Displaying an art collection within a practical family home presented Robert Reid with a specific set of design challenges. Here he explains how he did it
In Houston, Texas, a cosmopolitan city that reveres the latest and greatest, finding clients who were steadfast in their desire to have a new home inspired by historic houses married with the sophisticated detailing of elegant townhouses of London and New York, was a rarity indeed. This young professional couple with two young children had settled into the family-friendly district of Bellaire years prior, but were looking to upgrade their home from the typical suburban two-storey stucco house they had built just a few years earlier, to a unique residence that was more in line with their aesthetic desires and functional demands.
While the husband had been an art dealer for many years, his wife comes from a family of builders and developers and had overseen the construction of numerous houses, so they both appreciated thoughtful planning and attention to detail.
From the first discussion I had with them, a crucial requirement was total originality - they did not want to waste any effort on a project that could be mistaken for any other property. Secondly, this was meant as a family home. None of the rooms could be off-limits, so every room was designed to be used for entertaining or for the children to play in.
The couple also owned a substantial collection of furniture and contemporary art, including important examples of photography, sculpture and paintings, so before work was begun, key pieces were measured to ensure specific locations were planned into the project and opportunities to view artwork were maximised from every room in the house.
During schematic space-planning, every important vista and view was considered and specific pieces of artwork were designated for certain locations. The lighting layout became an important consideration, with fixtures placed according to the surface and artwork to be illuminated. Recessed light fixtures were carefully selected to allow for adjustment of angle and rotation, while the bulbs in each were specified according to the degree of beam spread, to ensure artwork was appropriately illuminated. The adjustability and control of the lighting system was paramount to ensure that areas of focus could have a higher light level than the surrounding space, and focus could be intentionally placed on the piece we wanted the viewer to see. This flexibility allowed the artwork to be changed and the lighting adjusted to meet the new requirements.
Aesthetically, the couple wanted a sophisticated house that appeared as if it had been through multiple generations of owners, and settled on the idea of a "renovated, classic New York townhouse". An evaluation of historic Park Avenue and Upper East Side private homes revealed key interior features: high ceilings in the main level gathering rooms; a grand entry foyer; simple, elegant finishes; elaborate mouldings; built-in cabinetry throughout; generous use of select marble; grand fireplaces as the focal point of living rooms; and a gallery hall on the upper, private floor. To meet the lifestyle demands of a modern family, the kitchen, breakfast area and family room needed to be the heart of the home for everyday living. The master bedroom suite demanded a bedroom with sitting area, a large ensuite bathroom, a closet and dressing room with vanity, plus private access to a shared office for husband and wife. Overlooking a large nature reserve, the location of the master suite at the back of the house allowed for an expansive covered balcony with views across the gardens. The sweeping staircase off the formal front entry was supplemented by a secondary staircase off the private family hall near the kitchen that leads directly to the children's zone on the upper floor.
To accommodate frequent entertaining and hosted events, the major rooms on the main level extend off the formal entryway, encouraging movement between them. Partition walls were designed to house built-in bookcases or were doubled to provide a substantial transition from the hall. Sliding glass French doors allow the more casual family areas to be closed off from the front areas of the house to provide sound privacy between parents and children during parties while allowing for visual contact. The central location of the living room fireplace allows it to be enjoyed from both the living and dining room. A dramatic, 1.5m diameter window in the upper hall casts natural light across the upper landing and down into the entryway, and draws the gaze of first-time visitors up the two-storey stairwell. The orientation of the staircase allows a view to a dramatic painting, yet keeps all private areas out-of-sight. Adjustable lighting was carefully designed throughout the home to accentuate artwork, furniture and views, while remaining flexible as exhibited work was changed.
Classic finishes were incorporated throughout, while the range was kept to a minimum. Taking inspiration from an art gallery, the uncluttered walls and mouldings in the public rooms and halls were painted a crisp white. Floors throughout the house are ebony-stained white oak. Slabs of Calacatta marble were chosen for their white background with dramatic veining in grey and caramel, and used throughout the project, from flooring to fireplace surrounds and countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms. Large-scale moulding was custom designed and fabricated for the project, wall panelling was added to the entryway and main powder room in the front hall, and custom built-in cabinets were installed between the living and dining rooms, family room and upper stair hall. For a contemporary twist, the fully-panelled powder room was lacquered in semi-gloss black, offering a contrast to the crisp, white sanitaryware with polished nickel fixtures and accessories. Custom woven grass-cloth shades are from Jessit-Gold.
Throughout the house, contemporary furniture was carefully blended with antiques and modern classics, artist designed furniture and family heirlooms.
The kitchen was designed to be a showplace, although also needing to meet the heavy demands of an active family's primary living space. Custom cabinets inspired by an elegant English country house were laid out to create distinct work zones, including a serving buffet that extends into the breakfast room, and work surfaces of marble and custom maple butcher-block to define specific task areas. All convenience electrical outlets and additional task lighting were installed under the wall cabinets, to avoid punctuating the Calacatta marble backsplash tile from Walker-Zanger. The large, commercial range from Wolf and built-in Sub-Zero refrigerator are complemented by large-volume, durable fireclay sinks from Shaw/Rohl, dual-dishwashers and a custom, suspended pot-rack. The ceiling was clad with true tongue-and-groove panelling and made-to-order light fixtures illuminate the breakfast bar. Antique chairs surround a Warren Platner dining table from Knoll Studio.
Guests invariably ask the age of the house, thinking it original to the neighbourhood but painstakingly restored. From the carefully patterned brick and ironwork on the façade, to the dramatic entry and meticulously considered details, this family-friendly house, designed to display a collection of art, demonstrates that a new house can respect tradition, yet convey the unique style of its owners.
Handy tips for incorporating art into your home
Careful planning and selection of mouldings can turn a plain room into an elegant chamber. In-stock profiles in wood, plaster and fibreglass can be combined to give the appearance of a custom moulding. Attention to scale is vital to ensure the mouldings neither overwhelm nor underwhelm a room.
Panel mouldings can be installed on a flat wall to give it the look of a traditional, panelled room. Avoid painting the wall and moulding different colours, as this draws attention to the moulding and can look tacky. If your budget is tight, install a chair-rail moulding about one third of the height of the ceiling off the floor. Paint the moulding and wall below the same colour. Paint the wall above with an accent colour, or give it a decorative wallpaper.
If you have great artwork and furniture, paint the background a monochromatic colour. This will allow anything you place in the room to stand out.
It doesn't matter if you have a Picasso or poster art - make your artwork special. Don't put so much on your wall that you don't know what to look at. Make it the focus of your attention and consider the placement so you can view it from different perspectives. Always consider making your own art - you might be surprised what you create.
Individual pieces should be hung at viewing level when standing - your eye should be looking somewhere around the centre of the piece. Don't try to align every frame if the work is differently sized, or use the height of a window or door to line up the top of a frame. The result will look forced and uncomfortable. If it looks wrong - move it and try a different height.
Consider replacing a ceiling light fixture with a track that has adjustable heads. Find track heads that have small, halogen bulbs, preferably the MR-16 type. These come with various beam angles - a smaller angle will focus light on a smaller picture, while a larger angle will cover a wider area. Also, opt for ceiling spot lights to illuminate special items of furniture.
Books are a great decorating accessory. Special interest books can be found at affordable prices at Magrudy's and Kinokuniya.
Furniture that all matches tends to make a home look like it came out of a showroom window. Don't be afraid to take a few risks.
Minimising the range of architectural and decorative finishes provides a more unified and controlled look, and tends to create a more luxurious and up-to-date interior.