Saturday, July 20, 2024
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Art imitates life

Jura Koncius

THE WASHINGTON POST – When you meet Tropic, a ginger cat from the Bahamas, you don’t immediately think of her orange stripes as a source of design inspiration.

But when it came time for Sara and Peter O’Keefe to pick out colours for their Washington dining room with designer Barry Dixon, the colour of their rescue kitty felt like a natural place to begin. The cat reminds them and their two children of tropical sunsets and fun times from a 2017 vacation to Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. Now the terra-cotta, pumpkin and coral room does, too.

“Tropic is the coolest cat there is and a real people person,” Sara said. “She spreads out all around the house. The kids adore her.”

In decorating, inspiration is everything. Yes, you can just throw a bunch of furniture and matchy-matchy accessories together in a room and live in it. But if you build a room around a specific treasured item or feeling, you will create a place that really captures your personality.

“Many things help to tell the story of a room,” said Newton designer Liz Caan. “Typically, I try to focus on a feeling and then support that story with personal items that a client has.”

Those pieces could include an antique or a favourite piece of art. “Every single thing we specify, design and collect for a space plays a role and helps support the story and the feeling,” she added.

Photos show Sara and Peter O’Keefe’s cat Tropic, which inspired designer Barry Dixon to create a dining room based on her colours. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

New York designer Alfredo Paredes said it’s important to talk to a client “about what they are dreaming” of for a space. He once worked with someone who wanted his cliffside Caribbean beach house to feel “like you spent the whole day in the sun and you jumped out of the shower and, still with wet hair, put on a pair of white shorts.” That idea became a jumping-off point for Paredes’s vision for the place, which he describes as “a beach house in Mykonos where you are barefoot” and looking down at the sand and the water.

Interior designers can find inspiration in just about anything: museums, travel, fashion, movies – or even Instagram. Some clients show decorators a sentimental item that informs the colour palette, spirit or style of a room. It could be the purple and gold of a favourite Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt, a hand-woven textile from a Santa Fe flea market or the sparkly gray mineral in a prized gemstone collection.

Then, of course, there are pets. Wood floors have been chosen to match the sandy colour of a Labrador; Tropic naps in a sunny window on a bench upholstered in a suzani-like fabric (Fabricut’s Helike Medallion) embroidered in the colours of her fur.

When Dixon met the O’Keefes, Tropic came to the door to greet him. The cat quickly became part of the conversation about colours for the space. “We came up with a lot of Caribbean sky colours and textures,” Dixon says, but it was the zesty colours of the cat that really spoke to the family. “We took the colours of the orange tabby and then added pale blue and sea grass,” he said. Dixon enveloped the room’s walls in colour and pattern using Morris & Co’s Acorn wallpaper.

He added Phillip Jeffries’ Chromatic in orange opalescent on the ceiling.

“When we look at Tropic, we think of the Bahamas,” Sara said. “The dining room is full of that energy.”

A few years ago, Richmond designer Janie Molster saw a flowing pink-and-red silk dress online from Brandon Maxwell that she just had to have.

“That is one of my favorite colour combinations,” Molster said. “It seemed like an incredibly comfortable dress that looks elegant but not stuffy.”

That’s the same vibe that Molster cultivates in her renovated 1903 farmhouse in the city’s West End, which she uses as a design testing ground for her decorating work. “My house is in constant flux,” Molster said. “Nothing is ever really finished or done. It’s an ongoing laboratory.”

She had that dress in mind as she put together bold Moroccan rugs, vintage Murano glass lamps, a faux-fur-covered bench and pink paint (Benjamin Moore’s Confetti) for her den. The linen slipcovered Lee sofa has a red-and-pink suzani-style quilt on it. Everything is comfortable and durable, because she has five children and four grandchildren, and she loves to have friends over.

Turning to her closet for inspiration was a no-brainer for Molster, who often looks to a client’s fashion choices when determining colours, patterns and textures for a room. She writes about that in her recent book, “House Dressing: Interiors for Colourful Living.”

Using fashion, Molster said, “takes a little bit of confusion and intimidation out of people’s design decisions. You make a design decision every day of your life when you grab your clothes out of your closet.”

“I’m drawn to the combo of pink and red together. Growing up with a sister, my mother’s perspective on our colour preferences was that I was a pink lover while my sister preferred red,” Molster added. “I remember the day it occurred to me that I didn’t need to choose. I could have it all.”

Molster says that she is always drawn to the den and that it can transform her mood. “When I’m here in this room, it doesn’t matter whether it’s freezing or hot out,” she said. “It’s always warm and happy in here.”

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was devastating for designer Penny Francis, who owns the New Orleans shop Eclectic Home. Years later, an unexpected treasure that surfaced from that painful period became the inspiration for her grandson’s nursery.

“My entire family was affected,” she said. “All of our homes were flooded to some degree.” Her own two-storey bungalow, which she shared with her husband and daughters Casi, then 17, and Camryn, then four, took on three feet of water that stayed in the house for 10 days.

“With 100 per cent humidity and 95-degree weather, the house was completely entrenched with mold and mildew and had to be gutted,” Francis said. The girls lost virtually everything in their rooms.

After a three-year renovation, the family moved back in. Life went on, Casi got married, and just before the pandemic, she got pregnant. “It was both a joyous and scary time,” Francis says. A bright spot was working with her daughter in designing a nursery. “I wanted it to be a really happy place that reflected back to when she was little,” Francis said.

The inspiration for the room came one day when Francis was cleaning out a closet. A long-forgotten jack-in-the box that both of her daughters had played with popped out of a storage bin. It was an emotional moment.

“It’s a classic Americana kind of toy that was a token of my childhood,” said Casi, now Casi St Julian and a decorator herself.

The primary colours of the 1980s jack-in-the-box “got our juices flowing on the colour palette for the nursery,” Casi said. French blue and yellow with touches of green and red became the theme for the room.

Francis found a wallpaper pattern of hot-air balloons (Balloons by Schumacher) that had the toy’s colours, and she dressed the windows in yellow and white indoor-outdoor fabric (Schumacher’s Blumont Stripe). The baby quilt and Huppé Adelaide blue swivel rocker and ottoman pulled it all together.

When the St Julian family moved from New Orleans to Texas last year, son Oliver’s room was carefully re-created, with the jack-in-the-box sitting on top of a white armoire. “He has lots of toys now,” Casi says, “but he still loves playing with this one.”