it to look like a barn.’ For me, this is a Federal house, not a museum, and I don’t live in it like it’s a museum.”
Quinn, former Washington Post Style reporter and now the Post’s blogger on religion (“On Faith” with Jon Meacham), and her husband, Ben Bradlee, retired executive editor of The Washington Post, have lived in their eight-bedroom mansion for 25 years. They bought the Laird-Dunlop House when their only child, Quinn, was one; he’s now 26 and, with four roommates, occupies the attached five-bedroom home next door.
Although Sally Quinn resists the museum label, her home is a repository of history. Built in the late 1700s for John Laird, a Scottish merchant, it was inherited by his son-in-law, Judge Dunlop. From 1915 until his death in 1926, Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, owned the home. When his daughter married, Robert Todd Lincoln built a five-bedroom house next door for her. It is now home to Quinn Bradlee and company.
“The house was in good shape when we bought it,” says Sally Quinn. “We renovated the kitchen and made one bedroom into a master bath and dressing room.” The Bradlees’ greatest challenge was merging the mansion’s past with their own heritage. Descended from the Crowninshields of Massachusetts, Ben Bradlee has deep roots in pre-Revolutionary New England; Sally Quinn, a self-professed “army brat,” was raised all over the world. Both Quinn and Bradlee have extensive collections of travel mementos and gifts from decades-long friendships. The Laird-Dunlop House displays the skeins of their entwined histories. Every side table holds a story; every wall has a painting or article with meaning.
Quinn chose, arranged and, in some cases, designed the objects in her home. “There’s a high and low of decorating,” she says. “Everything doesn’t have to be precious.” She culled a small vase in the living room from Grey Gardens, the 1897 East Hampton property formerly owned by Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (aka “Big Edie”) and her daughter, “Little Edie” Bouvier, that she and Bradlee bought and restored as a vacation home in 1979. In the living room, a long table, made from a tree Bradlee felled in the woods, is topped by family photos, a model of a World War II destroyer, wooden press type from The Washington Post and two lamps fashioned from bottles purchased at Pier One. Over the table is a huge, elaborately painted oyster shell.
“My family and I were living in Japan right after World War II,” recalls Quinn. “A priest came by on a donkey cart and said he was hungry and asked if could he get some food. He was almost dying. He stayed with us for several weeks and this [shell] was the only thing he had rescued from his temple. When he left, he gave it to us.” Gesturing around the room, Quinn points out an impressionist painting by a Whistler protégé over one of the living room’s two marble mantels, a bowl filled with decorative brass balls from a trip to Peru, Canton china (“We have barrels of it. It was used as ballast by shippers.”) from the Bradlee family, a box that contained a necklace that George Crowninshield gave to his lover Pauline Bonaparte, and everywhere quilts, pillows and fabric that Quinn has collected.
The enormous double living room, with its original moldings and large Palladian windows, is unified by an unusually deep shade of rose. “I mixed the wall color myself and it took me a week,” says Quinn. “I wanted the perfect color that makes everyone look beautiful at night. My painter calls it ‘Quinn Rose.’” She says that people drive by, see the color through the windows and drop a note through the mail slot requesting the name.
In the foyer are portraits of Bradlee’s ancestors, Josiah and Lucy Bradlee. The Gilbert Stuart originals are with relatives; these paintings were executed by an expert copyist from the National Gallery. Before moving on to the dining room, Quinn pauses at the staircase, “I don’t walk down those stairs without thinking of the people who lived here before.”
The dining room, east of the foyer, is papered in a fanciful pattern of birds in flight. Quinn found old pictures of the wallpaper from Bradlee’s mother’s New England home and had Gracie Studio in New York duplicate it. The dining room chairs are copies; the originals by Samuel McIntire were donated to the State Department. Adjacent to the dining room is the library, the heart of the home of two bibliophiles. The built-in bookcases were custom made by previous owners and Quinn and Bradlee have filled every shelf.
Quinn chose, arranged and, in some cases, designed the objects in her home; she even mixed the living room's deep rose-colored paint herself. "There's a high and low of decorating," she says. "Everything doesn't have to be precious." Their collections spill over into each of their studies. Bradlee’s workspace is crowded with memorabilia from his days at the Post; Quinn’s cozier space has four Andy Warhol collage portraits of her hanging above the sofa. The Pop artist also painted Quinn twice in oils; Bradlee and Quinn own all six versions. To the right of the fireplace is a small sampler that reads, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” a gift from their late friend Art Buchwald. “That’s the motto in this family,” says Quinn.
Typical of Georgetown, the front entrance of the Laird-Dunlop House is sited right on the street. But the rear of the house reveals a covered porch filled with wicker furniture and ferns, an English garden and beyond, a pool and tennis court. Although the Bradlee family spends every weekend at their riverfront country thome, Porto Bello, in St. Mary’s County, and the entire month of August at Grey Gardens in East Hampton, the porch and gardens are built for entertaining.
Sally Quinn says that comfort is her most important design consideration. “I want every room to be a living room.” She pauses and then explains, “There is nothing in any room where a guest couldn’t take off his shoes and curl up…Every room should be a living room.”
Frequent contributor Alice Leccese Powers is editor of six anthologies for Vintage/Random House including the recently released Spain in Mind. Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in McLean, Virginia.
Built as a custom home in 1933 by an architect who had worked in Colonial Williamsburg, it was designed to be much larger. But the Depression hit and forced the owner to scale his plans back. Soon after, the owner and his wife divorced. In the middle of a poker game, he casually called out to those assembled, “Anyone want to buy my house?” One of his poker buddies came forward and the house changed ownership on a handshake. The home was not on the market again until 2005, when the second owner’s daughter put it up for sale.
Michelle Ridge was ready to move in on the spot, but first she had to persuade her husband. Tom Ridge, the former Governor of Pennsylvania and the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, at first considered the three-bedroom house too small and its rooms too confining. Michelle Ridge asked him to stand in the living room with its beamed ceiling, generous proportions and view of the manicured gardens. “Is this too small?” she asked. The deal was done. The Ridges moved into the house in 2006 and retained Danny Christmas and Shannon Woodward of Interior Magic to help them transform it. (The mother-daughter design team had also worked on the couple’s previous residence in Bethesda.)
Both the Ridges and their designers agreed that they wanted to maintain the Kenwood house’s Tudor aesthetic. The Ridges also hoped to incorporate the majority of the furniture, art and antiques they’ve both collected over the years into their new home. “Danny and Shannon will take the pieces that you love and treasure and work them into a whole interior design plan,” says Michelle Ridge.
The living room mixes family pieces and new finds. Three nested tables with intricate marquetry are from Michelle Ridge’s family. Her father was stationed in Germany after World War II and many of the antiques her mother purchased there, including these tables and an ornate grandmother clock, are now in the Kenwood house. Another small table to the right of the fireplace was designed by Lord Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother, based on reproductions of furniture from his family’s Althorp estate. “We met him in New York,” says Christmas, “and he signed [the table].” A painting of Venice over the mantel, purchased in New York, represents the style of the Tudor era in subject and color scheme.
The Ridges have an intuitive sense of art and they collect what appeals to them aesthetically and emotionally. The portrait of dogs in the living reflects their love of pets; another painting depicts the west coast of Ireland, part of the Governor’s heritage.
The dining room is paneled in native sweetgum, a domestic wood used throughout the home. It also contains a sideboard from the Althorp collection and an oval table with complementary chairs. The ornate German silver candelabra and coffee service are heirlooms from Michelle Ridge’s mother. A large portrait of a woman in white holding a violin hangs above the breakfront; on another wall a portrait of a young man seems to follow visitors with his eyes. “This room is very actively used,” says Michelle Ridge, “and Tom’s study—with the desk chair that he used when he was in the Cabinet—is right off the dining room.”
The only major structural change the Ridges tackled was renovating the Florida room. Once a screened porch, it had been winterized by previous owners, but still felt like an exterior room. The Ridges wanted to integrate the light-filled space into the rest of the home. Now called the garden room, it boasts a new ceiling, walls and molding. Most of the furniture was reupholstered and the heavy drapery rods from the Ridge’s previous home were cut down into “goblets,” attenuated rods that visually widen the room’s windows. Over the breakfront is a large painting, a favorite of the Ridges because it reminds them of their beloved Pennsylvania. “I know it’s not of the Scalp Level School [a group of Pennsylvania artists who painted plein air landscapes in the 19th century], but it reminds me of them,” says Michelle Ridge.
Tom and Michelle Ridge appreciate their home’s legacy—and the quality that prevails in buildings of its era. A frustrated cable installer recently reminded them of its strong bones when he asked, “Do you know how thick these walls are?”
With the help of their design team, the Ridges are happily settled into their residence, where their favorite furnishings and art are all quite at home.
Washington, DC-based Alice Leccese Powers is the editor of the In Mind series for Vintage Random House, including the best-selling Italy in Mind. Bob Narod is a photographer in Sterling, Virginia.
INTERIOR DESIGN: Danny Christmas, ASID, and Shannon Woodward, Interior Magic, Chevy Chase Maryland
The entry foyer furnished with a Maitland Smith chest of
drawers ushers guests into the home.
Interior designers Danny Christmas (left) and her daughter
Shannon Woodward (right) helped Michelle Ridge (center)
furnish the home.
After the Ourismans bought the house in 1994, they were faced with the task of returning it to a family home for themselves and their blended family of six sons and 16 grandchildren. The first floor with its grand entry, sweeping staircase and Mandell Ourisman’s study (“the only place I let him smoke cigars,” said his wife), and the second floor with the living room, dining room, kitchen and small library are still configured as they were in the Fellowship House era. However, the top two floors, which had been chopped up into bedrooms for guests, needed a more conventional plan with a master suite and guest rooms. The Ourismans turned to Bethesda-based architect John S. Samperton to transform these areas.
In the living room, Mary Ourisman and interior designer Mark
Hampton matched small tufts of wool to get the color of the
custom rug just right. A painting by 18th-century artist Francis
Sartorius hangs above the sofa upholstered in silk.
To decorate the entire home, they hired legendary interior designer Mark Hampton, whose clients included Mike Wallace, J. Carter Brown and Estee Lauder. The Ourisman residence was the last Washington house that Hampton worked on before his death in 1998. Mary Ourisman recalled her collaboration with Hampton as pure joy. “Mark would come down here or I would go to New York. [If we were in New York], he’d say ‘You know that wall—those windows are not symmetrical.’ He could remember a particular window in a particular room. Mind-boggling.”
Throughout the house are reminders that, while this may not be the Ourismans’ current residence, it is their home even though they live most of the year in Barbados. Mandell Ourisman has collected art and antiques for decades and he and Mary like to follow the New York auctions and scour the Paris flea markets. In the downstairs library is a lovely collection of Chippendale chairs from Mary Ourisman’s family home in Texas on which her mother and aunt did all the needlepoint on the seat cushions. In the second floor library is a portrait of Mandell Ourisman as a boy. It was painted during the Depression; the artist needed a car, but could not afford one so he painted portraits of Mandell and his brother as payment.
The second-floor living room is a near ballroom-sized space with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Hampton wisely created several seating areas in the room so that it feels intimate despite its dimensions. He designed all the draperies and selected the upholstery; the rug was custom made. The dining room is less restrained than the living room; a French chandelier and ormolu sconces provide lighting. The mahogany table is George III, as are the side tables. It’s a perfect setting for an elegant party.
The Ourismans relax in the small study between the living
and dining rooms.
The most recent affair the Ambassador hosted was a dinner during the annual Chiefs of Mission Conference last December. All 31 U.S. Ambassadors serving in the Western Hemisphere attended, along with a dozen State Department officials. Since guests came without spouses, Ambassador Ourisman was one of only several women in the group. “Although we sort of made the rule that my husband only smokes cigars downstairs in the library, that night was an exception for cigars,” she recalled. “It was a smoked-filled room, which is where I guess most politicians used to settle things.” She plans to host the group again during the next Chiefs of Mission Conference this fall.
Given the history of the house as a haven for the Red Cross and the Fellowship Foundation, Ambassador Ourisman feels it’s only fitting that she continue its legacy in her diplomatic endeavors. “It’s sort of a continuation in its own way of this house serving as a place for people to come, not only for family events or social events, but also for events that have some effect on the way the world turns and on how we view the world.”
Washington, DC-based Alice Leccese Powers is the editor of the In Mind series for Vintage Random House, including the best-selling Italy in Mind. Lydia Cutter is a photographer in McLean, Virginia.
In March 2005 architect Bill Sutton walked John Backus’s 20-acre parcel of land in Great Falls, Virginia. Backus explained his vision of a grand home influenced by both the villas of Tuscany and the lodges of the American West. The house would accommodate the lives of his young, active sons. It would not only be built green, but would rest lightly on the land, drawing its source of heat and cooling from the ground itself.
A lifelong skier with an abiding love of the Rockies, Sutton went back to his office and drew a preliminary concept sketch. Backus, a venture capitalist, was considering another architect from Aspen, but Sutton’s sketch—remarkably true to his finished house—was enough to convince Backus that Sutton was the person for the job.
"I always wanted to build something,” said Backus. “I’ve lived in a bunch of houses, but never one that I had built. I came to the point in my life when I had the resources and the desire.” Backus decided to build on five of the original 20 acres. Siting the structure correctly was critical. “There were three sites that I really liked, but in the end I wanted seclusion.” He chose acreage that abutted a nature preserve on which no other houses could be built.
Architect Sutton, principal of Sutton Yantis Architects, had another advantage over his competitor—a long association with Great Falls Construction, its president Roger Blattberg and vice president Stacey Hoffman. With 30 years of experience in residential construction in the Washington metropolitan area, the firm has assembled a team that includes skilled artisans. Backus had a tight deadline and Great Falls promised to deliver. With a construction start in December 2005 and overall completion 15 months later, the project and all of its various complexities were successfully managed by Great Falls’ director of field operations, Dave Haber.
The dining room to the right of the foyer is more Tuscan than Tucson. Its brocade dining chairs, a two-tier wrought iron chandelier, an antique Oriental rug, French doors with custom glass inserts and blue walls lend the room an air of formality. “I’m totally instinctual when it comes to color,” said Shargai. “The color of the dining room is the color it had to be after we chose the rug…it had to be rich and strong.” On one side of the room is a wine cellar with a custom-made wrought iron door. Backus purchased antique gate straps in France and incorporated them into the door’s design.
The kitchen reinterprets the timbers and the stone of the house’s exterior. The countertops are honed granite with an antique finish and the custom cabinets are distressed cherry. Radiant heat comes from beneath the slate floor. Like a European abbey, the room’s ceilings are elaborately trussed and light floods in through cathedral windows.
The core of the home—the great room, dining room, foyer, kitchen, and conservatory—is flanked by two distinct wings, each with its own staircase. One wing is for Backus and the other for his sons, ages 10 and 14. “I wanted this to be the house that my boys wanted to come and play in. I want my kids and their friends to be here rather than someplace else.” Most boys would consider this house nirvana. There are multiple guest rooms on the boys’ wing and the lower level has a sports memorabilia area, a casual family room, a game room, an indoor sports court, a home theater and a full gym. After a discussion with landscape architect Richard Arentz of Arentz Landscape Architects, Backus chose a natural water feature in the back yard like those he had seen in mountain homes, rather than the conventional in-ground pool.
Backus’s master bedroom suite overlooks the back of the house and the adjacent preserve. It repeats the vaulted, trussed ceiling and has its own stone fireplace, one of many in the house. Scale was important to Backus. “We made sure all of the doorways were at least seven feet tall, some eight feet tall on the main level,” he says. “I am six foot four and my eldest son is going to be taller than that.” A staircase from the master bedroom leads directly to the gym on the lower level.
The finished 15,000-square-foot home blends into its tree-filled lot. With its stone and cedar-clad façade, topped by a varied roofline that moderates the volume of the house, it looks like a collection of cottages anchored by a central stone chimney. “It looks casual,” said Backus, “unlike many of the colonials in Virginia. For the last half dozen years I vacationed in Wyoming and loved the mountain look…I’ve also spent time in Europe and like the design features found in Italy, including the natural cooling properties of stone.”
The interior of the house is an amalgam of the American West and Tuscany. The foyer is surprisingly intimate, almost contemplative, drawing on the vocabulary of the Native American roundhouse. In stark contrast is the adjacent great room, with its vaulted timbered ceiling, two-story windows and massive fireplace. The great room overlooks a manmade pond and waterfall, an outdoor terrace and the nature preserve beyond.
Backus collected many furnishings for the home in his travels. “I bought a lot of the pieces from antique markets in Paris,” said Backus. “There are outdoor antique markets—big flea markets—that must be three-by-three-square city blocks with a couple thousand shops. I filled up a container and brought it back.” Interior designer Victor Shargai of Victor Shargai and Associates helped Backus incorporate his finds into his new home and acquire new furniture and carpets when necessary.
Because Backus had bought so many items in Europe, “it was kind of like coming into a person’s home who wanted to redecorate,” said Shargai. Some were re-positioned once they arrived—the foyer mirror was originally bought for the dining room, for example—while others were re-purposed. A table ended up in the foyer as a bench.
Despite its size, the Backus residence was built and is maintained with state-of-the art, energy-efficient technology. “We’re witnessing what is the start of a green revolution,” said Roger Blattberg, president of Great Falls Construction. “People feel that they individually should play a role in protecting the environment.” This includes minimizing waste during construction, limiting the use of fossil fuel and building with natural materials. The exterior stone was quarried in Arkansas and the roof is slate. Most of the interior floors are reclaimed heart pine with mahogany used sparingly.
“I love the old nail holes that I see in the heart pine; it gives it great character,” said Backus. “You don’t see anything that’s formica or acrylic.”
The most revolutionary aspect of the house is in its least photogenic area, the engine room. “I spent twice what a conventional H/VAC system would have cost and plan on a six-year payback,” said Backus. Most of the heat and air conditioning is provided by 11 geothermal wells that transfer both heat and cooling through heat pumps. The wells provide all heat up to 55 degrees; the air conditioning is on an energy-saving, six-zone system. The home’s Loewen windows are built for maximum draft resistance and the whole structure is insulated with Icynene foam.
The completed house is testament to a near seamless collaboration among client, architect, builder, interior designer and landscape architect. “I’m the kind of person who loved the experience and would do it again,” said Backus. “I’d be better at it than the first go-round.”
Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington-based writer and the editor of Spain in Mind, France in Mind and Italy in Mind, all Vintage/Random House books. Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia.
A hall clad with a wall of stone and slate floors leads to a
magnificent main staircase and dining.
Architect Bill Sutton designed the intimate entry foyer in the
spirit of an Indian roundhouse.
A wrought-iron-and-mahogany balustrade overlooks the foyer.
To the left, the foyer leads to John Backus’s library.
A Fresh New Look
When these homeowners married more than a decade ago, she had four children and he had three. They had to find a house to accommodate a total of seven children spanning in age from grade school to college. Realtors tried to steer them to Potomac, but the children balked. Their schools and their friends were in the District and that"s where they wanted to stay. So they squeezed into a too-small house, the oldest children bunking in with the younger ones. Like a favorite pair of shoes that is too tight, the brick colonial was their happy home for ten years.
Ironically, when all the children were grown and gone, the empty nesters finally took stock of their too-small house and decided they needed a bigger space for visiting children, in-laws and grandchildren. They considered moving to Virginia, but their children balked again. It turned out they had all become attached to their house, even with its flaws and quirks. So the couple decided to renovate, envisioning a grand library that could seat everyone comfortably, a restaurant-grade kitchen (both are avid cooks), a more gracious foyer, a music room and a new master suite.
But first they evaluated the structural integrity of the old house. “There were leaks and we were worried about termites,” said the husband. “Sleeping porches had been enclosed and there was no heat and barely electricity [in those rooms]. Everything had been put in backwards. We started doing this out of necessity, but that got us going. What started as a teardown in back morphed into a much larger renovation.” The construction project was so massive that the couple moved out, spending a year and half in the wife"s family home in Manassas, Virginia.
Now finished, the renovation bears little resemblance to its former self. The old brick house was originally painted white. They had the paint sandblasted off to achieve a more textured antique look, while a true lime wash was applied to the brick addition. Inside, the transformation by interior designer Sarah Boyer Jenkins is even more dramatic. Jenkins recalled her impression of her client"s taste, “I saw what she had that she liked. We just started in and hit it off beautifully. It"s traditional, but not stuffy traditional. It"s current; it"s fresh.”
Beginning in the expanded foyer, Jenkins found a pair of antique Empire gilt cut-crystal basket chandeliers. One hangs perfectly framed in the arched shape of the home"s front door. A small book table and a French commode, flanked by two Louis XVI side chairs upholstered in silk, invite guests to sit and linger. To the right of the foyer is the formal living room and to the left, the imposing library addition.
With its vaulted ceiling and elaborate glazed egg and dart plaster molding, the library is certainly the most dramatic room in the home. The space easily handles two massive brass chandeliers salvaged from a castle in Edinburgh. Originally used with candles, they were converted to gas and finally to electricity. The walls were upholstered in quilted silk, a technique that is so precise that Jenkins calls it an art form. She paid equal attention to the detail in the silk draperies and their enormous tassels that double as tiebacks. The rug, an all-over floral design reminiscent of a William Morris motif, is new, as are the upholstered sofa and chairs. The antique mantel made from many different types of wood was purchased at The Brass Knob in Adams Morgan. Jenkins loves the grand manner of its burled posts.
In the formal living room, Jenkins also upholstered the walls, this time in a Pindler & Pindler silk satin. The designer was able to use most of her clients" existing furniture, including the French cabinets, explaining, “I rearranged the room and put collections together for the accessories. It was more taking their things and putting them together in a different way.” The draperies were also part of the room"s previous incarnation, although Jenkins had them restyled.
The living room leads into the music room, where the walls are painted a deep cranberry. Once a sleeping porch, the space is now dominated by a Steinway piano and two portraits, one of the wife and one of her daughter. A new Aubusson needlepoint rug, complementary to the one in the adjacent living room, anchors the room. Jenkins decided to forgo her trademark draperies in favor of open windows, affording a view of the back yard.
In the center of the new/old house, literally at its heart, is the updated kitchen. After cooking thousands of meals for their large family in a lackluster kitchen, they now have a six-burner Viking commercial stove, a granite-topped center island and a breakfast room overlooking the pool and patio. The custom cabinets by Rutt were given an antique glaze. “I love glazing,” said Jenkins. “It gives depth you can't get with a plain paint.”
The couple now has plenty of space for their children and grandchildren. They showed off a recent photo of a family wedding with all seven children linked arm in arm with their parents. With the seamless addition to their house, the entire clan finally fits comfortably under one roof.
Washington-based writer Alice Leccese Powers is the editor of the newly released Spain in Mind, a Vintage/Random House book. Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia
On a traditional street in Bethesda, a Georgian rambler went on the market a few years ago. The 3,000-square-foot split level with three bedrooms surrounded by trees and set on a conventionally landscaped, sloped lot was functional, bland and uninspired—an icon of postwar suburbia.
Architect David Jameson saw beyond the original structure and envisioned a new one that would reengage the site. The award-winning architect known for his timeless modern design bought the rambler himself to develop as a conceptual project.
His solution, built on the bones of the rambler, bears no resemblance to its former self. It is not a pop-up or an addition, but an architectural metamorphosis. The old house vanished entirely inside its modern incarnation so that virtually no trace of the original was left behind. Says Jameson, “The design is generated by a subtle balance of tensions. Weight and weightless materials sit side by side. Transparent merges into opaque. Solid becomes void.”
One of Jameson’s priorities was to preserve the site’s mature trees. “Many would have torn the existing house down,” he says, “but it seemed more compelling and responsible to reinvent the house in its existing footprint.” The design that emerged after a year-long transformation is a modernist statement that still blends in with its suburban surroundings. It is not a jarring structure of soaring steel, but one whose lines and materials complement the neighborhood.
Throughout the residence, Jameson resourcefully employed materials and contextually repositioned them as design elements. For example, he carefully choreographed the approach to the front entrance. “The landscape elements were conceived to help define the tectonic nature of the house,” he says. An auto court and skip laurel hedge are the first thresholds to the house, followed by a lawn panel and a plane of groundcover. Beyond the laurel is a path to an interlocking bluestone plinth stair that Jameson describes as “a heavy, three-dimensional composition in motion,” covered by a steel bris soleil that acts as a sunscreen over the black steel windows. The minimalist façade is broken by a niche that contains the vault-like aluminum and mahogany front door, which, at five feet wide and nine feet tall, is the final threshold into the house.
Theoretically, Jameson divided the interior into structured and unstructured spaces knit together by a central “circulation core.” The front stucco volume of the house contains the more structured areas, including the living room, dining room and library on the main level and four bedroom suites and laundry on the second floor.
Upon entry, the living room is to the right of the foyer. A distilled fireplace without mantel or detailing anchors a thick floating wall. To the left of the foyer are the library and dining room. The window frames and the floor are mahogany and all the walls are scaled to accommodate large paintings.
Lit by clerestory windows, the “circulation core” contains an elevator and stairs to the second floor and marks the passage into a copper-clad pavilion that encases the unstructured spaces of kitchen, family room and breakfast room in an 11-foot-tall, loft-like volume. The upper floor houses the master suite and sitting room.
The copper-clad volume is cantilevered over a glass-enclosed gallery space on the ground level. In the rear of the house, it also encloses a two-story screened porch that carves out an exterior space within the visual bounds of the building envelope and provides the side elevation with a distinctive character.
As with the front of the house, the boundaries of the informal rooms are marked by panels floating in space. For example, Jameson notes, “The loft volume is organized as a continuous flow of space that moves through and around the mahogany objects that define the cooking, eating and sitting areas.” In its new manifestation, the house has increased from 3,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet. “It is not immediately apparent that this is a large house,” Jameson says. “I’m not interested in large spaces, but well proportioned and crafted spaces.”
What does interest David Jameson is theoretical modernism applied to architecture. “Architecture is habitable art,” he says. He lists among his influences the conceptual artists Richard Serra and Donald Judd. “Architecture is the one next step that allows you to live your life in an art object. Architecture is empowering.”
David Jameson’s work carefully stitches his modernist buildings into both the topography of the land and the typology of the existing structures around them. Before drawing up a design, he studies a site’s natural elements and his buildings play with patterns of illumination as well as materials. If surrounding homes have copper gutters and roofs, he tries to utilize copper, but perhaps in a more unusual and unexpected way. His projects may not look like other houses in the neighborhood, but they respect the scale—perhaps continuing an adjacent roofline or replicating “I am interested in creating a visceral experience in each project that you move through. For example, in this house as you move through the landscape threshold, then climb the stair to the entry and structured areas and then finally arrive at the copper pavilion, at each juncture you move into a different spatial experience.”
Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington-based freelance writer and the editor of Tuscany in Mind, France in Mind and Italy in Mind, all Vintage/Random House books. Anice Hoachlander of Hoachlander Davis Photography is based in Washington, DC. Paul Warchol is a photographer in New York City.
Jameson carefully choreographed the approach to the front entrance. Photo by Anice Hoachlander.
In the living room, a distilled fireplace without mantel or detailing anchors a thick floating wall. The floors are mahogany and the walls are scaled to accommodate large-scale artwork. Photo by Paul Warchol.
The boundaries of the informal rooms in the pavilion, including the kitchen and the dining area, are marked by panels floating in space. Photo by Paul Warchol.
The kitchen space flows into the family room, where a large painting, Attic, by Steven Cushner and a smaller piece by Christopher Brooks hang. Photo by Anice Hoachlander.
The dining room. Photo by Paul Warchol.
House of Cards by Steven Cushner dominates one wall of the library. Photo by Paul Warchol.
A large two-story stitch window in the copper-clad garden pavilion opens to the family room space off the kitchen and the master bedroom above. Photo by Anice Hoachlander.
Jimi Yui cherishes food. Where others see fuel, he sees the rich fabric of human history, shared relationships, complex cultures, and family lore. Yui, 50, is not a chef—although he is a superb cook—but designs the kitchens in which some of the world’s most famous chefs work. He has done the “back of the house” for restaurants like Mario Batali’s Del Posto and Gray Kunz’s Café Gray, both in New York; Eric Ripert and hotelier Andre Balazs’s Raleigh Hotel in South Beach; and Michel Richard’s planned Central in Washington, DC. Collectively, his clients have made culinary history with their emphasis on seasonal ingredients, impeccable service, and stellar atmosphere.
“All my chef clients have a common thread—that high level of commitment,” said Yui. “I have to do for them what a tailor does for his customer. It’s your suit because you wear it; it’s their kitchen because they perform in it. I want their job to be easier, better…I set the stage for the chefs to perform.”
Restaurants are part of Yui’s heritage. Ethnically Chinese, he was raised in Japan where his grandfather ran a Western-style nightclub that welcomed many of the elite of the American occupation forces, including General Douglas MacArthur. Yui’s mother Betty was a greeter at the club where she met his father James, a Chinese civilian employee of the U.S. government.
After their marriage, Yui’s parents opened The Guest House, a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo that served Pekingese and Shanghainese food. They named their only child Jimi, an unintentional corruption of the diminutive of James. The Guest House was open 365 days a year and Yui often did his homework squeezed into his father’s office or hopping from one empty dinner table to another.
When Yui became a teenager his parents decided that he needed a life outside of Tokyo’s teeming entertainment district. At 17 he went to live with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis and attend The Priory, a Benedictine Catholic school. After high school, Yui went to Cornell and majored in architecture. In his fourth year, nearing graduation, he saw that all of his fellow architectural students were unemployed while “all the hotel students took wine tasting and when they finished had two or three jobs lined up.” He transferred to Cornell’s famous School of Hotel Administration and got experience running a college town café called Mugsie’s on the side.
Yui’s career path changed once again when he attended an informal lecture called “Brownies with the Dean.” The speaker was Cornell alumnus John Cini of the Washington-based professional kitchen design firm Cini-Grissom. “I didn’t even know this profession existed,” remembered Yui. “It was perfect for those who had technical ability but didn’t want to be closing bars at 3 a.m.” At the end of the lecture, Yui met John Cini, who flew him to Washington to meet his partners. They hired Yui on the spot. In his six years with Cini-Grissom he worked for institutional clients like IBM, Smithsonian, and Drexel Burnham Lambert. By the time he was 30, he was ready to strike out on his own.
YuiDesign opened in 1985 and Yui worked out of the Takoma Park house he shared with his wife Ellen, the director of her own public relations firm. Jimi had an office on the first floor; Ellen had one on the second, and “the intercom was pounding on the ceiling.” What he didn’t have was clients—or at least the type of clients that he wanted. Yui wanted to break into the rarefied world of restaurant design, where food is operatic and the chefs are the star sopranos and tenors.
Then one day Ellen read an article about Sony Corporation’s move into the AT&T building in New York. The famous restaurant Quilted Giraffe, owned by Barry Wine, was slated to occupy the penthouse where it would become the core of The SONY Club, an elite corporate dining room. Yui cold-called Wine to see if there was any leftover work. Surprisingly, Wine said that there was one space that no one could seem to get right—the 600-square-foot sushi room in the middle of the building. It had no windows and was attached to the elevator core. Wine’s instructions were simple: SONY Chairman Akio Morita should feel at home there and Janet Jackson should also think it cool.
“All my chef clients have a common thread—that high level of commitment,” said Yui. “I set the stage for the chefs to perform.”
When Yui won the 1995 James Beard Award for his design of the space (The New York Times called it “the most elegant deal-making place in New York City”), he entered a new world. For several years he handled both the front and the back of restaurants but eventually found that concentrating on the kitchens allowed him to contact with the men and women he most admired—the chefs.
It is their pursuit of perfection that mesmerizes him. Their discipline demands that every meal, every plate must excel. “I learned that perfection is not just inspiration—it’s about hard work and commitment,” said Yui. “They produce art on command, not just once, but repeating it with a restaurant full of customers and employees…I learned that creativity is really highly disciplined behavior. A meal is perfect the first time and the thousandth time. The pursuit of perfection is a hell of a lot of work.”
Yui’s work starts in the very earliest stages of restaurant development when his clients propose concepts and sites. Chefs generally come with strong opinions—this is not a field for shrinking personalities and the feint of heart. Yui’s job is to allow them to perform at maximum capacity. “We set the stage for the chefs to perform.” To his task, he brings a vast knowledge of international cuisine. Chefs trained in Europe, for example, work in a very different system from those trained in Asia. And each establishes his own pattern; the restaurant kitchen is a reflection of the chef’s personality and the hierarchy of the staff.
Some things are immutable. Health code mandates that restaurant kitchens be constructed of stainless steel and stone. Floors must be cleanable materials like tile or sealed concrete. Walls and ceilings must be washable and the kitchen cannot contain fissures that are hard to disinfect. Everything is geared towards function. The choice of appliances is as personal as a pianist’s selection of a piano. It is not unusual for a chef to fly to a plant in Europe to see how a stove is manufactured or try out an appliance in a colleague’s kitchen after hours. Yui also has to take into account the chefs’ habits. Plating food is painstaking and they may spend hours hunched over a counter meticulously arranging each dish. In Café Gray, Yui raised the counter height from 36 inches to 42 inches to alleviate back fatigue, a big problem for his clients.
Yui occasionally does residential kitchens but says, “I don’t do vanity kitchens. I’m not interested in doing kitchens that sit in 20,000 square feet where the caterer turns on the appliances once a month.”
The kitchen has its test run during the restaurant’s pre-opening, a period that might last anywhere from just a few days to a month. The design is fine-tuned; what has worked for a chef in the past may not necessarily translate into a new environment. On occasion, a kitchen has to be re-thought or even re-designed. “New space, new geometry, these are all one of a kind,” said Yui. His unflappable demeanor and unfailing good humor are rare among the sometimes fiery temperaments of the restaurant business. “I love passionate people and I haven’t had a bad experience…I get the wonderful side of these creative people. For them to get what they want, we have to have a straightforward, honest relationship.”
Yui’s most challenging job was his smallest, a closet-sized sandwich shop in Tokyo. His biggest job was Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadow, New York, a project that encompassed three restaurants, 800 seats total with a common kitchen and individual finishing kitchens. Current projects include the kitchens for the expanding number of Nobu and Morimoto restaurants worldwide (both named for their respective chefs Nobu Matsuhisa and Masaharu Morimoto), and doing concept work for Whole Foods. Every week he spends several days in New York when he is not traveling.
Jimi Yui has taught his sons to be open to all experiences, including food. “I want them to go to a table and be able to experience something new and judge it on its own merit.”
Despite the demands of his commercial clients, Yui occasionally does private kitchens. “I don’t do vanity kitchens. I’m not interested in doing kitchens that sit in 20,000 square feet where the caterer turns on the appliances once a month. If a client cooks for 50 to 100 on a regular basis it makes sense to have a commercial kitchen in a residence—but they have to show the same kind of commitment to food that my chef clients do.” A prime example is Jimi and Ellen Yui’s own kitchen in their Takoma Park cottage. Counters and cabinets are stainless steel and its heart is a commercial Vulcan stove with six burners, a two-foot griddle, an adjacent prep sink, two ovens and a commercial hood. This is Yui’s stage and one of the ways he relaxes is to cook. Although he admits to learning some tricks from his clients, his most important lesson was to “respect your ingredients. You don’t necessarily have to buy the most expensive, the most complicated, the most exotic ingredients, but treat them with respect, cook with respect, bring out the most of that product.”
Jimi Yui has taught his sons Yoshi and Zen to be open to all experiences, including food. Yui recalled that Zen once stepped up to the counter at McDonald’s, ordered a cheeseburger and asked innocently, “Can I have it with fontina?” Budding epicures but not food snobs, they learned never to reject anything without first trying it. “I want them to go to a table and be able to experience something new and judge it on its own merit. Everything is made with heart and effort. If someone makes you a hot dog, it’s something to be cherished…that’s why I love food.”
Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington-based freelance writer and the editor of Tuscany in Mind, France in Mind, Ireland in Mind and Italy in Mind, all published by Vintage/Random House Books. The next volume in the series, Spain in Mind, will be published in the fall of 2006.
Photo by Scott Frances
Photo by Scott Frances
Reminiscent of a gallery space, the wide entryway is painted
deep ochre. Portrait of Joy, a painting of a young woman by
Robin Freedenfeld, reflects on simpler times. A landscape by
Douglas Osa leads toward the family room.
Five years ago a Maryland businessman bought a half-finished house in Potomac. The new home had plenty of room for his family and lots of space for his ever-expanding art collection. With a substantially completed exterior but an incomplete interior, the family could re-design the inside space according to their needs. But they needed help.
“We interviewed four interior design firms,” recalls the homeowner. “Skip Sroka talked about how we could do something spectacular with the art. Everyone else focused on furniture, but he focused on art.” And art is the passion of this self-proclaimed “incurable” collector of American Realism. Amassed over the past two decades, his acquisitions are not limited by medium (he owns works in pencil, oil and watercolor) or subject—except that the art must be meaningful to him personally. As the curator of his own collection, he “looks for something that I enjoy. Something that puts me in a happy mood, makes me feel good or reminds me of something in my past.”
The owner turned to Sroka to complete the interior of his new home. The designer set to work devising a floor plan and a lighting plan that would not only make the home livable for his client’s family but that would also best spotlight his art collection. “One of my goals was to make sure we’d have enough wall space; new construction tends to have less wall space,” says Sroka. “We inventoried the collection, actually placing the larger pieces to make sure there were walls to accept them.”
Sroka also added architectural details—from the right moldings to complement the home’s Georgian style to well-appointed fireplace mantels in the living room, family room, dining room, sitting room and master bedroom—to bring a more refined, tailored look to the interiors. “The mantel is always the heart of a room,” he says. “Every one had thought put into it so it would be warm and welcoming.”
From the start, Sroka stressed that an extensive art collection does not demand stark white walls. “If you go to the National Gallery of Art,” he says, “you see that art looks fantastic on color. The color of a room is not necessarily dictated by any of the paintings in the room. A great color shows off other objects and paintings.” To that end, every room in this client’s home is painted a different color, unified by crisp white woodwork.
The house’s traditional exterior belies the art collection inside. Guests step into a wide entryway painted deep ochre. One wall is dominated by an oil of a young woman with her feet dangling in a pond. On a rock next to her rests a pair of Converse high-tops. Like many subjects in the paintings of Robin Freedenfeld, the girl seems awakened from a self-absorbed, contemplative state by an unexpected intrusion. Freedenfeld’s work is characterized by brilliant color and clarity of vision. This painting is typical of the homeowner’s aesthetic; many of his paintings convey a strong sense of the past, reflecting on simpler times.
Sometimes the collector will point to a painting and explain, “This reminds me of where I grew up” or “I worked in that place for six months several years ago.” He is proud that half of his paintings are by women artists and emphasizes that he does not purchase art as an investment. Some of his most treasured pieces were the least expensive. “Art does not have to be expensive to be good,” he says. “There are marvelous places to look even in your own neighborhood.”
Sroka worked with his client to decide which pieces fit best in each room, giving each painting space to breathe and integrating the house’s dual functions of home and gallery. The dining room is a perfect example. The room is painted a paler version of the entryway’s ochre. A French chandelier hangs over an ornate dining room table. Flanking the fireplace are two watercolors by Karen Horn, one of an amaryllis and one of black tulips. Horn uses such saturated, luminescent color that it is difficult to believe that her medium is watercolor and not oil. “I don’t have any talent like that,” explains the homeowner, “so when I see what people can do, it’s just fascinating.”
Across the entryway, the living room is painted a bold claret. Recessed niches flank the fireplace and the furniture is scaled large and cozy. Two paintings on either side of this room command attention. On the west wall is Michael Pyrdsa’s interpretation of New York City, pre-September 11. Clouds roil the Manhattan skyline and the Twin Towers stand guard over the city. On the opposing wall is an intensely personal painting by Harvey Dinnerstein. A couple is seated on a motorcycle. The male driver is looking ahead into a romantic landscape, but the female passenger looks back wistfully, not sure what the future holds or if this is a path that she wants to take. Dinnerstein studied at the Art Student League with fellow students Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but for six decades has remained faithful to the precepts of representational art. This painting has particular resonance for its owner as he bought it for his fortieth birthday, a time of personal reflection. In the light-filled family room, another painting by Michael Pyrdsa dominates the space above the fireplace. As in most of his work, the painting depicts an active sky.
The stairs to the second floor provide an unusual pause in the private gallery. The colorful palette gives way to a quiet beige. Only one work, a three-dimensional sculpture of twisted metal, hangs on the landing between the first and second floors. Turn on a spotlight and it casts a shadow, forming a tandem bike. The artist is Larry Kagan, a professor at MIT. Kagan’s work has a unique duality: the object and its shadow. He wrote, “I found out that I could make continuous forms out of discontinuous kinds of steel elements. I found that I could make whole and complete forms out of pieces of steel that looked like they were flying every which way from a center… What I discovered was obvious—that the shadow isn’t just a line on the wall, but it’s really volume in space.” The homeowner was so taken with Kagan’s work that he commissioned the artist to create two sculptures: one of two slices of pizza installed over the television in the family room and another of his young nephews playing the piano, a gift for his sister.
The second-floor hallway is what Sroka calls the “Pencil Gallery;” the walls are lined with the owner’s collection of graphite art. For a medium that might be self-limiting, the work has astonishing variety and depth. One landscape has the dimensionality of an Ansel Adams photograph. Some of the pieces are intricately executed while others use the power of white space, minimally suggesting a scene or an object. Included in the collection are works by John Whalley and Don Pearson.
Color returns in the master bedroom. Another oil by Robin Freedenfeld hangs next to the window. This one has the cheerful nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell illustration. A young woman pauses long enough on her bike ride to be captured by the artist. On the other side of the room is a darker vision, also in oil, by Burton Silverman. Two women are standing together, one facing the viewer, the other staring to the side. There is something discomfiting about their relationship to the viewer and to each other, reflecting a darker side of American Realism. Sroka chose a peaceful palette for his client’s home office suite. The conference room is painted a muted tone that is “neither green nor gray nor blue” and the office is a complementary blue. It is clear that sentiment rules the art in this space: behind the desk is a large portrait by Bernard Safran of a rag tag bunch of children who look like refugees from a summer picnic. This home and gallery is collaboration between a man whose collection is governed by instinct and sentiment and a designer who knows how to set it off using bold color and scale. “In the beginning [the collection] was a free for all,” says the homeowner.
“But now I’m focusing on about 20 artists on my list.” Although his home/gallery is getting close to full, he says, “The beauty of what Skip has done for us is that you walk into these rooms and you have a different feeling in every room.”
Sroka explains, “When you love something the way they love their art, it’s just part of the fabric of their lives. You just weave their surroundings with it.”
Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington-based freelance writer and the editor of Tuscany in Mind, a Vintage/Random House book. Photographer Timothy Bell is based in Washington, DC, and New York City.