November 2010: Inside out

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Blame it on the empty room. That’s what designer Kelly Witt does when she recalls the momentary panic she felt the day she hung “a wire and crystal atom-shaped chandelier, lit from within by large holiday lights” in the furniture-less dining room of the brick colonial she and her artist husband, Clay, have spent the past eight months renovating.

“I was afraid it might be too wacky,” Kelly says of the “comet” pendant light she ordered from the Horchow Collection website last spring. Her solution: Add some old to the new. Specifically, Kelly moved in an inherited antique dining table and china cabinet. A rusted candelabrum from a Ruckersville antique store takes center stage atop a 19th-century English mahogany sideboard because “Clay and I both have a rusting-metal affection,” Kelly explains.

When putting together a home, the owner of Kelly Witt Design + Decoration says it’s important to “work with what people have and like,” as well as the environment where they live. “We own a lot of antiques—some really nice things with a story—that have been in the family for eight generations,” and “the heaviness of the antiques balances out the lightness and whimsy” found elsewhere in the room. There’s the ocher-colored vase bought several years ago at Quince that holds a manzanita branch, purchased at a New York market. The citron and floral linen draperies, with a branch that appears to climb to the ceiling, complement the taupe grass-cloth wallpaper hung above the chair rail. Kelly installed café shutters both here and in the living room because the dark gray “blends into the darkness of the windows, but you can still see the tree tops; we’re making our own country retreat,” she says. A fluid gallery of paintings—a Dean Dass, a Dick Crozier, a Clay Witt, among them— hangs on the walls.

Kelly, who studied architecture at the University of Virginia, admits that as a designer it’s her nature to be “always changing things up because I don’t want to be too settled.” But after months of demolishing, building, stripping, sanding, plastering, painting and moving, “it might be nice to be somewhat settled.”

The Witts made a powder room off the screened porch into a full bath and installed a new floor and ceiling.

Kitchen redo

Especially in the kitchen, or what Kelly calls “the focal point of our house.” When the couple purchased the 1930s Rose Hill neighborhood home in March, Kelly and Clay’s focus truly was on what was then a “blue and white Tuscan experience.” Clay removed seven layers of linoleum flooring before unearthing the original heart-pine. To enlarge the room, they knocked out a pantry—and pretty much everything else—replacing what was once there with custom-made cabinets, honed-granite counters, stainless steel appliances, a farmhouse sink and a tongue and groove ceiling. A large, neodymium magnet was added to the top of a counter next to the stove so Clay, the family cook, wouldn’t have to worry about dropped utensils.

According to Clay, who has an exhibit opening later this month at Les Yeux du Monde gallery, renovating a home is “more overwhelming at some times than others.” But both he and Kelly were committed to the project from the beginning because they found “a perfect house at a good enough house price,” Clay says. It was also “a long-term house; not the kind of place you buy now in hopes of some day moving to a bigger house. And we didn’t want to pay for other people’s renovations.”

When it came to renovating the kitchen, Kelly, who was intent on creating a “masculine space” for her husband, admits she wasn’t initially “100 percent positive” about staining the kitchen’s cabinets and floors dark gray. She calls it “an experiment,” but thanks to “layers of light”—including pendant lamps made from conical lab glass that reminded the couple of Erlenmeyer flasks—and plenty of shiny tile and metal surfaces, her experiment proved successful. “The darkness actually makes the cabinets recede, and the variation of the stain, the lighted cabinets and white subway tile cause a reflection that makes the room—even though it’s painted dark —light.” A 1950s industrial metal shop chair, purchased at an Ashland, Virginia antique store, resides beneath a large window and the portion of the counter that functions as a desk. “We’re always looking for junk shops and stuff we can transform or bring back to life,” Clay says.

WITT’S DESIGN WISDOM

Sure, an empty room can be intimidating. Unless, that is, you liken it to a blank canvas: A space where nothing can become something extraordinary. For inspiration, Kelly Witt offers the following design tips:  

Make your curtains long, and hang ’em high. Tall curtains, says Kelly, will exaggerate the height of low ceilings.

Match the scale of your furniture to the size of the room. Too-large pieces make even the biggest rooms seem smaller.
Roll on plenty of paint when testing a color. Leave the swatches in place as long as possible because color changes drastically in different light. Be certain you love your paint color—even on a rainy day.

Consider large-patterned wallpaper in a small space, such as a powder room. It’ll make the room look grander.

Dress your house for the season. Seagrass or sisal rugs and white denim or linen slipcovers are perfect for summer, while layered oriental carpets work in winter.

Keep your more permanent fixtures and furniture classic and neutral, and add color with accessories and accents. According to Kelly, “my favorite color changes frequently!” 

Install dimmer switches for your overhead lights, something you can easily do yourself.

Embrace grandma’s furniture. Reupholster it or mix it with modern pieces to freshen it up.—S.S.

Color solutions

“I had a general plan for the furniture and the feel of each room,” Kelly adds, leading the way to the living room. But “that gradually evolved because, for example, this sofa wouldn’t fit through the door to the third floor,” a slant-ceilinged, bookcase-filled, sky-lit sitting room with access via a 2′ doorway in the master bedroom. Design, explains Kelly, “is about being creative when looking for solutions to problems that always arise.”

It’s thanks to that third floor space that some second floor rearranging occurred last summer when the couple, who initially claimed another (and the largest) of the three bedrooms, realized “we wanted the access to the third floor…and we also love the morning light in that room on the east side of the house.” Another, “sort of accidental,” design decision is the placement of a fold-out desk with milk-glass knobs in the dining room, where Kelly first put it to “keep it out of the way,” but decided she liked it there—“so that’s where it’s going to stay.”

Like the couple’s couch, all the living room furniture is neutrally hued, with accents coming from “pops of color,” such as 1960s floral pink and orange pillows. (“I love pillows,” Kelly says. “They’re an easy way to change a room and brighten everything up.”) The space is accented by other finds, including an antique mirror and 18″ frond-shaped candle sconces above the fireplace mantel. “Ramsey,” a consignment shop ram’s head that “was an important piece in the living room of our previous home,” oversees all the goings-on from his perch on a wall. “Before we even bought this house, we thought about where Ramsey would go,” Kelly says.

Space travels

Because the Witts’ abode isn’t too large (about 1,800 square feet), Kelly was able to make everything flow almost seamlessly from one room to another via warm shades of gray paint. She points out that differing heights—“working in the vertical plane”—are important in a room, as are smaller “conversation areas,” such as the one by a front window, where a pair of off-white club chairs form a cozy reading space.

In the first floor powder room-turned-full bath, an enamel flowered mirror “that began life as a frame” hangs above a Signature Hardware porcelain sink. “I wanted to go as simple as possible in here,” explains Kelly of the “pavilion blue” room with subway wall tiles and hexagonal floor tile. The couple replaced a “popcorn” ceiling with tongue and groove, and added two chrome Restoration Hardware wall sconces and a rusted metal trunk because “we needed something to break up the clean and shiny.”

A screened-in porch off the back of the house is just big enough for a French bistro table from Rosewood Antiques and a couple of wrought iron chairs that Kelly’s owned since college. An entire wall is covered by a canvas painting that Clay did in grad school “and has been carting around—rolled up—for years,” says Kelly, obviously pleased that they’ve finally found a place large enough to properly display it.

Neutrally hued furniture is offset by “pops of color” and original artworks, including one of Clay’s pieces, center.

 

The second floor, including a small bedroom that serves as Kelly’s dressing room (metro shelves, curtain racks, a Philippe Starck lamp on an antique make-up table—“instant, cheap closet!”), and a full bathroom, remains a “work in progress.” Kelly’s determined to keep this space “really light and airy…and serene and clutter-free” because “we have a lot of stuff crammed downstairs, and I want to keep things more open up here.”

Although the entire project has been “more expensive and taken a lot longer than we expected,” Kelly says, “you really don’t need tons of money” to design a home. “The key is discovering things you can afford, and then making them usable. Pieces you don’t find in other people’s houses, that’s what makes a home wonderful.”

 

Correction: Due to reporting errors, the following facts were misstated in this story: The sideboard in the Witts’ dining room dates to the 19th century. The downstairs bathroom sink was purchased at Signature Hardware. The 1950s metal shop chair was purchased in Ashland, Virginia.

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