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Art of the Interior

A New York City firm combines an architectural background with its passion for the decorative arts.
By Will Holloway

Comfort, formality, clarity – these themes arise frequently when interior decorators Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman discuss their portfolio of recent work. Since forming Brockschmidt & Coleman (B&C) in 2001, the two principals, along with a staff of three, have orchestrated a diverse set of projects out of their office in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City. From an Upper East Side apartment to a Texas ranch to a Bermuda beach house, B&C has created interior experiences custom tailored to their clients’ tastes, while at the same time effecting clarity and striking the delicate balance between comfort and formality.

Formal Introductions

In providing continuing-education courses and public-education programs, the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA), located in New York City, brings together individuals with common interests and often disparate backgrounds. Such was the case with Brockschmidt and Coleman.

Bill Brockschmidt grew up in the Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester, VA. He went to the University of Virginia School of Architecture and later attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After working in Chicago for a handful of years, he was sufficiently inspired by an intensive six-week summer program offered by the ICA&CA to relocate to New York City and become involved in that community. His early experience in the city included a stint with Eric J. Smith, Architects.

Courtney Coleman hails from the northeast Mississippi town of Corinth – best known as the site of a bloody 1862 Civil War battle – and, at the urging of an inspiring great aunt, attended architecture school at Mississippi State University. Upon graduation, she moved to New York City and worked for Ferguson, Shamamian & Rattner Architects, becoming involved with the ICA&CA through volunteer work. She also spent three years as a designer for David Anthony Easton, Inc.

Having met through their affiliations with the ICA&CA, Brockschmidt and Coleman enjoyed pursuing their common interest in the decorative arts through extensive travel. From a John Singleton Copley painting seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to a wall treatment seen in the Brush-Everard House in Colonial Williamsburg to a curtain treatment seen at Frances Elkins’ house in Monterey, CA, these research trips would come to provide invaluable sources of inspiration in later projects. Today, their belief in the mission of the ICA&CA is evidenced by their continued commitment – Brockschmidt serves as the director of travel programs and Coleman is the director of public programs.

Since they were both educated as architects and have worked professionally in the field, Brockschmidt and Coleman possess a breadth and depth of design knowledge atypical of their profession. Their decision to become decorators stems from their belief that there is great richness and history in all of the allied decorative arts – and that, as decorators, they are embellishing architecture through furnishings and art.

"I was always interested in decoration, probably more so than architecture," says Coleman. "My great aunt, who was a decorator, pushed me toward architecture school, which turned out to be excellent advice for the education in history, materials, building systems and problem solving. Although B&C is a decorating firm, we are still quite involved in shaping the architecture of our projects. It’s helpful to understand, for instance, the mechanics of an HVAC system so that we can help design ventilation grilles to be as unobtrusive as possible. As much as possible, we like to address the totality of a project."

"We’re familiar with the whole design process," adds Brockschmidt. "We can look at a raw space or at drawings and really perceive what the finished architecture is going to be. We have a good understanding of when to best become involved as decorators, starting with those aspects that need early attention, while saving time for other aspects that happen later in the process. When we work with an architect who is well versed in traditional architecture, we understand the language and the vocabulary, so our decoration works with the architecture in a very harmonious way."

New and Old
B&C utilizes both antiques and contemporary pieces, depending on their application. The decorative scheme for a loft in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, for instance, was based on a pair of lamps that the client had purchased at a flea market; in turn, Brockschmidt and Coleman found 1930s and ’40s textiles at a flea market and had pillows made from them. Yet Coleman notes that a lot of younger clients shy away from antiques. "They think that they’ll fall apart, are too precious, that you can’t sit on or touch them – we try to disabuse people of that notion, and encourage them to send their children to boarding school, if necessary," she quips.

In terms of new products, Brockschmidt notes that the preponderance of cheap, knock-off imitations available in cyberspace has created a tricky situation. "It’s kind of scary to be a furniture or lamp producer," he says. "You do all of the research and come up with something that’s really beautiful and well crafted, and the next day there are web sites that have the same thing for a tenth of the price but not as well made. Clients do their own research and say, ‘What’s the difference? Why do we need the nicer one?’ – so you always have to have a hierarchy of what’s important, of where to spend money and where to spend it more wisely."

One element of decoration that Brockschmidt and Coleman especially enjoy working with is trimming. "A lot of the materials aren’t what they used to be, so we keep an eye out for beautifully constructed vintage materials with beautiful printing and weaving," says Coleman. "I think that fabrics are getting harder and harder to find because so many things are based on the least common denominator – whatever textures and color schemes are popular," adds Brockschmidt. "The really idiosyncratic, beautiful fabrics, whether document [reproduction designs based on available documentation] or historic, are getting harder to find." Yet, according to Coleman, there are companies that still produce quality fabric, such as Claremont Fabrics Ltd. of England. "They carry amazing fabrics that make you smile when you see them," she says. "Not only are the patterns historically accurate, but the colors are bright and wonderful."

Interior Outcomes
Brockschmidt and Coleman note that the best projects start with the whole team – architects, designers, landscape designers – working toward the same goals from the outset. "When you start out early, you start thinking about colors, where furniture is going to go and how it’s going to be used," says Brockschmidt. "Are there going to be curtains? How will that affect the woodwork around the windows? What furniture is going to be around the fireplace? If there’s a niche or blank wall where art is going to go, how is it going to be lit? The balance of lamplight, natural light and architectural light – all of these questions, if considered at the very beginning of a project, present great possibilities for a harmonious and beautiful interior."

"John Milner is one of our favorite architects to work with because he’s got such a great aesthetic and really understands the regional style of the Brandywine Valley," says Coleman. "We’ve been lucky to work with him on three projects." One of those collaborations with Chadds Ford, PA-based John Milner Architects was the decoration of a large stone farmhouse along Pennsylvania’s affluent Main Line encompassing the residence’s early-18th-century core and a Milner-designed addition. "Because they were creating a large addition," says Brockschmidt, "instead of just decorating the new rooms, we took inventory of all the furniture, spread out what they had and selected a lot of additional furniture as well. The idea was that the house look like it had evolved – because it had – and we were simply filling in and giving new character to spaces."

Those spaces included the original living, dining and keeping rooms, as well as a newly created master bedroom suite, conservatory and combination wine cellar/screening room. "In the living room," says Coleman, "we used a very traditional 18th-century upholstery detail that we had seen in books and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we had Scalamandre [the Ronkonkoma, NY-based textile manufacturer] make the tape on one of their old looms." As for new furniture, B&C introduced pieces with unusual silhouettes; for the client’s antique chairs, which had been elaborately upholstered, they used plain linen with clean edges and utilized an early-19th-century woven tape trim to give them a more spare quality. The living room sofa was inspired by that Copley painting, "Unidentified Woman," which was seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "We used the design of Copley’s sofa as inspiration for the loose seat and back cushions typical of these sofas in the 18th century, as well as the nail heads and the top-sewn continuous fabric welt detail of the cushions," says Coleman.

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, B&C created an interior scheme, in collaboration with New York, NY-based Calvin Kiiffner Architects, to complement the client’s collection of modern art. "Working in New York is interesting," says Brockschmidt, "because even in big apartments, there’s not as much space as in a house – so we try to help people use spaces in ways that allow for a variety of experiences." For example, this client uses her apartment in a number of ways – the library features large tables that can be put together to create a dining room that seats 24 people. "It’s almost an 18th-century flexibility," says Brockschmidt, "although stylistically the room has nothing to do with the 18th century – it’s very eclectic in its furnishings and collection of modern art – the notion of adaptability goes back to the 18th century."

In this case, the client was looking to start over. "She moved from an ornate Beaux Arts apartment on the West Side with really grand furniture," says Coleman. "She wanted something that was modern and eclectic – almost all of the furniture, paintings and art are new to the apartment." To accessorize the space, Brockschmidt, Coleman and the client went to a crafts fair at Sotheby’s and, when something appealed, spoke about where it might go in the apartment. B&C designed the lamps, a library ladder and the scagliola mantel, which was fabricated by Ahmed Suleiman of Suleiman Studios of Horsham, PA.

For a large Federal Revival residence in Wilmington, DE, to which John Milner Architects had added a wing, B&C orchestrated a decoration that included custom-printed document wallpaper, antique and reproduction carpets, antique Federal and Regency furniture and curtains based on examples at Winterthur, the nearby museum and the former country estate of Henry Francis du Pont. "They really wanted to have formal and distinctive rooms, but rooms that the whole family could enjoy," says Brockschmidt. "It’s a really bold set of color schemes. We looked at furnishings that were appropriate to the house but also somewhat eclectic." For 12 B&C-designed dining room chairs fabricated by Laszlo Sallay, of New York, NY, Leonard Porter Studio, LLC, also of New York City, came up with a decorative painting scheme based on allegorical scenes representing the signs of the zodiac. The remaining portions of the chairs were ebonized and gilded by Osmundo Echevarria & Associates, Inc., of New York, NY.

An elaborate Georgian-style cut-crystal chandelier from London, England, chandelier specialist Wilkinson, PLC, hangs above the stairway in the central hallway. The master bedroom features hand-painted Chinese wallpaper and a B&C-designed bed created by Seekonk, MA-based Leonards New England. The reception room features the wall treatment – several layers of shiny varnish – seen in the Brush-Everard House in Colonial Williamsburg. The dressing room includes loose cotton chintz valances inspired by Frances Elkin’s Casa Amesti in Monterey, CA.

The projects are not without their challenges. "When we come to a project," says Brockschmidt, "the style of the architecture is always foremost in our minds, so that’s where we start. The toughest challenge is when someone shows you pictures of a room with 15-ft. ceilings and says ‘this is what I want,’ yet their house has 7-ft.-6-in. ceilings. You can approach things in a way that is appropriate for the space, you can do certain tricks that people have used throughout history – but we really try to fight something that’s inherently going to have a bad effect."

The time frame of a B&C project can range from six months at a minimum – maybe a small New York City apartment – to quite a bit longer. "A lot of our projects never end, because we get involved in bed linens, tablecloths, art, additional sculpture – these kinds of projects, which we quite enjoy, are ongoing," says Brockschmidt.

Finishing Touches
No matter the project, comfort, formality and clarity are always foremost in Brockschmidt and Coleman’s minds – and aspects they admire in the works of such influential decorators as Frances Elkins, Michael Greer, Billy Baldwin and Rose Tarlow. "When we talk about wanting to have formal space," says Brockschmidt, "that doesn’t mean stiff, unlivable or nervous – it means finding places where one can be comfortable with things being a little messy and places where one can be a little more poised and social. We’re asked to decorate, so it’s all about making a beautiful and comfortable environment, and coming to terms with how one can live graciously and comfortably.

"We had one client who had a small apartment and wanted ‘intimidatingly’ formal. That’s just the way he lived. The furniture was very formally placed, yet it was comfortable for him – and it definitely suited his formal personality."

"On the other hand," says Coleman, "we have a lot of young clients who live in large, formal houses, but who want every room to have a casual feel. In those cases we still try to respect the architecture, using materials and furnishings to give each room a distinct character."  

 

 

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