A downsized home is a harmonious blend of his and hers
With both of their daughters successfully launched, Jim and Elsie Henderson were in perfect accord on a pair of polar opposite, his-and-her essentials for their newly purchased, downsized home. The impeccably kept 1954-vintage house in the heart of Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood had to serve as a sophisticated modern-art gallery with a soupçon of edginess for him. And it had to provide a cozy, every-chair-feels-fantastic traditional comfort zone for her. To put such apparently mismatched goals under a single harness (think Lipizzaner meets My Little Pony) and somehow produce in-sync, high-stepping style, they turned to a friend, interior designer Martha Reeves.
"They wanted a smaller house," Reeves explains, "and bought this one because its beautiful windows and glass doors are so conducive to showcasing Jim's collection of modern art." (He's a lawyer by day, and an art lover every minute. In addition to collecting, he volunteers as chairman of the board of Atlanta's esteemed High Museum.) "Sunshine just pours in and highlights the art," observes the designer.
Jump-started by the natural light, Reeves's first order of business was selecting a palette. She chose subtle, warm hues that would satisfy Jim and Elsie's disparate goals. "We knew we wanted a neutral background to bring out the art, but I also wanted to find tones that Elsie would feel comfortable to live with throughout the day. [Though she, too, has a law degree, Elsie was a stay-at-home mom before emptying the nest.] That meant something warm."
"My husband is the art person; I'm the homey person," Elsie says. "Martha gave us a palette that shows off the art and is a pleasure for me to live with."
Finding just the right hue for the walls in the living and music rooms took some time. "What I loved most about working with Martha was her patience," explains Elsie. "We didn't feel rushed to make any snap decisions. Even with the paint, she would slap color on the walls and come back early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and again at night to see how it looked." Nothing looked quite right at all times of day and night until Reeves remembered an out-of-production "peanut" paint color--one of her all-time favorites. "We kind of dusted it off from the Pratt & Lambert archives," the designer laughs.
To ensure that Carolyn Carr's dramatic Woman with Chicken popped above the living room fireplace, Reeves covered the glass-paned doors to an enclosed courtyard in a subtle, solid-hued silk a few shades deeper than the walls. Simple panels were the best treatment, not only to keep the focus on the art, but because of how the doors are made. "They're really cool," says Reeves. "They roll into the walls, instead of opening up." The doors lead to an oasis with verdant tiered walls, white-blossomed viburnum, and a fountain.
Draperies in the music room also are fabricated as simple panels in a colorway that plays off the peanut-colored walls, but they pick up the tempo in a plaid silk that works well with the abstract art behind the piano. "They add a little visual rhythm without detracting from the art," Reeves explains.
Because the Hendersons were downsizing from a larger home, Reeves was able to recycle many of their existing furnishings, fossicking out the very best. "Going through their big house to select favorite pieces for this smaller home was like a fabulous shopping expedition," she insists. Upholstered pieces, including the sofa and fireplace armchairs, moved from one living room to the next; other furnishings, like one of the antique French sideboards, were assigned new stations--a focal point in their previous home's entry, the sideboard now commands one end of the living room.
The more intimate scale of the new home's dining room required a smaller table. "We bought a new oval table, but we were able to move the English chairs right into the smaller home," notes Reeves. "Same thing with the handwrought-iron French chandelier--we just moved it from their previous home's dining room to this one."
Even a favorite rug that had warmed the great room in the previous residence was serviceable in the downsize. Cut in half, it now covers the wood floors of both the living room and the library. "Elsie's mother had seen this historical pattern in a manor house in England, and we had it reproduced for the other house. [Reeves's mother designed the Hendersons' last home with her daughter's assistance.] It was made in England on 27-inch looms, which provided for a very easy split. Mathematically, it was meant to be," laughs Reeves.
Unlike so many decorating efforts, this one started with a clean slate. "The house was in pristine condition when they bought it," says Reeves. Even certain pieces left behind by the previous owners--a fringed light fixture in the library, an oversized mirror in the living room--were retained by Reeves. Instead of removing the mirror, she mounted art on top of it for a one-of-a-kind effect that's arch and fun. Instead of losing the funky hanging lamp in the library, she made it both fillip and focal point with the addition of a tiny table and a chair. "It's off-center, it's quirky, it just speaks to you," Reeves says.
"Martha really made it a fun process," reflects Elsie. "She worked with what we love--Jim's art, and family pieces that have meaning for me. I wanted every chair to be comfortable, and she got that. Certain things moved well from one house to the other, but there were a few blank spots. For those, she brought pieces over and let us live with them for a while. To me, that's the perfect match in a decorator. Someone who allows you to take your time before investing in something you'll be living with for a long time to come." Both homeowners love the results: edgy for him, comfy for her--harnessed in perfect harmony.
Architect: Norman Askins, Norman Davenport Askins Architects, 2995 Lookout Place N.E., Atlanta, GA 30305; 404/233-6565, normanaskins.com.
Interior design: Martha D. Reeves, Newman Reeves Designs, 3111 Northside Dr. N.W., Atlanta, GA 30305, 404/402-9746, newmanreevesdesigns.com.
Photography: Emily Followill
Produced by Eleanor Roper
Traditional meets modern in the music room with a circa-1890 Mahal Persian rug, a circa-1810 Swedish case clock bought for the space, a funky vintage French Z chair, and a large abstract by Rocio Rodriguez.
A Henry Moore lithograph graces the hallway.
Recycled from the owners' previous home, a massive English repro custom rug was cut into two smaller rugs, one of which covers the living room floor.
Designer Martha Reeves reinvented the big gilt mirror left by the previous homeowners as a wall surface for displaying art--an abstract, Symbols 81-1, by Ida Kohlmeyer. The painting and its unusual presentation bring modern verve to the antique French chest just below and to the chest-flanking circa-1800 French walnut chairs (one shown), which still sport their original needlepoint.
In the dining room, a new Brazilian walnut table is paired with English chairs from the Hendersons' previous home. Roberto Juarez's Garlic and Oranges hangs above a family heirloom sideboard. The Oushak rug is circa 1910.
A lamp that came with the house gives the library an insouciant attitude.
The master bedroom was designed from scratch, with its palette set by the gorgeous atmospheric painting by Miriam DeHority. Silk striped curtains key into the colors of the art, as the silk duvet does to the chair.
Jim and Elsie Henderson on their patio.
Their designer, Martha Reeves, doesn't need to sell anyone on her virtues as a decorator--happy clients like the Hendersons are the best PR possible. "Martha is a master of color," enthuses Elsie, who grew close to the designer years ago when their then-young daughters became BFFs. Reeves's tips for working with color:
For example, Elsie notes that "Martha refused to allow us to compromise on the colors of our bedroom's curtain fabric, even though it meant waiting an extra six to eight months. She could tell that something was 'off,' and she insisted on waiting for another production and shipment from the factory in France."
The curtain fabric was "probably only off a tenth of a degree," adds Elsie, "but Martha was absolutely right. It was worth the wait. It's about getting what you pay for."
Take your time
Paint color looks different in different light. "We spent two months testing paints on the walls in the living room and music room," says Reeves. "The only sure way to get the color you want is to slap it on the walls and live with it day and night, observing it at different times." Paint chips are for starting the process, not for making the final decision, she maintains.