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Living Room

Hudson Valley Pastoral

Made to Order

How does a designer create interiors for a historic house that are apparently of the period, yet still possess a contemporary flavor? That was the dilemma posed by this private estate, located on 125 magnificent Hudson Valley acres near West Point. Though the residence was completed recently, the design—with its layers of columned terraces, axial plan, and generously proportioned spaces—harkens back to the elegant country manors of the Gilded Age. My clients, great lovers of Americana, had sought precisely that spirit with their choice of style. But they wanted to live in the present—reminding me that their children would be running in and out in their muddy boots—and asked me to inject a modern informality and freshness without undermining the “historic” story.

Certain of my decisions informed the design direction of the structure. The house has no formal living room, but rather a generous space combining a highly functional kitchen and more relaxed family room; in collaboration with the architect, Ralph Mackin, we enclosed the kitchen in a pavilion, with a half-wall, columns, and transom windows, to separate it from, but also communicate with, the living room. Elsewhere we developed a tension between old and new: increasing the dining room’s formality with a massive corner cabinet to balance the fireplace opposite it, while enlivening the walls with a robin’s-egg blue Venetian plaster; contrasting the finely detailed woodwork of the family room fireplace with a fascia of roughly textured brick.

The house features a number of important eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hudson Valley artworks and antiques, and our bespoke furnishings had to pass what I call the “squint test”: if you walk into a room and squint your eyes, all the pieces should harmonize—but when you open them and look closely, the new works reveals its quirky, personal quality. So the classic highboy in the master suite turns out to be finished in tambour, a material ordinarily reserved for sliding panels, and the library’s Mission-style Morris chair proves, on closer inspection, to have an exposed wood frame that recalls Le Corbusier’s early modernist designs. Upholstered sofas and settees in the family room present more streamlined profiles, and are more loosely tailored than their historic predecessors to suit a contemporary lifestyle.

One custom piece—the smallest—says it all: a simple wooden Flag Side Chair, its tractor seat supported by dowelled legs, and backrest pierced by random “American flag” stars—but with a profile reminiscent of Arne Jacobsen’s Danish modern Ant Chair. It’s a classic tale, told in the language of our time.

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