Faced with a lack of light and lots of architectural quirks, Sarah Bartholomew refreshed a historic Georgetown rowhouse with neutrals, fool-the-eye details and an aviary's worth of feathered friends.
Celia Barbour: Tiny houses are a trend now, but this home is 116 years old! How did its size influence you?
Sarah Bartholomew: I always let a house tell its story, and this one was clear about what it needed to be: a pretty, all-American home in beautiful, historic Georgetown. Whoever built it was not especially wealthy, so I tried to keep the style simple: fresh, eclectic and easy- going, but not loose or casual.
Was a 1,200-square-foot house with just four rooms — two downstairs, two up — a design challenge?
Yes. For example, it has no foyer — you walk right off the street into the living room. I wanted to create a moment by the front door where you could pause and hang your coat, but it had to feel cohesive with the room. That's why there's a bird print over the entry console instead of a mirror. The kitchen doubles as a dining room. I had the table custom built to a specific size: It's big enough to accommodate six but small enough that one can move around it.
Your furnishings, too, are often multipurpose.
I like things to be both/and, not either/or. I'm drawn to furniture that's sculptural, as it adds graphic drama while still being useful. For instance, the Regency-style chairs by the front windows have interesting silhouettes and can serve as pedestals for objects or books, then they can be cleared off when needed as seating. Similarly, the bull's-eye mirror and Chinese stools add visual impact without making the room feel busy or crowded.
These owners could have afforded a bigger house. Why did they opt to go small?
They prefer tiny. This is their second home; their main residence is in California, but that one is not large, either. Having spent time in Japan, the wife believes in living well but compactly. They are always on the go — Europe, Asia, the West Coast — and she doesn't want a lot to maintain. And no need for a home office: The husband, who is in the tech field, can work anywhere as long as he has a tablet.
Yet it doesn't feel like a dainty little doll's house.
Well, he's tall — he played basketball— so I didn't want petite settees and French chairs everywhere. The living room needed a comfortable sofa and welcoming lounge chairs. The bedrooms had to feel calm and restful.
What issues did you face updating an old rowhouse?
Houses built a century ago didn't have things we now consider necessities, like plumbing and electricity. These amenities were added over the years and, as a result, there are all these quirks in the walls and ceilings. To mask them, I hang groups of repetitive (but not identical) items, which draw the eye and distract from the asymmetry. The living room has bird prints by Olof Rudbeck, a 17th-century Swedish scientist and artist. In the guest bedroom, I filled the wall above the bed, which juts out, with brackets holding shells and coral.
Rowhouses can be dark. How did you bring in the light?
The previous owners had put plantation shutters on the front windows, but I wanted more daylight. I installed linen curtains with a sheer lining; they provide privacy but let about 80% of the light through. And I replaced the solid wood panels in the front door with glass panes.
So the whole facade becomes a source of light! What about the interior of the house?
Because the living room is a long, narrow space, it needed overhead lighting, but the ceilings were too low to install cove fixtures — I used flush mounts for ambient light. I didn't want lamps to stick out too much, so I went with slender brass ones. In the kitchen, the ceiling consists of the floor joists of the master bedroom upstairs. Pendant lamps hang from the support beams, the only place where we could run electrical wire. I also added under-cabinet lighting and sconces on the walls.
Tell me about your use of color.
The client wanted the main rooms to be neutral. She said, "I'm on the go all the time. I want the house to feel soothing." I love neutrals, too, but I didn't want the palette to feel boring or flat, so I layered in a lot of textures and patterns. The sofa has a hand-blocked Carolina Irving Textiles print, the chairs a leafy pattern, the pillows a stripe. There's even a faint pattern in the rug. Natural textures include vellum, wicker, leather, brass and marble. I added blue whenever we needed a pop of color. I love blue and white — always have, always will — and used the combo in the master bedroom with a traditional floral on the headboard, bed skirt and curtains. Then I added little touches of black to the room with the lampshade and artwork. Black keeps blue and white from going over the edge into sweetness.
You said that a house tells its own story, but this one turned out more like a poem.
Every detail counts: A functional object can become a beautiful moment to look at and enjoy whenever you walk by. Each gesture is an opportunity to tell a little story within the larger story.
This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of CQ.