I love to re-frame other’s perceptions about things, and certainly this applies to design!
When I meet new clients, I feel pretty lucky. I believe that I can quickly read what they are looking for, where they want to be involved and where they don’t care to be involved. Every so often, I enjoy the concept of “Carte Blanche” from a client who knows my work, and they trust me to execute a look they will love. Now, mind you, it’s never really carte blanche, I still have to do a lot of homework and study what they would most like – but this was one of those times, it was pretty much a carte blanche situation.
Martha had a beautiful penthouse in Bethesda(at the time, still under construction), and in meeting with her to begin work, we had an easy and quick rapport. She is a fun person who loves to laugh and we often compete in telling the funnier story to each other! She is bigger than life, very discerning and views life as something too short to overthink, overmanage or otherwise fret over. As I have come to know her, I greatly respect her outlook and her gracious acceptance of things she cannot change. “Which ain’t much,, lemme tell you…..” In short, she is a really great client of mine.
During construction, when we could, we would walk from room to room, with very high ceilings, and incredible southern views, and she would say; “In this room, I would like to use it for reading, and an occaisional place for me to nap”. In my attempt to further understand how she would use the room, and what might be most appropriate, she simply closed the subject with “That’s all, it’s just for that, no more. Just do what you want in here, and if you can use the rocking chair that I have, it would be nice.” I tried to press for even a sense of colour, and she said, “Brad, I have seen your work, you will do the right colour, you can put it together, let me see what you think, but I know I will love it. Oh, but, please don’t use Mauve and Grey.” I said alright – and we went on.
In the next room, a guest bedroom, there was spectacular light, again the tall ceilings, and a wonderful corner of glass windows. Again, it was pretty simple; “Just for my daughter to spend the night”. “And you, when you come to stay”. I half wondered if she was serious and half enjoying the idea of being able to create my own guest room, but I thought of her daughter first and asked about size of bed and other things. “I would like to have a queen sized bed, and if you are ok with it, I would prefer to avoid footboards on the beds.” And that was it. She had no more direction for me, except; “Brad, again, please do what you think best here, I trust you”. “Oh, but, please do not do Mauve and Grey. I don’t like Mauve and Grey.”
I was already clear that we were not doing Mauve and Grey. I get this. Even I conjure up images of those 1950’s kitchens and baths gone horribly wrong. But, instinctively I found this strange – and somewhat challenging. I mean – I am a good designer, I know how to pair colours well. But, hey – the client is always right most of the time.
We went into the main living room and open dining area. Again, she was clear that I should do what I thought best. She clarified that something a little dramatic would work in this room,, but “Really, just do what you want here.” “I think you get the apartment by now. You will create something wonderful, I know.” Oh, she said – “please don’t do Grey and Mauve, I really don’t like those colours.” At this point I felt compelled to do what I love to – and ask a client to go with me “outside of their box” and see what we find.
I said “… you know Martha,, Grey and Mauve never did anything to you! I mean they are colours. Colours, in of themselves don’t go in or out of fashion. WE make them go out of fashion. But to Grey and Mauve – they are just colours.” She looked at me right in the eye for a minute, with one of THOSE looks. And then,, Um,,, like I said – the client is always right.
We just were “not going to have Grey and Mauve” she said. “Right.” I said. It was a short but sweet trip outside that box!
Now, by the end of the project 7 months later, we ended up doing the most beautiful collection of smoky blues, oyster, mother of pearl, alabaster wool carpeting, black lacquer, antique silver, and magnificent modern crystal and over- the- top silks. You can imagine a very dramatic penthouse with the evening blue sky, and the rooms to match!
But, our story does not end there. Just after we started Martha’s penthouse in earnest (she had just gone to settlement on her new sky-high home, and two days later, all kinds of drywall was being torn down, and scaffolding going up! oh my!) all was going well. I received a call, that we were invited to be part of a showhouse being done on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “Of course!” I said. We were very fortunate to be assigned the corner room looking out on the water. With 12 foot ceilings, peeling plaster work all around, the room with its gothic windows and stained hardwoods was desperate for a makeover. The mood was so pervasive it was uncanny. This house, this place, was calm. Peaceful. And it struck me; I am going to do a Grey and Mauve room! Yep, I wanted the challenge, and I wanted to show Martha what it could be. Now – what would it actually be? Well to conclude, let’s leave it at this – the first choice I made for the room was the paint colour from Benjamin Moore for the trim was called “Calm” and after that, it seemed easy, the room came together quite magically. (and THAT is another story involving a $45,000 painting in a UHaul truck and being pulled over by the police!)
Below, the finished room shows you what can be realized, when we just start fresh with no preconceived ideas. I admit this room has no reference at all to the 1950’s, and that’s just it. Back then, that colour scheme was part of a fad, and like all fads/trends and splashy – “this is today’s look” – and when there is this kind of promotion, it’s when we end up with unfortunate memories. Nope, for me, Classic and timeless always gets it right. The other designer’s rooms next to ours; Fiona Weeks’s (porch), Richard Keith Langham’s (study) and Kelley Proxmire’s (dining room) – all were classic, calming, and remarkable that they will always look good. It’s nice when the rooms of a design house just come together that way. And for Colour? I will say; Mauve and Grey – been there done that!