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A Delaware design project is inspired by English country precedents.

Project: Residence, Wilmington, DE

Architects: John Milner Architects, Inc., Chadds Ford, PA

Interior Decorator: Brockschmidt & Coleman, New York, NY; Bill Brockschmidt, principal; Courtney Coleman, principal

By Lynne Lavelle

Interior design firm Brockschmidt & Coleman (B & C) is used to long-term commitments. Since forming B & C in New York City in 2001, principals Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman remain just a phone call away for scores of clients, quite a few of whom remain on the hunt for items on their "wish lists," personalized lists of items that can take years, even a lifetime, to track down. And while B&C's varied portfolio – Upper East Side apartments to a Texas ranch – suggests no such thing as a "typical" project, a love of the process, not merely the results, seems to characterize the B&C client. So when the owners of a Wilmington, DE, residence approached B&C in early 2004 about an open-ended decorating project, the firm was prepared for anything. The couple contacted B&C just as a 1,200-sq.ft extension – a new family room and kitchen designed by Chadds Ford, PA-based John Milner Architects – was nearing completion. It was their second meeting, following a brief introduction at the nearby Winterthur Museum in the fall of 2002, where the wife attended a B&C lecture. "From the very beginning, the owners told us that this was not going to be one of those projects where you come in and completely furnish every room, then they move back in and it's done," says Coleman. "Since they had embarked upon a big construction project with the addition, they weren't interested in taking on a full-scale decorating project at the same time. They prefer to take their time making decisions and to carefully consider additions to their furniture collection."

The 7,800-sq.ft. original house, designed by Brown & Whiteside in 1928, was Georgian in style, with Federal and Colonial Revival details. The owners were drawn to its pedimented interior doorways, original moldings and curved staircase, but the interior plan was too tight for a modern family with young children and visions of entertaining. Despite its large living room, dining room, dining porch, living porch and sleeping porch, the house lacked any kind of study or more intimate family spaces. And the small back-stair kitchen was neither comfortable nor sufficient, particularly for the wife, who is a keen gourmet cook. "It was typical of early-20th-century houses in that it had a kitchen that was designed solely for meal preparation, rather than as a space for spending time with the family," says Brockschmidt. "It was dark and not very pleasant." By enlarging the kitchen and providing much-needed family space, the extension gave B&C greater freedom to rework the rooms in the original house and distribute the clients' existing furniture. "If you look back at beloved 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century houses, the architecture is quite flexible, and the rooms can be used in a variety of ways," says Brockschmidt. "We find traditional houses to be adaptable houses. Also, since these clients wanted to use all of the rooms, we certainly tried to incorporate furniture that was elegant, yet comfortable for the whole family to live with. We used interesting and beautiful fabrics, but none that were fragile or precious."

B&C took its cues for the living room from the English country tradition. The work of the famous tastemaker Nancy Lancaster was a strong influence, particularly on the color scheme. B&C brought down the scale and accentuated the architectural moldings by intensifying the existing pale-yellow walls with a butterscotch-toned glaze, reminiscent of Lancaster's famous "Butter Yellow" drawing room. The deeper color flatters the existing striped curtains and family portraits. "We took that room as a point of departure," says Coleman. "The owners are fond of Lancaster's taste, which we loosely tried to emulate in the living room, with the color of the walls, the mix of the furniture and the style of the pieces."

The original living-room furniture plan was built around a pair of loveseats flanking the fireplace – an arrangement that the owners preferred, but which simply didn't fit the width of the room or the location of the door. B&C opened up the plan by moving one of the loveseats to the end of the room and adding a large sofa opposite the fireplace. According to Brockschmidt, forcing a floor plan that doesn't work is a common mistake. "This is understandable because clients have experienced ideal rooms where a symmetrical furniture plan works beautifully, and they wish to have the same arrangement," he says. "However, if a room doesn't allow such a plan, it is better to address the specific nature of the space. Often, an unconventional furniture placement is more dynamic and interesting, especially with the eclecticism of the English country aesthetic."

Achieving a balanced lighting scheme for the new arrangement was a challenge, as the masonry surrounding the fireplace prevented the addition of wired sconces. But a pair of painted tole sconces by McLean Lighting Works of Greensboro, NC, placed on either side of the mantel, conceal the existing electrical outlets above the mantel shelf and flatter the surrounding velvet, silk and chintz. A mix of antique and contemporary furniture suggests that pieces have been handed down and accumulated over time – a key aspect of the English country style. "Because of the dimensions of the living room, it was difficult to pull off a formal arrangement of furniture around the fireplace," says Coleman. "But as with Lancaster's country-house aesthetic, the furniture is arranged in a natural way without formal symmetry, but in an inviting and comfortable way. The mix of materials and furniture styles also gives the room an eclectic quality that suits the room and the clients' taste."

The creative use of fabric treatments brought cohesion to the combination of English, American and Continental pieces, including existing items the clients didn't want to part with. An old wing-chair was transformed by a slipcover made from a large-scale palampore print from Brunschwig & Fils of North White Plains, NY. However, not every existing piece could be incorporated so successfully, and some compromises had to be reached. The husband's set of neo-Biedermeier furniture, for instance, had looked appropriate in a previous New York City apartment but did not fit the new aesthetic.

Similar architecture, furniture styles and window distribution create an easy transition from the living room to the dining room, despite their quite distinct atmospheres and color schemes. The dining-room walls were painted a peacock-blue color, offset by mid-18th-century-style yellow and black curtains that were inspired by a pattern from the main parlor at the Kenmore Mansion in Fredericksburg, VA. Such bold color choices allowed B&C to keep furniture and accessories to a minimum and lead with the walls. "The dining room has several windows and not a lot of furniture, so the window treatments were highly important," says Brockschmidt. "The jaunty yellow, oyster and black-striped silk fabric adds freshness and drama, creating a room that's pretty during the daytime and striking at night. Although it is not dependent on extensive furniture or artwork, it's a bold room that will grow even richer with future acquisitions, including the clients' collection of canary-yellow lusterware and transferware." In the search for items to place in the dining room, B&C came across perhaps the most interesting, and deceptive, pieces in the house; a pair of vases on the dining-room mantel may look a million dollars against the backdrop of the walls, but they are inexpensive copies that were found on Canal Street in New York City.

While the original house could support strong color schemes, the addition's extensive millwork called for a more neutral palette. To harmonize the ceiling beams, baseboard and casing in the family room, B&C chose a putty-colored glazed finish for the walls and millwork and used an old Persian carpet that had been a favorite of the wife's. It was a popular decision, as the family had expected to throw it away. "The husband was surprised that we suggested using such a worn carpet in a newly completed room," says Coleman. "But once it was in place, we all loved the faded colors and the patina that it gave to the new room." Against this neutral backdrop, the eye is drawn to the black-painted wood fireplace mantel by John Milner, and the blue-patterned wing-chair in front, which was trimmed in white tape to emphasize the mantel's lines. According to Brockschmidt, Milner laid a strong foundation for B&C to work with. "We've enjoyed working with John Milner in the past and always appreciate how his designs and details take their cues from the original architecture. He always comes up with something that's new and creative, but appropriate, and we try to do the same with the decorating," he says.

By the time B&C came on board, the client had finalized the kitchen layout with Milner and selected the cabinets. The new kitchen was a departure from the cramped previous arrangement, adding a dining bay, work and storage areas, plus a homework area for the children with stools and a countertop. B&C worked on the original portion of the house during the kitchen's construction, and consulted on the materials, backsplash tile and paint colors. To unify the addition and the original downstairs portion of the house, a similar finish was chosen for the entire first-level floor, against cream-colored painted walls in the kitchen and dark-brown wallpaper in the butler's pantry. Above the kitchen island, B&C dressed up a bronze-finished pendant light fixture with two custom-painted paper shades. The shades' brown-and-coral-striped exteriors unified the kitchen color scheme and became a focal point of the room.

Though the clients hadn't planned on a full-scale decorating project, a leak in the master bedroom forced them to renovate upstairs before the addition was completed. The master bathroom escaped water damage but was never loved by the clients, who decided to make the best of a bad situation and redesign the room. For the husband's adjacent dressing room, B&C introduced a more contemporary aesthetic, and even atoned for the husband's rejected living-room furniture with some blue-and-white Biedermeier-style wallpaper. The 19th-century French ombre-striped pattern is a pivot point, tying the room to the traditional character of the house, but permitting a more graphic approach to the furniture and textiles. An old '70s Parson's table was retrieved from the clients' storage and spray painted black to support one of a pair of vintage glass lamps. In striking a balance between the modern and traditional vocabularies, B&C was helped by the architectural details. "The architecture is very authentic to the character of the house," says Brockschmidt. "There are built-in bookcases, traditional moldings and radiator cabinets that are subtly painted to match one of the wallpaper's blue stripes. Because the room is more private in nature, used by the husband as a dressing room and lounge, its character could be more independent."

Almost three years since B&C came on board, the firm is working on schemes for the master bedroom and the wife's dressing room. But the process of furnishing the rest of the house continues, helped by the fluidity of the furniture plan. "The owners like to shop, and don't hesitate to call us when they come across an interesting piece at an auction or in their travels," says Coleman. "Right now, the house is at a stage where it feels comfortable and personal. However, we're all on the lookout for pieces that will add more layers of richness to the rooms." A corner chair, found recently at a local antiques show, led to a late adjustment of the family- room furniture plan. "There wasn't an intended spot for it, but we all thought the chair was charming, so we found a place for it next to the fireplace," says Coleman. "Even though that wasn't in the plan, everyone loved how it looked in the room. Things do move around. We are always searching."  

 

 

 
 

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