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Sophisticated Chicago Townhome

A restrained palette highlights antiques and modern furniture

Written by Lisa Cregan
  • Werner Straube

    When Chicago-based designer Tom Stringer and his partner, Scott Waller, first saw their three-story 1906 townhouse, its condition was beyond dire, but Tom was immediately taken by its graceful limestone facade.

    Inside was another story. "It was terrifying," Tom admits. "The house had been torn apart and ‘historicized’—each room based on a different period in history.

    Today the flow of rooms is so seamless that a visitor would assume the layout was the original architect’s intention. The result is very much a self-portrait. "Years ago I figured out that I love to live with three things—contemporary furniture, French antiques, and African art," says Tom. "I finally got to go all out with that formula. There’s no part of it I wouldn’t do again."

    Interior design: Tom Stringer, Tom Stringer Design Partners, 314 W. Superior St., Suite 601, Chicago, IL 60610; 312/664-0644, tomstringer.com.
    Architect: Steve Rugo and Lindsay Graham, Rugo/Raff Architects Ltd., 20 W. Hubbard St., Chicago, IL 60654; 312/464-0222, rugoraff.com.
    Landscape architect: Douglas Hoerr, Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, 850 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60607; 312/492-6501, hoerrschaudt.com.

    Photography: Werner Straube
    Produced by Jenny Bradley

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    Throughout the townhouse, antiques and modern furniture are highlighted by a restrained palette of beiges and chocolate browns, and art and artifacts pepper every room. The effect of curiosities—an intricate beaded headdress from Nigeria atop a sleek lacquer chest in the living room, for example—is both charming and disarming.

    "All of these things were collected on some trip or other; all have an adventure attached," says Tom. Even the living room’s lush carpet, part of Tom’s own line of furnishings, reflects the pair’s globe-trotting ways. "The design was inspired by Moroccan Zellige mosaic tile," says Tom.

    Tom calls the wall of landscape photos "the architecture of nature." An amethyst throw pillow breaks up the understated palette. Gabby, a former stray puppy, takes the exotic mix in stride.

    Wall paint ("Bleeker Beige’’ #HC-80): Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667, benjaminmoore.com.
    Drapery ("Rochelle Stripe’’/Stone #NC0280-051): Nancy Corzine, 212/223-8340, nancycorzine.com.
    Trim ("Cambridge Strié Braid’’/Buff, 1.5-inch #977-34161-86): Samuel & Sons, 212/704-8000, trade only.
    Roman shade ("Edelweiss’’/Milk): Rogers & Goffigon, 203/532-8068, trade only.
    Rug (custom, Tom Stringer for Marrakech Design): Texstyle, 800/524-1598, texstyle.com.
    Sofa fabric ("Berry Velvet’’/Perle #HO00260363): Old World Weavers, 212/355-7186, trade only.
    Cord on sofa cushions ("French Piping’’/Sand, 1/4-inch #981-26621-085): Samuel & Sons, 212/704-8000, trade only.
    Copper silk pillow ("Ritz’’/Ochre #4480-2); lavender silk pillow ("Ritz’’/Lilac): Marvic Textiles, marvictextiles.co.uk, trade only.
    Floral pillow ("Geisha’’/Sun Gold #2543-05,  by Larsen): Cowtan & Tout, 212/647-6900, cowtan.com, trade only.
    Micro-dot silk pillow ("Shagreen’’/Copper #NC0707-011): Nancy Corzine, 212/223-8340.
    Trim on copper pillow (#P1110.01); trim on micro-dot pillow (#P.1106.06): Rogers & Goffigon, 203/532-8068, trade only.
    Trim on lavender pillow ("Annecy Cord’’/Dark Taupe, Brown #981-31058-407); trim on floral pillow ("Warwick Stripe Cordage’’ #981-30369): Samuel & Sons, 212/704-8000, trade only.
    Botanical photographs (by Douglas Hill): Joanna Burke Art Consultants Inc., 310/305-1313, joannaburke.com.
    Chinese coffee table (antique): Lief, 310/492-0033.
    Horn and lacquer chest: Paul Marra Design, 310/659-8190.
    Terra-cotta camel (Tang Dynasty); white beaded hat on stand (Yoruba Tribe, Nigeria); round iron end table (vintage); white figures (Tua currency, Papua New Guinea): owner’s collection.
    Lamp to left of sofa ("Kathryn’’); lamp to right of sofa: Crate & Barrel, 800/996-9960, crateandbarrel.com.
    Wing chair to left of sofa (#476); upholstered chair to right of sofa (#6485): Baker, 800/592-2537, kohlerinteriors.com.
    Fabric on inside chair back and seat ("Tapa’’/Sienna on Parchment): Fortuny Fabrics, 212/753-7153, trade only.
    Fabric on outside chair back ("Vermenton’’/Marmotte #NO97840082): Old World Weavers, 212/355-7186, trade only.
    Tub chair in foreground (custom): Monte Allen, 310/207-7676, monteallen.com.
    Chair fabric ("Trieste’’/Ivory #NC0150-003): Nancy Corzine, 212/223-8340, nancycorzine.com.

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    In a corner of the living room, the sculptural drama of historic African currency from Zaire and an oceanic paddle is heightened against the stark stone of the mantel.

    Limestone fireplace: Atelier Jouvence Custom Stoneworks, 312/492-7922, ajstoneworks.com.
    Paddle (antique, oceanic paddle); currency (African): owner’s collection.
    Biedermeier center table in front of mantel (antique, cherry with inlaid ebony fillets): Ritter Antik, 212/673-2213, ritterantik.com.
    Grand piano: Yamaha, yamaha.com. Sofa (custom): Monte Allen, 310/207-7676, monteallen.com.
    Rug (custom, Tom Stringer for Marrakech Design): Texstyle, 800/524-1598, texstyle.com.

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    The entry hall reflects Tom’s muted but texturally rich style. "The rustic African statue on the traditional sideboard is unexpected," he says. "It keeps things interesting."

    Wall paint ("Bleeker Beige’’ #HC-80): Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667, benjaminmoore.com.
    Console (antique, English serpentine mahogany console): Evanstonia Antiques & Restoration, 773/907-0101, evanstoniaantiques.com.
    Chair (antique, Italian gilded chair with tooled leather seat and back): Bobby Dodd Antiques, 404/231-0580.
    Ottoman (antique): Regalo Antiques, 404/237-4899.
    Ottoman fabric ("Bermuda’’/Toffee #10943-03, by Cowtan & Tout); trim ("Piccolo Cord’’/Cognac #6522-11, by Larsen): Cowtan & Tout, 212/647-6900, trade only.
    Lamp: Restoration Hardware, 800/910-9836, restorationhardware.com.
    Mirror (antique, gold leaf): The Stalls, 404/352-4430.
    Rug (antique, Malayer Carpet): Stark Carpet Corp, 212/752-9000, starkcarpet.com, trade only.
    Bronze sculpture (Belluguntia figure): Lief, 310/492-0033.
    Hanging lantern (Collector’s Edition Lighting): Baker, 800/592-2537, kohlerinteriors.com.

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    When the last piece of shimmering silver-leaf wallpaper was applied to the dining room ("Dining rooms should always be glamorous," says Tom), the transformation of the townhouse was complete. A former school principal, Scott is especially fond of the "classroom chalkboard" painting, commissioned by Tom.

    The house is all about comfort, entertaining, and friends. Tom even reworked the structural layout with entertaining in mind. "There should always be an entrance and an exit to a room," he says adamantly. "Nobody wants to get stuck in a dead-end room." His solution was to create two new doorways linking the dining room and kitchen, sort of a circular escape route for the socially wary.

    Wall covering ("Precious Metals Leaf’’): Maya Romanoff, 773/465-6909, trade only.
    Roman shades ("Bolero’’/Sun Gold #2527-02, by Larsen): Cowtan & Tout, 212/647-6900, trade only.
    Rug (custom): Texstyle, 800/524-1598.
    Table: Dessin Fournir, 785/434-2777, trade only.
    Dining chairs (antique): owner’s collection.
    Inside seat and back leather ("Antik’’/Tan SA #1057585): Alphapelli Inc., 773/486-2800, alphapelli.com.
    Outside back fabric ("Cobra’’/Red Gold #US10307): Coraggio Textiles, 800/624-2420, coraggio.com, trade only.
    Console (vintage): owner’s collection.
    Chandelier ("Danieli Chandelier’’): Niermann Weeks, 212/319-7979, niermannweeks.com, trade only.
    Bronze sculptures ("Belluguntia’’): Lief, 310/492-0033.
    Large abstract art (by Dan Christmas): Lakeffekt Inc., 773/274-7133.
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    Tom says he wanted an "anti-white" kitchen with tobacco-green cabinets that give the feel of New Orleans style. Shelves were built directly over windows, providing storage without blocking light.

    The kitchen is where the "friends first" attitude really becomes apparent. Tom furnished the space with a massive island, an extra-long sofa, and two expansive leather wing chairs. "We never have trouble getting people to keep us company while we cook," he laughs. "We’ll say, ‘Have a hunk of cheese and some wine, and, oh, would you mind shelling those peas?’ "

    Wall covering (Paper Weave Series #PW-110): Kneedler-Fauchere Imports, 310/839-9811.
    Bar stools ("Dara Counter Stool’’ #2250-04): Hickory Chair, 800/349-4579, hickorychair.com.
    Seat fabric ("Royal Hide’’/Black Coffee): Edelman Leather, 800/886-8339, edelmanleather.com, trade only.
    Pendant lights (Jacques Garcia Collection): Baker, 800/592-2537, kohlerinteriors.com.
    Faucets ("Orleans Kitchen Mixer’’); backsplash and tile (Carrara marble): Waterworks, 800/899-6757, waterworks.com.
    Black-and-white photos (custom): Chicago Art Source, 773/248-3100.
    Range: Wolf, 800/366-9653, wolfrange.com.
    Trim and cabinetry color ("Maya’’ #11-24): Pratt & Lambert Paints, 800/289-7728, prattandlambert.com.
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    Friends who’ve completed their pea-shelling initiation often celebrate by relaxing in the garden—just beyond the kitchen’s French doors and down a swooping iron staircase. It was planned with the help of Chicago landscape designer Doug Hoerr, who with the homeowners created an inviting alfresco living and dining space inspired by the lush hidden gardens of New Orleans. "It’s a secret that unfolds off the street," says Tom.

    Outdoor sconces ("Genie House’’/Dark Brass #49511): New Metal Crafts, 312/787-6991, newmetalcrafts.com.
    Cast aluminum lounge furniture and occasional tables (Catalina Outdoor Collection); teak lounge furniture (Santa Monica Outdoor Collection): Restoration Hardware, 800/910-9836, restorationhardware.com.
    Green floral throw pillow ("Wall Vine’’/Kiwi #2005190-23): Lee Jofa, 800/453-3563, leejofa.com, trade only.
    Ironwork: Builders Ironworks Inc., 708/672-1047, buildersironworks.com.
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    Tom particularly loves the sound of water trickling in the fountain. "It drowns out all the noise of the city." It is hard to believe that the perpetual whoosh of Lake Shore Drive traffic is only a few blocks away.

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    Upstairs, the master bedroom has its own version of layering. A sparkling French crystal chandelier and chocolate brown walls set off a graphic David Hicks-style carpet. At night the room is a comforting cocoon, but when the drapes are pushed back in the morning, untrammeled shafts of sunshine bounce around the dark walls. "I think these walls actually magnify the light," says Tom, contradicting all the laws of decorating.

    Wall color ("Sierra Spruce’’ #2108-20): Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667.
    Rug (custom): JSL Carpet Corp., 212/751-3111.
    Chandelier (antique); sconces (antique): owner’s collection.
    Bed discontinued.
    Bed linens (custom): Leontine Linens, 800/876-4799, leontinelinens.com.
    Blanket ("Stelle’’ ivory wool blanket): Muse, 312/595-9604, musegroup.com.
    Art over bed (Two Figures, by Cyril Reguerre); art over mantel (Side view, by Cyril Reguerre): Kate Hendrickson, Works of Art on Paper, 312/751-1932.
    Bedside chests: Monument San Francisco, 415/861-9800.
    Brass swing-arm lamps: Restoration Hardware, 800/910-9836, restorationhardware.com.
    Bench (antique): Interiors Market, 404/352-0055.
    Bench cushion (Chocolate leather): Edelman Leather, 800/886-8339, edelmanleather.com, trade only.
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    The bedroom’s cozy seating area.

    Lounge chairs: owner’s collection.
    Chair fabric ("Terra Dolce’’/Pearl #1603-09, by Great Plains): Holly Hunt, 312/661-1900, hollyhunt.com, trade only.
    Lamp table ("Eclipse’’ by Bill Sofield): Baker, 800/592-2537, kohlerinteriors.com.
    Table lamp ("Mokko Gourd Lamp’’/Ivory): Visual Comfort, 713/686-5999, visualcomfort.com, trade only.
    Chocolate dot throw pillows ("Caleche’’ #F5271-09): Osborne & Little, 212/751-3333, osborneandlittle.com, trade only. 
    Drapery ("Gertrude’’/Beige, Chocolate #22015-1): Bergamo Fabrics, 914/665-0800, bergamofabrics.com, trade only.
    Roman shades ("Edelweiss’’/Milk #91203-01): Rogers & Goffigon, 203/532-8068, trade only.
    Wall color ("Sierra Spruce’’ #2108-20): Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667.
    Rug (custom): JSL Carpet Corp., 212/751-3111.
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    Designer at Home

    Tom Stringer (seated) with Scott Waller.

    "My idea of nirvana is a dinner party with gourmet food and good wine in a gorgeous dining room where everyone’s in T-shirts and jeans," says Tom. "I always try to combine things in that way." Whether he’s pulling together a lakeside cottage in Michigan, a frontier ranch, or a city apartment for his farflung clients, Tom’s finished designs always temper haute style with casual comfort.

    After opening Tom Stringer Design Partners in 1995, Tom rose quickly to the top tier of the national interior-design pyramid. And though he’s Chicago-based, Tom doesn’t let geography constrain his style. "My travels are my greatest inspiration," he says. He’s known for trotting the globe in search of offbeat objects for clients as well as exotic ideas for his line of furniture and carpets, available through Texstyle, the furnishings manufacturer.

    When asked to describe the perfect room, he just laughs, "It’s not perfect; it’s got lots of quirky details."

    That’s Tom—imperfection to die for.

    Tom Stringer Design Partners, 314 West Superior Street, Suite 601, Chicago, Illinois 60610 (312/664-0644; tomstringer.com).

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