When you need help picking a chintz for your couch or designing an addition to your kitchen, you call in a professional. So who do the pros call when it comes to their own homes? We talked to four local professionals—interior designers and architects—about their personal taste, the occupational hazards of being your own client, and how size really doesn't matter when it comes to matters of style.
Jay Dillinger, a senior designer at Louis Mazor interior design, and his roommate Ron Pozderac were comfortably living in a three-bedroom Tudor house when, at the height of the real estate market craze, someone made them an offer on their house that they couldn't refuse. Suddenly they had two months to find a new home. It seemed like the appropriate time to make a lifestyle change.
"All the stuff you have when you own a house gets encumbering," says Dillinger. "And the second time in 10 years that I had to have the house painted was it." The pair was ready to give up house maintenance, and they were willing to sacrifice some space to do it. They found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo on Roland Avenue with high ceilings and enough space for them and their Shih Tzu, Emma. "The deal with moving was to simplify," says Dillinger. "I think we threw or gave away half of what we owned when we moved."
Although the apartment offered low-maintenance living, there was plenty of work to be done. An avid cook, Dillinger thought he could live with the dated kitchen. But after a little while with the avocado-colored refrigerator, he just couldn't stand it. The entire kitchen was gutted to make way for new cabinets and reorganized and upgraded appliances. He painted the room a deep red and put in black granite flooring and countertops to set off his collection of black and white transferware.
Over the course of one year, the apartment was reinvented to Dillinger's taste, what he describes as "an easy, gracious combination of things." Although comfort was important, there is a touch of glamour in the apartment, reminiscent of old Hollywood. "My own style is inspired by growing up watching old movies that had these wonderful sets," he explains. "I like the glamour of old Hollywood, and the fine quality of those old designs."
The light art deco style so often associated with Hollywood's heyday appears in many little touches throughout the apartment, most notably in Dillinger's collection of art deco bronze sculptures. There is a generous use of black, which Dillinger describes as "the most fabulous neutral"; his master bathroom is almost entirely black granite. The only colors are creams and different shades of white. "I deal with color all day long," he explains. "When I come home, I don't want to come home to color. I do design from the crazy to the traditional, so when I come home I just want it to be relaxing."
To create that relaxed environment, Dillinger put a small den in his own bedroom where he and Pozderac can relax or read. The living room is his favorite room in the house because he can see the city lights of northern Charles Street and the quiet streets of Roland Park from his windows. "This room is so warm," he explains. "It's very pleasing."
Both Dillinger and Pozderac say they hardly ever miss their previous house. Self-described "small party people," they have plenty of room to entertain friends, and when they want to watch their favorite old movies they use a portable projection system that transforms the living room into a home theater. By downsizing, they were able to preserve the things they loved and let go of the clutter accumulated through home ownership. Says Dillinger, "The nice thing about consolidating is that everything I have, I love."
Traditional Form, Contemporary Flair
When architects Jeff and Laura Penza (partners in Penza Associates Architects) approach a project for a client, they want the project to be seamless and to reflect the personality of the owner. They found themselves on the working end of their own advice when they purchased a traditional Homeland house over a decade ago. While the house retains its original look from the outside, the interior has been transformed into a fresh, modern space that reflects the couple's eclectic tastes.
"The casual observer may not be able to tell what we did and that's important to all our work, that it blend in," Jeff explains.
Although the couple wanted a property they could sink their professional teeth into, when they bought the house they intended first to focus on refurbishing the kitchen and the master bedroom, and postpone other jobs. But the projects grew over time and now there's no place in the house the Penzas have not touched with their personal style. "We love bringing new life to old structures," Laura explains. "As architects, we see potential," says Jeff. "We love what we do for others and we wanted to do it for ourselves."
The most notable transformation is the kitchen. The Penzas gutted the old, traditional space and updated it with cherry-hued cabinetry, richly toned granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and a bright banquet dining space. The abstract pendant light fixture from Jones Lighting that looks like a vibrant scribble from a notebook was Laura's pick. "To me, this light fixture is so fun," she says.
The Penzas share the house with their two teenage children and the house is very much a family affair. The upstairs hallway is lined with the children's artwork, all beautifully matted and framed. A tiny home office doubles as a TV room and family computer room. The family room, which was once a garage, is now a light-filled cozy space featuring a set-in fireplace and TV, and an oversized, L-shaped sectional sofa.
Although the house received a major facelift, the new elements are sensitive to the house's origin. For example, the master bedroom now has a high, coffered ceiling thanks to space borrowed from the attic, and freestanding closets with a contemporary bathroom. Yet the choice of mouldings and soft color hues makes a seamless transition between what was original and what the space has become.
"We like contemporary things, but we try to blend contemporary and traditional so that it isn't jarring," explains Jeff.
While not exuberantly contemporary, the Penzas' lifestyle brings many elements of style into harmony. Theirs is a house where a funky, 1950's Naguchi table coexists with neutral-toned leather sofas overflowing with pillows; the house is full of unusual artwork and furniture the Penzas have collected from craft shows and artists. "It's easy to put traditional furniture in a traditional house—it's safe," says Laura. "We like to be right outside of that safe zone."
A Cottage Imagined
It's not surprising that Missy Connolly, interior designer, owner of Fern Hill Design and denizen of all things colorful and cottage-esque, lives in a quaint home in the furthest reaches of Upperco, Maryland. What is unique is that this little house in the woods was more of an eyesore than a showplace when Connolly purchased the home that she shares with her husband and daughter. "I always said I could de-ugly it," quips Connolly. It was the remote location that appealed to the family.
"Not everybody loves it out here, but we do," says Connolly, recounting tales of intimate dinners with friends and quiet nights on the patio huddled around the outdoor fireplace.
When Connolly bought the house, it was a typical, 70's-era split-level with lots of small rooms inside. Taking her inspiration for the exterior from the cottage homes of the Hamptons, Connolly transformed the house. Outside, she added cedar shingles. Inside, she took down walls to create an open floor plan where the kitchen, dining room, and living room flow together. She raised the ceilings and blew out the front of the house to create a welcoming foyer area. She added large windows and window seats that take in the spectacular views of rolling fields, woods, her garden, and the gazebo. Reclaimed wood from a nearby barn was hewn into new railings for the entry staircase.
Connolly describes her style as "high-end but not pretentious." Her interiors are a mix of antiques and comfortable furnishings—all in durable fabrics, since the family dog, Elsie, makes herself as comfortable on the furniture as the humans. "I like charm," says Connolly. "I like things to be inviting, where you can put your feet up and not worry about it."
Although the house feels open and inviting, it is still quite small, especially compared to today's standard where bigger seems to equal better. Despite some storage issues, the small size suits Connolly just fine. "I like working on large homes but I don't need to live in one," she explains. "I wanted this to be cozy. We love it here and we use all the rooms all the time."
When Connolly entertains, it is usually for a handful of good friends, and she can easily cook and chat with guests because the kitchen is open to all the main rooms. When the house was gutted, Connolly recreated the kitchen. She added a large stained-glass window that she designed and made herself. It throws lovely light on what was once a dark hole.
All the kitchen cabinetry is custom-made in England by Mark Wilkinson. The wood gets its unique green sheen—not unlike the color a copper pipe turns with time—by applying layers of paint and stain that are then rubbed down to create an antique finish. The countertops are of concrete impregnated with black tint and Connolly used stainless steel appliances, which she says make a nice pairing with the antique style of the room. An enormous counter with an eat-at bar divides the kitchen from the dining room.
One of the pitfalls of owning a home and being a designer is the constant urge to change things. Connolly calls it an "occupational hazard." Indeed, her cottage transformation is still a work-in-progress—there are plans to reinvent the downstairs den and laundry room and Connolly is enthusiastic about the deluxe potting shed being constructed outside.
Only recently, she changed the paint in the main living spaces from a vibrant purple to subdued reds, yellows, and greens. The new color scheme was inspired by a piece of country art depicting a table of food. Then she changed it again: first to cream, tans, and salmon, then a third time to warmer yellows, browns, reds, and greens.
Like the designer, the house is constantly evolving, always surprising. "We bought this house 14 years ago when I wasn't even in business for myself yet," says Connolly. "This [house] represents who I am."
Laura Thomas, principal of Melville Thomas Architects, and her husband and fellow architect George, are dedicated city dwellers. From Boston to Roland Park, they've grown to love rowhouse living. They moved to a duplex on University Parkway 12 years ago to be closer to their children's school while maintaining the sense of connectivity and community they'd grown accustommed to over the years as urban dwellers.
"I love the fact that I live and work and have kids that went to school all in the same ZIP code," Thomas explains. "I see it as a luxury, for any working woman in particular, and I value the extra time it puts into my day."
When the Thomases first saw the house, they were attracted to the Georgian architecture and sense of spaciousness—even though it is only about 3,000 square feet. "It's not a big house, which I love," says Thomas, who embraces the concepts of small space living put forth by Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House. "We use every inch of this house. Every room has a function and there's plenty of space."
The house has an open, free-flowing floor plan and a surprising amount of natural light. Within its confines, the Thomases mix together both antiques and contemporary items. "It has the charm of an old house but you can do contemporary things in here and it looks fine," Thomas explains.
The Thomases' two teenage boys have free rein over the third floor of the house where, much to their mother's chagrin, they hang their posters, school paraphernalia, and their own artwork. The finished basement has evolved from the boys' playroom to the home of a big screen television, a sectional sofa, and a drum set and guitars. Unlike many of today's families, the Thomases use all their common rooms; they frequently light the fireplace in the living room and spend the evening there or have dinner in the sunroom. To make the house more functional, they remodeled the kitchen with new cabinet doors and modern appliances, new countertops, and added a mudroom by opening up a wall. They also upgraded the master bathroom with a marble floor, subway tiles accented by glass mosaic tiles, and a small cast iron Jacuzzi tub.
The entire home is painted a warm color. Thomas explains that she's been through the every-room-a-different-color stage and is done with it. The neutral tone gives continuity to the house and makes an easy backdrop for their art and special items. "Like most architects, we're concerned with lines and proportion and balance, but not so much symmetry," says Thomas. "We have valuable things and we have stuff from Target. It doesn't matter—it's all about the line, the balance, and how it all comes together."
The family's interest in clean lines is evident in their furniture selections, such as the handcrafted wood furniture by E.A. Clore of Virginia. "It is simple, it is pure, and it is handmade," says Thomas. "We like things with simple lines—it's more restful to the eye."
"This house has been enormously functional," Thomas adds. "It has been flexible depending on our needs."