Private Tour: A Home Run MARCH/APRIL 2011
He’s a record-setting baseball player and she’s a model who has graced the pages of Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated. Yet Brian and Diana Roberts, along with their English bulldog Rocky, live in a modest Canton townhouse for many of the same reasons as their neighbors: A rooftop deck offers breathtaking views of the harbor; they’re within walking distance of many popular restaurants; and the small enclave feels like “a little neighborhood within itself” where, says Brian, everyone has dogs.
This slugger, who’s been playing second base for the Baltimore Orioles since 2001 and holds the franchise record for most doubles in a single season, put down roots in Charm City and purchased his East Baltimore digs in 2005—two years before he met Diana. Since they married in January 2009, however, one would be hard pressed to find remnants from Brian’s bachelor pad days. “There’s not a single article of furniture left from when I lived here alone—I can promise you that!” he laughs. “When Diana came in, it was a gradual process of finding our tastes together—what she liked, what I liked—and transforming it into a home.”
Fortunately, the two gravitate toward a similar style: traditional with a classic feel. “We love the mirrored aspects and pops of glam but we also like casual so that when people come over, they can sit on the couch and put their feet up,” says Diana, who jokes that their place turns into a “hotel” for family and friends once the baseball season starts in April.
Decorating is Diana’s passion, and although she lacks any formal training—except for a summer internship at a Miami design firm while she was in college—she has a keen eye for what she likes and takes the time to find it. More significantly, she designs with her heart. “It’s really important to me to make our house a home,” she says. “I want my husband to come home and feel comfortable.”
Brian could not be happier with the transformation. “For a long time, even though this was my home, it didn’t feel like it,” he says. “Now that Diana’s taken over, I enjoy coming home and that’s because of the time she has taken.”
Knowing that life as a professional baseball player is stressful, Diana selected a calming color palette of soft blues and greens that she incorporated throughout the home, a stark contrast to the red, gold and black hues of Brian’s bachelor pad days. She also chose furnishings with soft lines, including curvy dining room chairs, and hung large mirrors to accentuate the home’s open floor plan. Her close friend Roxy Kruger designed the window treatments while another friend, Baltimore interior designer Sharon Sheets, offered expertise with some finishing touches.
One of Diana’s most recent projects was designing a “man cave” for Brian’s birthday in the fourth-floor sunroom adjacent to the rooftop deck. Everything from framed jerseys to a guitar signed by Kenny Chesney is on display—there’s even the ball from Brian’s first-ever home run at Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina (where his father was the baseball coach at UNC). “For me, these are like photos—snapshots of important moments in my life that I like to remember and that I like to share with others,” Brian explains.
The couple is also in the process of remodeling and furnishing a home they purchased last summer in Sarasota, Florida, where the Orioles train off-season. But Diana is not in a hurry to complete the project. “If I can’t find pieces I’m super excited about, I’d rather have nothing in a room,” she says.
The couple puts a high priority on giving back to the community. Brian, who had open-heart surgery at the age of five, has always recognized the importance of brightening a sick child’s day. In 2003, he began visiting kids at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children (UMHC), and when he witnessed the positive impact his visits made, he wanted to do even more. “I decided to take what God has given me—the ability and the platform—to also raise money and help the hospital in a tangible way.”
In 2005, he came up with the idea for Brian’s Baseball Bash, a family-friendly event that features games, auctions and the opportunity to mingle with local sports figures. The event sold out in its first year and raised $200,000 for UMHC. Diana has become involved as well, and five years later, they have raised nearly $1 million through the event. The sixth annual Bash will be this summer at Dave and Buster’s in Arundel Mills Mall. And this spring, the couple plans to launch the One for All Fund dedicated to improving the health and well-being of children through patient care, research and education. (See officialbrianroberts.com.)
“We have been blessed with so much and we’re so fortunate to be where we are that we feel like this is just part of our calling,” says Brian. “We’re grateful to the city of Baltimore and how it has supported us. This has become our home and we love it.”
Writer Kelli Rosen is based in Baltimore, Maryland. Anne Gummerson is a photographer in Baltimore.
**Out of the array of interior design magazines, Home and Design magazine stands out as a primary idea source for luxury home designs. Wonderful visuals of inspired décor and lush landscapes are combined with expert advice to provide a fundamental reference point for bringing amazing home interior design ideas to life.
The Evolution of Home
For Cynthia and Stuart Smith, their 1916 Mediterranean-style home
in Baltimore’s upscale neighborhood of Guilford is more than a reflection of their design style. It represents the evolution of their relationship—from the early days when serenity was key to today, when a bit of whimsy is in order.The couple teamed with designer Patrick Sutton of Baltimore to create this progression of sorts, a home that, as Sutton puts it, “has worked with them as their family evolved.” The result is an intriguing juxtaposition of space that soothes with simplicity on one end, and then bursts with a bold palette on the other.
Once they had lived in the home for about six years, however, both Cynthia and Stuart decided it was time to experiment with the design in the adjacent rooms on the main floor, in what would hopefully become a family-friendly kitchen and gathering space.The first challenge Sutton addressed was how to propel the Smith house into the 21st century. “The servants’ kitchen was a series of smaller, butler’s pantry-type rooms,” he recalls. “It was buffered away and disconnected from the rest of the house. Nobody lives like that anymore.”
For the Love of Color
As Donna Sobeck sent her youngest son off to college, she dreamed of downsizing to a home similar to the one she and her husband Dave, a Bethesda-based accountant, owned in New England before moving to Maryland 18 years ago. “We raised our two sons in a large, rambling home in Potomac,” she says, “but then there were rooms we barely used and I really missed the charm of an older, cozier home.”
So the couple purchased a 1954 traditional-style house in Bethesda. When it came time to decorate, Sobeck knew she wanted it to be “pretty, livable and relaxed, but with great attention to detail,” she recalls. Sobeck turned to Bethesda-based Kelley Proxmire of Kelley Interior Design for help. “Kelley designed the guest room in our previous home so there was no question that she would do this whole house,” she says.
Honing in on color options was one of their first priorities. “Donna loves color and she loves green first and foremost, but she also loves pink and yellow,” says Proxmire, who insists that the key to using multiple colors in a home is establishing a compatible flow from one space to the next. In this home, she set out by weaving threads of common colors between each adjoining space. “Stand at the axis of the home, and see how they all look,” says the designer, pointing from the kitchen into the adjacent dining and living rooms. “They don’t need to be the same shade of colors but they sure have to flow.” For example, to tie in the light raspberry hue of the great room and kitchen, Proxmire opted for “peachy pink” accents on the dining room chairs.
Although she is not a fan of a “matchy-matchy” look when it comes to fabrics—hence the colorful array of throw pillows on upholstered pieces throughout the home—Proxmire does believe in subtle coordination of certain design elements.
n the living room, for example, green is woven throughout
the primarily “lemon meringue” palette. But to “calm the eye,” Proxmire chose certain items in matching pairs, including the lamps and side chairs. “If everything is different and there is lots of color in the room, it really can be too much,” she says.
Because Sobeck and her husband are now empty nesters, Proxmire could also be more flexible in her design choices. Without children underfoot, she was able to upholster the dining room chairs in a silk plaid fabric. “I guess that would be an impractical choice if you had children to consider,” says Proxmire. Because the dining room opens to the living room and kitchen, Proxmire accented the green palette with more casual touches, such as the reproduction dining table with parquet top and antique white legs. To balance the room, she added an additional corner cabinet to match the existing one near the living room. “This room needed symmetry,” Proxmire explains, “plus Donna needed the extra storage, an issue we had to deal with throughout the home.”
In the great room, Sobeck admits that she was a bit disappointed when she found out the walls would be white instead of the more “intense” raspberry shade in the wallpaper chosen for the adjoining kitchen, but she trusted her designer implicitly. Proxmire opted for white walls to make the room “crisp and fresh” rather than purchasing white furniture, which would have been her choice had the walls been painted pink. “The white walls really make the raspberry and green pop,” says Sobeck, “and the stained hardwood floors ground the room and provide warmth.”
Utilizing a colorful palette also requires deliberate selections of accessories that “don’t happen by accident,” says Proxmire. She stresses the importance of these finishing touches to add personality to a home, but strongly recommends finding antique or vintage items, “so that it doesn’t look like you went to one store and bought them all.” Prior to working with Proxmire, Sobeck says she regarded antiques as “dark and dreary,” and credits the designer with showing her how a few well-chosen pieces, such as the late-19th-century chest in the foyer and the Gustavian clock over the fireplace in the living room, can add warmth and depth to a home.
Sobeck and Proxmire truly bonded on the details, often combing antique shows together to find the bowls, figurines and plates now displayed in Sobeck’s home. From the custom trim around the silk shades on the dining room chandelier to the plethora of cords, nail heads and flanges bedecking upholstered pieces and pillows in the great room, it’s those tiny touches that made this project so special.
Family photos and oil paintings by Sobeck’s youngest son are scattered throughout the space. “Before working with Kelley, I used to have everything on display,” says Sobeck, “but she really helped me edit and concentrate the pieces. I appreciated that because these are important to me.”
“This is Donna’s home, not mine,” says Proxmire. “In every way it absolutely must reflect her. I just wish she would move or buy a second home so we could work together again.”
Like the feeling you get when you slip on a pair of well-worn shoes or the security that surrounds you when you curl up in a soft blanket you’ve had for years, living in an older home evokes sentiments of familiarity and comfort that many homeowners can only dream about. “I’ve always had this fantasy about buying an older home and renovating it,” says a Bethesda homeowner. But instead of dealing with the headaches often associated with historical renovations, she and her husband decided two years ago to purchase a lot near downtown Bethesda and build their old house from scratch.
From the beginning, they knew they wanted a traditional layout rather than the open floor plans ubiquitous in most homes built today. “If a home is too open, there are no warm, cozy spaces,” says the homeowner. So the pair turned to architect Mark Giarraputo of Bethesda-based Studio Z Design Concepts, who formulated a plan with clearly defined rooms.
“Most of the homes we do have very open floor plans,” says Giarraputo. “Although this one definitely follows the lead of an older home, where rooms tend to be more compartmentalized, it really is more of a hybrid, combining the best of both worlds.” Rather than each room being closed off from the others, he points out, related spaces are linked to provide functional traffic flow. The dining room, for example, opens to both the living room and an adjacent screened-in porch.
The couple also relied on Bethesda-based interior designer Skip Sroka, principal of Sroka Design Incorporated, to transform what he deems an “East Coast classic” home into a comfortable yet sophisticated space. “There certainly are things about this home that feel like things you’ve seen in an older home,” says Sroka, pointing to architectural elements such as the Arts and Crafts-style columns defining the living room, the over-scaled paneling under the staircase and the chunky moldings surrounding the fireplaces. “That all has an eternal sense of what I call an American home, and in so many ways I think this is an American home, but it is this century’s version of an American home.”
To scale down the home’s ten-foot ceilings and make them appear “more human,” Sroka designed moldings that begin at eight feet,
drawing the eye downward. He accented the space above the moldings with geometric stenciling, painted by Catonsville, Maryland-based artist Edward Williams of Studio 33.
Maintaining a human scale was also a goal for architect Giarraputo. “We really wanted to minimize the overall effect this home had on the street,” he explains, “because it is in an older, very established neighborhood so we did not want to overwhelm the block.” The design of Giarraputo’s “shingle-style home with a ‘cottagey’ feel” incorporates a one-story roofline—quite a feat considering the interior has three stories—and a garage situated in front of the home. “So from the street, all you see at first is the smallest part of the [structure],” he says.
To complement the architecture, Sroka chose furniture reminiscent of days gone by, but was mindful to select pieces with fresh, modern interpretations. The traditional French chairs in the living room have been reinterpreted to evoke the feeling of a round-back chair, while the English-shaped sofa recalls the “contemporary essence” of a more traditional piece. In the dining room, the glass chandelier with frosted glass shades mimics the proportions of a brass Dutch chandelier. “It’s been reinterpreted in glass and is a contemporary version of a very traditional chandelier,” says Sroka. “This home honors the past but it certainly is not a slave to it. When it was time to innovate, we innovated. When it was time to respect the past, we respected the past.”
Opting for innovation was certainly appreciated with the selection of upholstered fabrics, especially considering the homeowners have two young sons and a pair of Labradoodles. “Everything in this home is dog- and kid-friendly and there is nothing in this home that isn’t bullet-proof,” says Sroka. “I am very big at looking at the wearability of a fabric before I select it.”
Perhaps the most durable feature in the home is the large built-in banquette in the breakfast room. Sroka upholstered the seat of the L-shaped bench with a terracotta suede fabric complemented by a commercial-grade floral pattern on the backrest. “You can spill ketchup and mustard on this and it wouldn’t matter,” he says. Exterior chairs made of woven vinyl provide additional seating around the oak trestle table. “You cannot find anything more practical,” he says.
Practicality is key, too, in the adjacent kitchen, where Sroka and Potomac-based kitchen designer Amy Collins collaborated on the design. From the hidden spice racks tucked away behind cabinetry near the stove to the cherry and glass hutch that separates the kitchen and breakfast room, the space accommodates family life. “This is a typical modern kitchen,” says Sroka. “It’s big but has no wall space. So we put the hutch there to make room for the daily dishes.”
The owners also wanted their home to take inspiration from nature. So Sroka incorporated organic forms into the design, from the undulating oak carving positioned over the fireplace in the breakfast room to accent pieces highlighting the mahogany dining table, to help strengthen the home’s connection to the outdoors. “I wanted our home to be in harmony with nature,” says the homeowner. “I wanted a welcoming, warm space that was comfortable and not overly ornate.” Even the bamboo floors were chosen for their sustainability. “That was very important to the homeowners,” says Sroka, “plus bamboo is hard so it’s great for holding up to traffic.”
Also reinforcing an earthy theme, Sroka’s color palette ranges from cranberry accents in the living room to camel and rust hues in the family room. But it is the warmth of sienna yellow in both the living and dining rooms that serves as the color connector throughout the entire home. “It branches off as it needs to, sort of the way a tree grows,” he explains. “A color becomes part of your framework but then it blossoms into other combinations as you go from room to room.”
Mingling a familiar feel with elements of nature certainly seems to be a winning combination. In fact, Sroka’s favorite element in the home is a fusion of both goals presented to him by the homeowners. “Hands downs, I love the window seat,” he says. Tucked away below an arch along the generously sized second-floor center hall, the spot harkens back to the cozy nooks of an older home but provides a tranquil view of the surrounding landscape. “It provides a great resting place from daily life,” he says.
Writer Kelli Rosen is based in Monkton, Maryland. Photographer Timothy Bell has
studios in Washington, DC, and New York.
Architecture: Mark Giarraputo, AIA, Studio Z Design Concepts, Bethesda, Maryland. Builder: Sandy Spring Builders, Bethesda, Maryland. Interior Design: Skip Sroka, ASID, Sroka Design Incorporated, Bethesda, Maryland.
When most folks see a weathered Victorian-style window frame, they send it to the woodpile. But designer Gloria Capron of Kensington, Maryland-based Gloria Capron Interior Design envisions a creative way to dress a window, using a frame within a frame. When handed an old iron plant stand, few people would use it to hold ceramic teacups set for a summer luncheon. But Capron would. And should someone happen upon an aged corbel, they might consider it rubbish. To Capron, however, a complementary pair provides dramatic support for a bookshelf in her studio.
For this imaginative and inventive designer, nothing is off limits when it comes to filling the historic 1909 Colonial Revival home she shares with husband Jeff, an accountant. The couple was initially drawn to the property back in 1985 because it reminded them of older homes in Cape May. “We thought it would be fun to have a little bit of Cape May all the time, not just in the summer,” she says. The Caprons met in the early 1970s on the Jersey shore; Jeff was a lifeguard on the beach where Capron and her family were vacationing. Years later, the couple envisioned the Kensington property as “a perfect house to raise our family and for me to have studio space,” says Capron.
After digging out the former root cellar to make room for her burgeoning design business, Capron and her husband expanded the original square footage with an addition to the side and rear, to accommodate their family of five (the couple’s three daughters are now grown and living in New York). Homey porches and clapboard siding complement the home’s original exterior. But it is the interior of Capron’s living space—punctuated with architectural remnants and contemporary conversation starters—that conveys the creative depths of a designer who classifies her eclectic personal taste as a “collected style.”
So what exactly connects pieces like the brass supports, previously used to hold up a footrest in an old bar, that Capron happened upon in a salvage yard in Palm Beach, Florida, and a new contemporary birdcage-inspired round table with a glass top? “It might be a complementary color scheme, or a monochromatic color scheme. It could be the type of materials used or the craftsmanship,” she says. “I might put a very simple piece next to one that’s more heavily designed for the contrast—to get that point, counterpoint.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, many of Capron’s interior projects are done for clients who want spaces that are very contemporary or modern; Capron is known for her timeless design style. “My work is generally characterized as classic and tailored,” she says, “but I try to use architectural remnants when I can and certainly some clients have more than others. There is a sense of tradition that’s stabilizing, that people enjoy. All of these pieces in my home are reference points for my work. There is either something about the craftsmanship or there’s an inspiration in the design that carries over into what I continue to do.”
For clients, a stroll through Capron’s home is very often the catalyst that sparks a plethora of design ideas for their particular project. They are drawn to her style, she says, because “they know they’re going to get something special, something unique,” she says. So whether insight stems from the custom-designed lighting fixture over her dining table or a salvaged piece of oak-leaf molding now decorating a nearby wall, Capron’s collection becomes the inspiration for future projects.
Capron also believes in surrounding herself with family mementos, whether it’s placing a piggy bank her daughter constructed as a child in the living room, or hanging ceramic plates given to her by her grandmother in the kitchen. “These pieces are little bits of family history,” she says. “This home is my memory box.”
And that’s exactly the feeling she strives to convey when working with her clients, regardless of whether the project is contemporary or traditional. “My home reflects me and my family,” she says, “and I try to do that with every client’s project. I try to find something special or unique to them, then I try to help them tell their story.”
Kelli Rosen is a writer based in Monkton, Maryland. Lydia Cutter is a photographer in McLean, Virginia.
Interior Design: Gloria Capron, ASID, Gloria Capron Interior Design, Kensington, Maryland
Fortunately, the homeowner, who enjoys the unexpected juxtaposition of contemporary art with antiques, partnered with interior designer Ann Kenkel of Washington, DC-based Ann Kenkel Interiors, who admits she finds the combination refreshing. “Through long discussions with the homeowner, I understood that she had a great love of contemporary art, some classic contemporary furnishings, which were art pieces in themselves, as well as antiques,” Kenkel says, recalling their initial long-distance collaboration. “I asked her to send me pictures of their current house so I could see what they had and what they liked. I also asked for pictures of every single piece of furniture, art and accessory so that I could begin planning the placement of all their items.”
The fusion of design styles played a vital role in the ultimate success of this project, especially considering the extensive collection of art and furniture the homeowner had gathered over the years. “I think a great example [of the design fusion] is my dining room,” says the homeowner. She was understandably skeptical about how her contemporary George Nakashima walnut dining table would complement the room’s elaborate moldings and Jeffersonian-inspired triple arched passageways or her beloved antiques, which include a linen press she purchased while living in London. “If you are going to put traditional with contemporary, you have to have a few transitional items, which you can use to connect them in a myriad of ways,” explains Kenkel. Rather than utilize the contemporary host and hostess chairs from the homeowners’ California home, the designer instead found transitional wing chairs to bridge the design gap. She selected a chocolate-hued grass cloth wallpaper to complement the organic shape of the table, but balanced the earthiness with more formal elements including a Tufenkian rug woven with subtle shades of mocha, sage green and coral, as well as Schumacher silk draperies with an iridescent copper dragon pattern.
Kenkel faced similar challenges in the living room. “It is a long room requiring many pieces of furniture, a focal point for each wall and elements to make it cohesive,” she says. “The strong character of the contemporary art and the heavy plaster moldings begged for there to be pieces of furniture that were ‘art’ or had architectural components, but they all had to be integrated perfectly for the room to work as a whole.”
In addition to furniture pieces, color may also be used to unite various design styles. In the kitchen’s breakfast area, for example, the homeowner already had the contemporary green and wheat woven leather armchairs, so Kenkel searched for a drapery fabric that would link them to the collection of blue transferware displayed in the space. “The homeowners love toiles so we settled on this one,” she says. “But I felt it needed some embellishment to add a little more weight to it and force the connection of the blue and green.” Therefore, she added a soft blue and green trim as well as checked banding along the top drapery edge.
As for the family room, its design was also inspired by color—namely the brightly hued contemporary painting over the fireplace, a piece depicting a Holland canal and tulips that the homeowner purchased while living in Houston. “The family wanted some bright colors in the room and a fabric somewhere that would pull all of the art together,” says Kenkel. “We found an extraordinary fabric at Clarence House that has a chocolate background with pops of all the colors in the art—green, coral, raspberry and gold. We decided to make throw pillows out of it and each pillow would strategically have a different point in the pattern so they would look like art themselves.” Additional “punches of color” come from two chairs and an ottoman upholstered in a muted green-apple damask. That “creates a cheerfulness and freshness in the room,” Kenkel says.
To anchor the space, the homeowner found a darkly stained antique buffet du corps in Atlanta to house the television and media components. “The challenge…was how to take very bold contemporary art with strong colors and create soothing and quiet rooms that were strong enough in character, not color, to balance the art,” says Kenkel. The designer also aimed to blend and neutralize the palette by using varying shades of wheat because the family room can be seen immediately upon entering the home due to its positioning at the end of the foyer.
For this homeowner at least, it seems that transforming a traditional home into a veritable melting pot of design styles is possible, especially with tenacity, creativity as well as expert advice. And a little optimism along the way probably helped a bit, too. “I believe,” says the homeowner, “that if you really like something, you can fit it in somewhere.”
Writer Kelli Rosen is based in Monkton, Maryland. Gwin Hunt is an Annapolis, Maryland, photographer.
INTERIOR DESIGN: Ann Kenkel, Ann Kenkel Interiors, Washington, DC
The Coleman family left behind a Manhattan apartment when they moved into their spacious Potomac home overlooking horse pastures.
While urbanite attorneys Maureen and Tim Coleman carefully pondered purchasing a home in Maryland versus remaining in Manhattan, they spent some time in the DC area to make certain the decision would be a judicious one. The family finally chose to make the move to Maryland. “Tim is from Kentucky and he wanted acreage,” says Maureen. “For 10 years we lived in a 1,500-square-foot apartment in New York and now he wants horses. I told him there are lots of horses in Potomac—they can be our neighbors!”
The Colemans were initially drawn to their traditional brick home’s two-acre lot. “It is flat with acreage in the front and in the back,” says Maureen. “And it just so happens this house is built on the grounds of a former riding school, so a lot of homes around here are zoned for horses.” The location, too, was a key selling point because the couple wanted to be close to their children’s school (Chris is seven, Claire is four), plus the commute is an easy one for Tim, a partner in the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf. Maureen works from home for Standard & Poor’s and commutes to Manhattan once a week.
But it wasn’t until the two toured the interior that they knew it was a place they could call home. “The inside attracted us,” Maureen recalls. “We have lots of family in Europe and throughout the States who visit and stay with us, plus we have family in this area as well, so we knew this house would become ‘Grand Central.’ The layout was great—it had a nice, cozy feel but it was large enough to accommodate our needs.”
Although the floor plan was desirable, the existing décor was not. So the Colemans hired Bethesda, Maryland-based interior designer Skip Sroka, principal of Sroka Design Incorporated, who along with designer Liz Shirey Bausch transformed the outdated space into a home infused with warmth and color, one that reflected the homeowners’ personalities.
“The flow was very good. The rooms related well to each other,” says Sroka. “What wasn’t here was a sense of place. There was not any finesse to the details in the home.”
One of Maureen and Tim’s main goals for their new home was to create a kid-friendly space suitable for their son and daughter, as well as for all their young cousins who visit often. “We did not want anything formal,” Maureen says. “We wanted a home that was comfortable, elegant, nicely put together. But one where each kid could go into every room and I wouldn’t have to worry about them destroying it.”
Fortunately, Sroka believes in choosing fabrics that can take a lot of wear and tear. “It has to be bullet proof or I just won’t use it,” he says. Many of the pieces, including the two sofas and chairs in the family room, are upholstered in an ultra-durable, chenille-like fabric. “It wears like iron but with a soft hand,” he says.
And when a more delicate fabric was deemed ideal, Sroka figured out a way to make it work. On the living room ottoman, for example, he creatively incorporated a favorite striped fabric he had pinned to his bulletin board for months, hoping to use it in an eventual project. “I wanted the ottoman to have interest but this particular fabric wasn’t practical enough to sit on,” he says. So he topped it with durable brown leather and placed the more delicate swatch around the perimeter, “out of harm’s way.”
The rich, wood-toned library, too, was designed with the kids in mind. Brimming with bookshelves and comfortable places to sit and read, it is a special place where the kids can do homework and play board games. But it was Sroka’s persistence that made the room a cozy spot for mom and dad, too. “Furniture should be tailored to people just like clothes,” he says. Tim is tall—measuring in at six feet, five inches—some 12 inches taller than Maureen, but Sroka managed to find identical rouge-colored Victorian-styled chairs with a gout stool, comfortable for both. “These are the two chairs I never thought I would find in a million years,” he says. He also utilized window treatments to disguise the fact that some windows have transoms and others do not. “This made the room much more architecturally cohesive,” he says.
The Colemans travel extensively and enjoy purchasing unique pieces from around the world, from the three South African masks in the dining room to the painting of an Amsterdam cityscape in the living room that evokes memories of Maureen’s time abroad. “We really wanted to bring in pieces they collected during their travels, but we needed to give them a backdrop that would allow their collections to show well,” explains Sroka.
To accomplish this, he aimed for a more worldly design, mingling eclectic and seemingly unrelated pieces rather than embracing a particular period or style. In the family room, for example, the designer selected andirons from the American Arts and Crafts movement, an Art Deco chest, modernist 1930s sofas and a Victorian table. “There is a real mix going on here but it comes together nicely,” he says. Even the artwork is a veritable melting pot of media. The dining room boasts an original contemporary scroll by New York artist David Shapiro, a classical still life and ceramic pieces that Sroka discovered at the Baltimore Craft Show.
Additionally, Sroka wanted to surround the family with the comforts of familiarity, so he positioned two photographs of Madison Square Park—purchased by the Colemans at a store in their former Manhattan apartment building—over the mantel in the family room. “This [park] is where we used to play with our son, so it is very appropriate to have them here as a reminder of the first place we owned,” says Maureen.
Sroka also strategically utilized color to achieve a desired look. “In the living room, we deemphasized the wainscoting by painting it the same color as the walls,” he explains, “but we emphasized the baseboards, crown molding and door frames with darker paint. The mantel is the deepest color in the room because we really wanted you to notice it.”
In the dining room, Sroka relied on color to accentuate the positive. “The baseboards are a deep plummy brown, then there is a stripe of sepia on top of that, then there is a rosy persimmon color to deemphasize the wainscoting,” he says. “We did not follow the traditional rules that all trim and moldings had to be X color and all walls would be Y color. We really lead you around with what we want you to see.”
Color, too, played a key role in transforming the master bedroom, bath and adjoining sitting room into a spa-like retreat. “The bedroom is a whole different set of colors,” explains Maureen. “And the idea behind this is that the rest of the home is all about activity, children, traveling and work. Skip wanted us to walk in here and feel like we could just relax.” To complement the existing Bardiglio gray marble, Sroka selected a cool French blue hue to surround the fireplace and accented it with ivory walls, a celadon carpet and a deeper sky-blue ceiling.
The verdict? Even friends think the Colemans’ newly designed home is a perfect fit for the power couple. “Someone recently came to visit and thought the house looked beautiful. She told me, ‘It is obviously professionally designed but I can tell they really kept your spirit here because it reminds me a lot of your apartment in Manhattan,’” says Maureen.
“And I never saw the apartment in Manhattan,” whispers Sroka, with a grin, who no doubt enjoyed working with the Colemans. “This was really a fun job for me because 80 percent of my work is new construction—revising architect plans and changing doorways, moldings and lighting plans—making sure everything works. But here, it was like, ‘Okay, here is your deck of cards. How are you going to play it?’ I think it turned out to be a winning hand.”
Writer Kelli Rosen is based in Monkton, Maryland. Photographer Timothy Bell has studios in Washington, DC, and New York City.
When Caroline Rapking and her husband, David Hemingson, bought their home overlooking Lake Audubon in Reston, Virginia, in 2004, they hadn’t planned on such extensive renovations. But after just three years in their house, the couple felt it was time to either upgrade or move. “We were trying to decide whether to buy another home with a more modern kitchen and bathrooms,” says Rapking. “But we loved Reston, especially being here on the lake. This home feels like a vacation, so we decided to stay and make it the home we wanted to live in for the next 10 years.”
Designer Katherine MacNeil of Burke, Virginia-based Sun Design Remodeling Specialists, Inc., recalls the major goals of the lakefront project. “This was the typical Northern Virginia two-story colonial,” she says, “so we really wanted to open up the floor plan and take advantage of the drop-dead-gorgeous lake views.” The project recently garnered two 2007 Contractor of the Year awards: one for residential kitchens between $100,000 and $150,000 and one for creative solutions under $15,000. The project also included a basement makeover.
Because of Chesapeake Bay watershed restrictions, adding square footage onto the home was not an option; MacNeil was limited to reconfiguring the existing space. Prior to the remodel, the kitchen was surrounded with walls, separating it from both the family room and dining area. After tearing down the dry-walled dividers, making it now one large space, MacNeil also replaced 28 feet of the rear exterior wall with a sun wall—floor-to-ceiling tempered, insulated glass panels framed with solid cedar. “Before, the only view to the lake was a six-foot patio door and a bay window,” says MacNeil. “Now you can see the lake as soon as you come in the front door.”
The open floor plan also complements the way in which Rapking and Hemingson live in the home. “We have very large families and many friends who like to visit, and we both have jobs for which we do a lot of entertaining,” says Rapking, who is an information-technology consultant for Fairfax-based CGI. Hemingson holds a similar position with BearingPoint in McLean, Virginia. “When we have guests over now, we can all enjoy and be near each other while I’m preparing dinner.”
And Rapking loves to cook. “It’s my relaxing hobby,” she says, “so I wanted someplace where I could have my gadgets, all of the high-end appliances and a functional layout.” Indeed, the updated kitchen boasts a 48-inch Wolf cooktop, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, double convection wall ovens, a warming drawer and an integrated dishwasher hidden behind a decorative panel. There’s even a separate coffee bar with a small sink and a 15-inch beverage refrigerator.
The home’s overall design style was inspired by the extensive collection of Mission-style furniture the pair had collected over the years. “One of my goals for the project was to take what they had and make a framework to complement the way they lived,” says MacNeil. In the adjoining family room, the fireplace’s neutral brick surround was replaced with 12-by-24-inch Italian porcelain tiles that resemble textured oxidized steel. An earthy color palette consisting of a brownish-leather hue on the walls and ivory on the ceiling “creates an envelope of warmth,” she says.
Although Rapking’s favorite part of the remodel is her new kitchen, David Hemingson is most pleased with the unexpected transformation of an unfinished space over their garage. The previously gloomy room is now a home office complete with powder room, file cabinets built into the eaves and plenty of recessed lighting. But it is perhaps the added natural light that makes the space so inviting. MacNeil added a large window on the rear wall, as well as skylights with motorized sunshades to reduce glare.
After updating their typical lakefront colonial to a contemporary space with a Mission-style twist, Rapking and Hemingson won’t be packing up and moving out any time soon. “There is no question in my mind we will be in this house for the next 10 years,” Rapking says. “Maybe even a little longer.”
Writer Kelli Rosen is based in Monkton, Maryland. Photographer Greg Hadley is based in Fairfax, Virginia.
Fitness diva Denise Austin
You probably know her best as the doyenne of fitness—she’s sold nearly 20 million videos and DVDs and currently has two top-rated workout shows on Lifetime television, but powerhouse Denise Austin is as committed to creating a warm family home for her husband Jeff, a sports attorney in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and their two teenage daughters, Kelly and Katie, as she is about sculpting her abdominal muscles.So when the couple purchased their home seven years ago just outside of Washington, DC, they knew a major renovation was required. “We just fell in love with the neighborhood,” says Austin, who on a recent visit won us over while hopping about her kitchen serving homemade pumpkin bread—low fat, of course—and chatting as if we’d been girlfriends for years. “It was near our daughters’ schools and had lots of other kids nearby so it was a very family-friendly place to be.” But the 75-year-old traditional brick house with just 1,600 square feet of living space did not accommodate the active family of four: Jeff is a former professional tennis player and brother to Hall of Famer Tracy Austin, and the girls play tennis as well as lacrosse. So they hired Falls Church, Virginia-based architect Eunice Murray to transform the original space into one that reflects their casual, energetic lifestyle.“Throughout the design process, Denise really wanted to be respectful of the neighborhood, as it was one of the first homes to be renovated [there],” recalls Murray. “So I set out to design a house that hopefully, in the end, looked like it had been there forever. A home that was not imposing but that looked comfortable in its surroundings.” Murray added a new wing with a brick façade to the original home, bumping up the finished space to some 6,000 square feet.
Melding the old and new, Murray and Austin collaborated on a floor plan that not only worked for the family’s lifestyle, but also complemented the architecture. For example, the original post-War home had just eight-foot ceilings so the former living room, complete with working fireplace, was converted to what is now the dining room. “I really like the lower ceilings in here because it makes the formal space much more intimate,” says Austin.
Although Murray classifies the original home as traditional, she tags the new space as transitional. “It accommodates today’s lifestyle much more than a traditional home,” says Murray, referring to the open floor plan of the added square footage. “The new space also has lots of windows, so it’s much lighter and brighter than your typical traditional home.”
Even the interior design of the home reflects the two style genres. “I call it transitional with a traditional twist,” says interior designer Janice Lucido, of Ocean View, Delaware-based JL Interiors, who worked with the Austins on this and three other home remodels. “Jeff and Denise are such warm people that I wanted their home to be a reflection of their personalities, but I also wanted it to reflect the established neighborhood.”
Although a majority of the items in the home were purchased specifically for the Austins’ new digs, Lucido was able to reupholster a few pieces they already owned. In the living room, for example, she positioned a pair of Donghia chairs the couple had in their previous home, which was more contemporary, near the fireplace. “This line of furniture is typically modern to transitional,” she says, “so to make the chairs work, I ordered more traditional fabrics from F. Schumacher & Co.”
Austin’s favorite spot to hang out is the kitchen and adjacent great room, where Lucido relied on a color palette of variable earth tones to infuse a sense of warmth. “I love to cook in the kitchen while the girls sit and do their homework,” Austin says. “I can talk with them, find out how their days were. I just love spending time with them.”
But Lucido’s design plan was flexible, as she wasn’t afraid to veer from the home’s overall style when it came to the couple’s personal space. Austin’s office, for example, has a more contemporary look. “She does a lot of filming for her videos in the Caribbean so I wanted to play into that for the design,” says Lucido. To create the ambiance of the West Indies, Lucido chose a wooden veneer wallcovering from Maya Romanoff and accented it with a sage green palm print window treatment.
The basement, which is a popular spot for watching television and hosting dance parties for the girls’ friends, offers a similar feel, with its deep wood tones and palm tree accents, namely the large metal light fixtures crafted by Niermann Weeks. Austin loves it because she says it reminds her of her roots: Both she and Jeff are from the same town in southern California. During her teenage years, Denise focused on gymnastics and won a scholarship at the University of Arizona. After graduating with a degree in exercise physiology, she made her TV debut on “The Jack LaLanne Show” and eventually landed her own local television program two years later on KABC in Los Angeles. After marrying Jeff Austin in 1983, the couple moved to the DC area. In 2002, President Bush appointed Denise as a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, an organization that encourages Americans of all ages to become physically active. She has written nine books on fitness and keeps busy filming her two shows, “Fit and Lite” and “Daily Workout,” for Lifetime.
Landscape designer Katherine Kehoe of Iris Design/Build in Kensington, Maryland, helped create the lush outdoor space. “My goal was to integrate these large activity spaces through the use of garden materials and plants,” says Kehoe.
“Now all the neighborhood kids hang out here, which I like because I know where my kids are,” says Austin, who was also pleased that the view from the great room was not obstructed. “When my husband wanted a tennis court, I was so worried I’d be stuck looking at a big fence,” she laughs. Fortunately, the back lot naturally slopes away from the home so the tennis court sits nestled below, surrounded by a wall constructed of local fieldstone.
A half-moon credenza with gilt wood details and various multicolored veneers welcomes visitors into the foyer, while Madonna, the family’s Portuguese Water Dog, looks on.“Denise also loves color so she wanted lots of vibrant plants and flowers in the backyard,” says Kehoe. “Of all the clients I’ve ever worked for, the Austins truly use their yard. They love to entertain outside and she wanted flowers all the time.” So Kehoe planted dogwood, cherry and magnolia trees to bloom in spring, and crape myrtles and styrax that flower in the summer. She also incorporated mature holly trees into the landscape for privacy between the tennis court and neighboring homes.But for the woman whose boundless energy inspires millions to get in shape, home really is all about family—whether it’s quality time spent with Jeff and her daughters, or large extended gatherings when family visits from the West Coast—and finding the time to be together, even when life gets hectic. “This is the perfect family home,” says Austin. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Kelli Rosen is a writer in Monkton, Maryland. Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in Arlington, Virginia.
Renovation Architecture: Eunice Murray, AIA, Eunice Murray Architect,
Falls Church, Virginia. Interior Design: Janice Lucido, JL Interiors,
Ocean View, Delaware.
The Myers were initially drawn to the turn-of-the-century home’s site for its lot size, a desirable two-thirds of an acre. “We lived down the street from this home and really liked the neighborhood,” says Myers, who also served as general contractor on the project. “But this home had three times the lot space of where we were living so we bought it knowing we were going to expand.”
Although the plot easily allowed for increased square footage—at 4,000 square feet, the new home is nearly triple the existing structure’s above-grade footprint of 1,400 square feet—the existing home did present some design challenges for Myers. “It was protected by the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Com- mission because it was considered a major resource in a historic district,” he explains, “so we could not tear it down; otherwise, we probably would not have saved it.”
For the plans to be approved by the Commission, Myers had to adhere to a few stipulations regarding the turn-of-the-century structure. “We had to retain the character of the existing home and distinguish it from anything that we added,” he says.
To comply with these requirements, Myers’ strategy involved taking the streetscape point of view. “When you’re walking down the street, I wanted the existing structure to be seen in its entirety so that you really got a sense of the old house and its character,” he says. Janine Myers agrees. “It still looks like the existing home from the street,” she says. “It isn’t until you walk around to the back that you get a sense of just how big it is.”
Even though the addition is positioned in the background, it was still purposefully designed to match the original home’s details. Myers classifies the existing structure, a simple cross-gabled box, as a Dutch colonial with shingle-style elements, so in his design he incorporated four new Dutch gables to complement the three existing ones, and he utilized cedar shingles and siding on the new building.
Other design elements that echo the former structure include dormers and a built-in gutter detail that wraps around the entire home and porches. “There are open porches as well as a screened-in one, which is typical of the style of the home as well as what you would find throughout the neighborhood,” says George Myers.
But the preservation efforts did not end with the home’s exterior. To the extent possible, Myers kept the original foyer intact. The oak banister, stained-glass decorative window and heart pine floors on the stairs are original and have all been beautifully restored. Myers designed the trim work himself so that elements such as the crown molding and bead board complement the style of the period. He also chose wide-plank cherry floors for a farmhouse feel.
It was this farmhouse appeal that also influenced Myers’s open floor plan in the new space. “The rooms flow together,” he says. “There are no dead-ends in this home.” The couple also wanted a family-friendly home for their four kids, who range from seven to 14 years old. “We wanted to utilize all of the space in our new home so there is no formal dining area,” he says. Instead, he says, the kids usually eat around the large granite island in the kitchen, and when it’s time for a “family meal,” the crew heads to the large dining table adjacent to the kitchen. “The kids are everywhere in this house,” he laughs.
The children influenced other design decisions in the house as well. Off the side entrance, Myers added a powder room and mudroom, complete with lockers and cubbies for each of the kids. The family room, the couple’s favorite room in the house, is where they spend most of their time so there is ample seating in kid-friendly fabrics and a wood-burning fireplace with a hearth. “During the winter, we build a fire in there every night,” Janine Myers says. There’s also an office space near the kitchen where the kids have access to the home’s computer. “This is where they all do their homework and there is adult supervision while they are online,” she says.
She also keeps an eye on the kids from the large screened-in porch. “We use it from the spring to the fall as a gathering place, but I can also see the children while they are outside playing football or playing on the swing set,” says Janine Myers. This relaxing spot is also the perfect place for Mom to catch a well-deserved snooze. “It is so comfortable out there, I’ve been known to fall asleep and no one knows where I am,” she laughs.
Even the color palette was chosen with the kids in mind. According to Myers, Janine selected all of the paint, fabrics and furniture in neutral colors for a reason. “With the four kids, our house can be an extremely rowdy place,” jokes George Myers, “so she hopes the color scheme will bring about a sense of calm.” Janine Myers also wanted to honor the historical aspect of the home so she opted for hues from the Benjamin Moore Historical palette. “I chose mostly beiges for the walls and creams for the ceilings because they were very rich and just felt right for the style of the house,” she says. “And I also wanted the trim—which is painted a super bright white—to stand out.”
So what’s it like to be both the architect and homeowner on a project? “Brutal,” says George Myers. “I had to switch hats daily. One day I would come up with all of these great ideas for the design and the next day I realized I was the one who had to pay for them so I’d start crossing ideas off the list. It was very difficult.”
But there are lessons to be learned from his experience. “Always build a big contingency into the budget, especially when dealing with historic homes, because things always cost more than what you think,” he says. Fortunately, now that the historical-preservation project is completed and the family is enjoying its spacious new digs, George and Janine Myers couldn’t be happier with the outcome. “I love this house,” says Janine Myers. “We have a ton of space but it is still cozy and comfortable. That was exactly the kind of atmosphere I wanted to create—a space where guests as well as my kids felt that they could be in any room, sit on any couch and it would be okay.”
And it seems, too, that the man with the dueling hats is pleased with the finished product as well. “I don’t regret it at all,” says Myers. “It’s been wonderful. This has really been a great house for all of us.”
original oak banister, stained-glass decorative window
In the foyer, Myers painstakingly restored the home’s
A large screened-in porch offers a great vantage point for
watching the kids play in the yard. Says Janine Myers, “It
is so comfortable out there, I’ve been known to fall asleep
and no one knows where I am.”
Although his roots are in metal sculpture, Rubin (whose friends call him Rick) has a knack for working with all kinds of materials, from the imported iridescent glass and mirrors he cuts for mosaic tables to the solid slabs of walnut and mahogany he often selects for tabletops. No doubt, his interests are many as he describes his own work as pluralistic.
“I definitely do not have a unified design direction,” he says. “I’m not a modernist; I’m not a traditionalist. I like to pluck from different styles, for better and for worse. For worse, because it is not easy to pigeonhole me or identify what I do in a design sense. For better, because this keeps me interested in what I am doing.”
According to Rubin, he mines from different periods of design and finds inspiration in everything from artwork to antiques. The Jackson table, for example, comprised of a walnut top with a stainless-steel apron and base, resembles the Eastlake style in its geometry, he explains. In contrast, the McGavin console, Rubin’s signature demilune table with tapered legs and a mottled finish, is made of steel (that’s been purposefully rusted and waxed) and is Shaker in style. The Overlay console, a modern yin-yang design constructed of stainless steel and walnut, plays upon the notion of asymmetry, while the Morgan table is reminiscent of a Victorian-style piece. “You would have seen a ball and claw table like this about 120 years ago,” says Rubin, “but instead of a metal base it would have been carved in mahogany.”
Some of Rubin’s most creative work has evolved from commissioned pieces. “One of my favorite New York clients came to me and said, ‘We want something ’30s French, in gold leaf and simple. We have a beautiful rug and we don’t want to see the table.’ So I did this,” says Rubin, pointing to the Pavilion table with a glass top, which has now become a mainstay in the Harris Rubin line. “It’s not earth-shatteringly original, but it works. I like having clients who make these kinds of requests.”
Rubin’s road to furniture design was somewhat circuitous. “I went to a liberal arts college and probably should have been a lawyer or doctor like everyone else,” laughs Rubin, who is not afraid to poke a little fun at his life’s journey. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, where he took some studio arts classes, he received a Watson Fellowship to study sculpture in the Basque region of Spain. “So that age-old question of what do I do out of college was answered for me by having gotten this grant,” Rubin recalls. “I was naturally interested in art and sculpture.”
Upon his return to the States, he moved to Brooklyn, where he apprenticed with sculptors and worked on his own pieces. Although he had worked with various materials along the way—wood, stone, glass, clay and bronze—it was metal that most interested him as a medium. Rubin focused on what he calls “narrative tableaus” that could have been current-day Berninis, done in metal instead of marble. “I was creating these underwater scenes of shipwrecks on Greek vases with fish,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Just shoot me! What was I doing to myself!” Though he jests now, Rubin did have moments of success with his sculptures. “I was showing and getting good reviews. And in my best year, I broke even,” he laughs. In a more serious tone, Rubin admits that being in this “marketplace of ideas” was beneficial for his artistic growth, but he yearned to make things that were useful. “I turned back to design, to furniture and utility,” he says.
To pay the bills as a struggling artist in New York, Rubin worked with architects and designers who wanted custom interior metal work, such as staircases and copper-clad walls. “This was the 1980s, so metal was really emerging as a much more acceptable decorative material,” he says. “It became more refined, more aesthetic.” Making the transition from artist to designer was a natural one for Rubin. “I know what it feels like to be an artist,” he says. “You wake up in the morning and put on a very different hat. You are really involved with cultural and social issues, not so much utilitarian issues. Now I am a designer.”
With every design, Rubin is conscious of that fine line between art and utility. “I want to make things that are simple and fit within the context of the design,” he explains. “I want a piece to look good with the rug. I want it to be comfortable—something you can sit with and put a drink on, something that is not screamingly calling attention to itself.”
Today, Rubin creates his furniture line from an unassuming one-story brick building within the city limits of Baltimore, a move he made for economic reasons back in 2002. Harris Rubin, Inc., is a five-person outfit whose work is carried by a dozen designer showrooms nationwide, including Holly Hunt in Miami and David Sutherland in Dallas. Although he’s no longer in Brooklyn, a majority of his clientele is still located in New York, along with the West Coast, Miami and Chicago. Though the company has grown since Rubin’s days as a one-man shop, he still chooses all materials and finishes each piece of furniture himself. “I buy all of the wood myself,” he says, “like a chef who buys his own tomatoes. We are still at the level where I can select stuff by hand.”
So even though that kid from Bethesda who adored Legos is all grown up and has since traded those brightly colored blocks for custom metal-sculpted furniture with high-end finishes, his innate desire to build stuff still burns strong. “It doesn’t matter where I am,” jokes Rubin. “Put me in a diner and I will probably build something out of the straws.”
Kelli Rosen is a freelance writer based in Monkton, Maryland. For more information on Harris Rubin, visit www.harrisrubin.com.
Clarksville, Maryland, designer Norma Hoff surprised her
grandchildren with Lilliput Play Homes' Cotton Candy
Manor, which comes complete with operable windows,
a working doorbell, and a second-story balcony.
Even before Norma Hoff had grandchildren, she knew she wanted to spoil them with a spectacular place to play. “I’d been collecting vintage toys and furniture for years and couldn’t wait to get the chance to use them,” says the Clarksville, Maryland, designer. So when her daughter gave birth to twins, Hoff began her search for the ideal luxury play home and eventually surprised the now five-year-olds with Cotton Candy Manor, a confection from Lilliput Play Homes that was completely furnished with everything from a scaled-down sofa and chairs to a miniature baby grand piano. “They squealed and screamed and told everybody they saw that they have their very own house at Grandma’s. Their expressions were worth every penny,” says Hoff.
It’s no wonder these youngsters were over the moon about their new digs. Not only does their estate-style home have hardwood floors and operable windows, it also boasts a skylight, a doorbell and a loft. As Hoff’s miniature home shows, the sky truly is the limit in today’s high-end playhouse market.
Designer Michelle Pollak, co-founder of La Petite Maison in South Carolina, entered the luxury playhouse niche back in 1999. “I was frustrated with the lack of well-designed items for children and did not like the fact that so much of kids’ stuff was thrown away after just a few months,” she says. So Pollak and builder Alan Mowrer started a company that now offers top-of-the-line play homes built to luxury-home specifications. She says the average price for a La Petite Maison design ranges from $15,000 to $40,000, while some have garnered more than $75,000.
Although all of its work is custom (so expect a wait if you hope to buy one), it’s not unusual for La Petite Maison to design and build a look-alike replica of a client’s main house; in fact, that request comprises a large percentage of the company’s business. When it comes to interior furnishings, nothing is overlooked—from the working sink, refrigerator and powder room, to the cable-ready media room, granite countertops, chandelier and crown molding. Heating and air-conditioning are oftentimes a must, as is a garage with remote-controlled doors to house the kids’ automobiles.
Filling a gap in the industry is how many of these companies got started, including Finleyville, Pennsylvania-based Lilliput Play Homes. Owner Stephen Chernicky was looking for a playhouse for his then two-year-old daughter about 20 years ago. “He couldn’t find one he liked so he built a Victorian-style one for her himself,” says director of sales Patty Toner. “Many of his neighbors began requesting ones for their kids, and after spending weekends and vacations building them in his garage, he decided to start his own company.” Most of Lilliput’s models are in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.
San Francisco-based Barbara Butler, on the other hand, happened upon her success as a playhouse designer. She was designing backyard decks when one of her clients, singer Bobby McFerrin, requested a play structure for his kids. She concocted a whimsical design complete with carved totem poles, a tire swing and slide—and was hooked. Today, Butler specializes in custom-designed playhouses, especially tree houses for unusual terrain.
“Remember how kitchens and bathrooms used to be a small part of a remodeling budget, until people realized they live in those rooms?” she asks. “Well it’s the same thing with the backyard. Parents now realize they want their kids to play in the yard so they are creating great spaces for them. Why not make it the same quality as the main home? You have to look at it every day—and your kids play in it every day.”
But instead of luxury, Butler prefers physical challenges and amenities that provoke the imagination. Her designs include climbing walls, zip lines, slides, theaters for putting on plays, pulley buckets and swings. “I love working with the kids to find out what they want,” she says. “And now it seems kids are obsessed with jails—so I build them into the design with all sorts of secret escapes—they just love that!” However, all of this creative stimulation comes with a hefty price tag; depending on the intricacies of the design, you can expect the cost to be well into the five-figure range for a Barbara Butler design.
So why are parents—and grandparents—willing to shell out big bucks for play structures? “When our kids were little, my husband built them a fort in the backyard and they played outside all the time and just loved it,” recalls Norma Hoff. “So when I had grandkids, I wanted to give them that same experience and create something really special for them.”
Andrea Edmunds, president of Richmond-based PoshTots.com, agrees and says the Cotton Candy Manor from Lilliput is her best-selling playhouse. “It’s a place where imaginations grow,” she says. “I would much rather see kids outside pretending or playing school, rather than sitting inside watching television or playing video games.”
These mini-homes also instill a sense of security for parents. “Parents want to keep their kids close to home, rather than letting them roam around the neighborhood,” says Pollak. “When they’re outside in their playhouse, they are independent and having fun but still close enough that Mom and Dad can keep an eye on them—plus they’ll have lots of friends over to play because you will be known as the coolest house on the block!”
La Petite Mansion custom-designs all of its playhouses,
which include such features as Victorian turrets and
Options on playhouses by La Petite Mansion include bay windows
and dormers, as on this cottage design.