Photographed by Erik Kvalsvik
I realized the other day that I no longer know my friend Andy’s phone number by heart. Hard to believe, considering it wasn’t that long ago that I was calling that number several times a day. For more than a year, it held the No. 1 slot on my mental speed dial list. That’s because, after 15 years of friendship, Andy (formally known in the D.C. area as Andrew Wallitzer Interiors) took on the full-fledged role of interior designer for me and my husband. We’re not talking about the replacing-the-living-room-carpeting and repositioning-the-furniture kind of help Andy had provided in the past. This would be major. My husband, Steve, and I had hit (using the echo chamber here) The Big Time.
It was March 2000 when we set eyes on our dream home, a 4,000-square-foot waterfront unit in Canton Cove—an old can company factory warehouse that developer Bill Struever converted to condominiums in the late ‘80s. The unit is actually two condos that were joined together, and is wrapped with floor-to-ceiling windows. Beyond those, a terrace stretches almost the entire length of the place, providing incredible views of Fort McHenry and the industrial side of Baltimore’s harbor.
The previous owners had done quite a bit of renovation, putting in a gorgeous new cherry wood and white kitchen with granite countertops. In the second unit, they had turned a small bedroom into a study (a dream for Steve), and converted the living and dining areas into a den. They’d made a large laundry room out of the second unit’s kitchen, but retained all of the appliances—perfect for entertaining. At the very back end, a private guestroom suite (the second unit’s master bedroom) gave visitors a complete sense of privacy.
One thing, however, was glaringly obvious from the start: If we moved in here, there wouldn’t be much from our old place coming with us. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
The old place—where Steve and I had lived happily for 14 years—was a Lutherville cluster home. That’s what we preferred to call what really was a wider version of a 2,000-square-foot townhouse. “Eclectic” was what we preferred to call our decorating style—so much more charming than saying our furnishings were a mishmosh of heavy oak bedroom furniture left over from Steve’s bachelor days, a peach-and-green living room grouping from my early ‘80s renovated rowhouse, and a scattering of Ikea pieces. We actually did have a few good things—mostly Danish modern hand-me-downs from my mom, who had been an interior designer in Colorado. (That is, until she retired her shingle after one too many impossible-to-please clients.)
Somehow, faded ‘80s furniture was not going to do our new home justice. And moving day was in six weeks.
For the first time in our lives, Steve and I were embarking on a total home decorating adventure, with all the bells and whistles. There was never any doubt about which direction we’d go, style-wise—sleek and contemporary all the way. Most definitely my taste, and a pleasant change for Andy, many of whose clients prefer more traditional styles. Getting rid of heavy Venetian blinds in the living room was chief among Andy’s priorities. We decided on sleek verticals made from a fine mesh material.
There were a few things we had to do to the place itself—replacing old mahogany fronts on a living room built-in cabinet with cherry fronts, removing the mahogany from the top of the built-ins under our bedroom windows and putting down matte black laminate instead. The guys who did that work (Scott, Dick, Jack and Walt of Metrobuilt) also had built the fabulous bookshelves in the den, as well as doing all of the construction in the reconfiguring of the space for the previous owners.
Our painter, who goes by the name Oak, agreed with Andy and I that the existing colors in the living and dining room—white and cement—were perfect. But we decided to change the buttery color of the walls in the den, study and guest room to olive—a good blend with the existing woven gold carpet there. And the master bedroom went from off-white to lime, as we installed new grass-green loop carpeting in there.
Electricians came in to install recessed lighting in the den, wire the study for a ceiling fan and lighting sconces, and install outlets and switchplates around the place.
With the furniture, we were brutal. Not much made the trip with us. The pieces that did make the cut were sent to wood refinishers and/or the upholsterer. For instance, the hand-me-down contemporary dining table would accompany us. The ‘70s chrome and Naugahyde dining chairs would not.
And then I discovered (drum roll here)... the D.C. Design Center. I walked in those doors and knew I had found my destiny. Gobs of gorgeous furniture. Stacks of rugs and carpets. Racks and racks of upholstery samples. Heaven.
Steve’s office (the only room not getting the modern look) was the first and the easiest room we tackled. We bought Stanley home office furniture in the Sloane Square style, a soft cushy olive leather recliner-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-recliner and a couple more pieces to match. Done.
In the living room, we started with an outrageous sage long-shag carpeting—“Austin Powers” retro—we’d found in a showroom and had made into an area rug. It is the perfect contrast to the shiny marble floors in the living room. A light sage sofa, stainless steel coffee table and end table—all by Brueton—two angular swivel chairs, and a couple of marvelous large black ball-shaped ottomans completed the setting. We found two great sage-and-black fabrics to go on the swivels and my teak Danish modern chairs, which joined a Saarinen black marble table and black leather cab chairs at one end of the living room. Steve found the crowning touch—a black acrylic waterwall, made by a California artist.
We found more marvelous fabric for the guest bedroom, den couches and chairs. And then there was the lime green chenille with a “Jetsons”-type pattern that I just couldn’t let go. I thought it would be great as a headboard insert for the master bedroom.
Andy suggested I try my hand at designing that headboard. So, with George, Jane and Astro in mind, I came up with not only a headboard, but a mirror and bedside tables to boot. After Andy modified my designs to give them the right dimensions, the guys at Metrobuilt said they could make the stuff. They even introduced me to metal artist Donna Reinsel, who created Jetson-inspired metal accents and drawer pulls. Hey, this decorating gig was fun!
Then things started to get… interesting. Actually, the first sign that we had just moved from a low- to high-maintenance home came on our first day in our new locale. The previous owners had warned us about the black marble floor. Anything acidic—wine, orange juice, vinegar—that spilled on it would etch into the shiny surface, leaving a dull plop mark.
This would be the time to introduce the other two residents of our household, Cecil and Diesel—two very friendly, and very hairy—Norwegian Forest cats. Our first day in our new home, I heard that familar “ack, ack” feline announcement of a forthcoming hairball. Then, it hit me like a bolt of lightning—stomach acid! Suffice to say, there is more than one way a cat can mark his territory. We’ll be bringing in those marble floor refinishing guys any day now.
However, it was a variety of humans who caused the greater problems. Sure, there were the usual decorating horror stories of things ordered and promised for delivery in a few weeks, then not arriving for months. Who knew a desk lamp could take almost a year? But some of our issues even Andy declared “firsts” in his years of experience.
Like the over-industrious electrician. Wanting to prove he did handyman work on the side, he took it upon himself to install shelves on a den wall, something our longtime, very reliable contractor Joe Milio was scheduled to do. We ended up with overdrilled holes in the wall, wobbly shelves, and big fat pencil lines all over the new paint. Back came Oak the painter. And then the real deal, Joe.
Then there was the day I got the call from the wood-refinishing guys. Seems after they’d picked up the old furniture for refinishing, someone had stolen a footstool off the back of the truck. They tracked down the original manufacturer, who told them he no longer made that item. But they promised to find another that would match the armchair, which now was going in the guest bedroom. They made good on their promise, and their work was terrific.
The upholstery was an entirely different story. The reupholstered stuff came back lumpy, bumpy, and pulling at the seams. I’d been referred to this guy (who will go unnamed) by the friend of a friend of a friend. Apparently, he was just starting out in the upholstery business. He had a long way to go. So, apparently, did I. Back to square one.
Andy called his guy, Perry, at Warden Upholstery in Ijamsville, outside of Frederick. Perry said he could redo it, but we’d have to reorder all the fabric, and we’d have to wait until he finished his current job at the Japanese Embassy in D.C. He was most definitely worth the wait. He even found someone who had the same 1950s Danish teak chairs, and measured the size of the original seat cushions to keep the dimensions of ours authentic.
The black sisal dining room rug arrived too small. The folks at the showroom used our first guess-timate, and not the actual measurements we faxed in. They ate it. We reordered.
Those mesh verticals? Not quite as sleek as they were supposed to be. The fabric had obviously been stretched as it had been cut, leaving wavy edges. It was one time when Andy was more upset than I. Somehow, it didn’t bother me so much. Then Mom came to visit and said she liked how the edges softened the overall effect. The verticals stayed. Andy and I breathed a short-lived sigh of relief.
When electrician No. 2 came to install the study’s ceiling fan and lighting sconces (the “handyman” experience had cured us of electrician No. 1), he informed us that electrician No. 1 had put in the wrong kind of wiring. Electrician No. 1 came back to redo the job. Then came the fateful “uh, Sloane, I think there’s a little problem,” as he pointed to a big slash in the middle of the study’s carpet. Nearest we can guess, he’d used his electrical saw to cut through the drywall, then set it down—still running—on the floor. There was no way to repair the gaping wool wound. I was heartsick. Electrical company No. 1’s insurance company ended up contributing new carpeting to the latter half of the house. We chose a black and olive wool berber.
Of all his clients, Andy says we probably claim the top slot for the number of disasters. However, we also are front-runners in decorating an entire home in record time. Most everything was in place within a year.
That’s when we turned to Baltimore-based art dealer Tommy Segal to help us find black-and-white abstract pieces. His enthusiasm was contagious, his honesty and knowledge beyond compare. He set up a budget and found us a wonderful collection.
Cecil and Diesel continue their ongoing decorating projects. If it’s not the marble splotches, then it’s the constant clumps of cat hair livening up all our dark carpet and upholstery. Although, in that way, they have been able to help Steve with his regular workouts. He goes running around our high-maintenance house—vacuum in hand—any time we’re expecting company.
Was the journey worth it? You bet. We love it here. It’s better than we ever dreamed. After almost three years, we sometimes still pinch ourselves.
Sloane Brown writes the “Table Talk” restaurant column and is society reporter for The Sun. Her “On The Town” reports air on WLIF Radio, and she designs and creates jewelry for her Sloane Brown Designs line.