Feature: A Matter of Scale
Eric Johnston, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, once warned American businesses about the dangers of excessive growth. “The dinosaur’s eloquent lesson,” he said, “is that if some bigness is good, an overabundance of bigness is not necessarily better.” A Westchester County, N.Y., couple might well have had that observation in mind when they acquired a 10,000-square-foot brick Colonial and commissioned Penny Drue Baird to design its interiors.
When they bought the house, however, they wanted to decorate the interiors to suit their casual lifestyle and to make the sprawling spaces and high ceilings appear less colossal. “The whole place was painted linen white inside,” says the wife, “so it looked huge.”
“They wanted an elegant home, but they didn’t want it to be overly formal in a way that made them feel they couldn’t use it,” says Baird, who founded her Manhattan interior design firm, Dessins, in 1985. “They wanted to avoid the feeling of don’t look, don’t touch.” Baird, whose company specializes in designing the interiors of grand estates, says, “Even for me, it was overwhelming. It was so vast and so white; the volumes were enormous.”
Baird began addressing the scale of the spaces by studying the walls. The two-story foyer, with its elegant, semicircular staircase, remained white. “It had to stay neutral,” she explains. “You can’t have an entrance that’s that big and have it [also] be colorful.” In fact, Baird decided to showcase the grandeur of the foyer by crowning it with a 19th-century, double-tiered crystal chandelier, acquired from New York antiques dealer Carlos de la Puente, and by hanging a 19th-century French painted mirror on one of the walls.
Throughout the rest of the home, Baird employed color to de-emphasize the magnitude of the spaces. The living room, dining room, and family room—which all have 10-foot ceilings—are visible from the foyer and required complementary colors. “I had to tie them together in some way,” says the designer, “but I didn’t want them to scream at you.” She selected an earthy palette of beige, soft gold, terra-cotta, teal, and wood tones, and she chose a different dominant color for each room. The living room features teal walls, the family room has wood-panel wallpaper, and the dining room contains a neoclassical mural that blends all of the colors. “The color scheme makes the rooms feel more livable,” says Baird. “They’re not primary colors, but they’re clear and strong and they have a dusty, smoky feeling that makes it more cozy.”
The living room—which measures 281¼2 feet by 19 feet—has a fireplace with a gouache by Fernand Léger hanging above it. Baird wanted to create a small seating arrangement that would make the room appear less massive, but grouping the furniture around the fireplace would leave much of the area unused. To better utilize the space, she positioned a custom-designed ottoman in the center of the room and placed seating on either side of it. She also selected furniture covered with subtly patterned velvet chenille, which is invitingly soft. “It has a duller finish that’s not as dressy as silk,” says Baird, “so it makes you want to sink into the furniture.”
For the master bedroom, along the window wall, Baird designed cabinetry that, she says, appears to shorten the distance between the bed and the fireplace. She then placed the headboard of the bed in a recessed alcove, an architectural element that downplays the Brobdingnagian immensity of the suite. Baird selected a design scheme that would appeal to both the husband and the wife. “Especially in a master bedroom, you want a cross between masculine and feminine,” she says. “The mustardy gold color is more masculine, while the furnishings and fabrics are more feminine.”
To Baird, the banquet-hall proportions of the dining room and its gargantuan mahogany table that seats 14 seemed more appropriate for a state dinner than a family gathering. She added crown moldings to make the ceiling appear lower and altered an existing neoclassical landscape mural that wraps around the room. Although panoramic in scope, it nevertheless creates an ambience of intimacy.
Baird maintained the elegance of the residence while taming the vastness of the rooms, creating livable, comfortable spaces that suit the family’s lifestyle. Indeed, one could say the eloquent lesson of the dinosaur was applied masterfully in the interior design scheme of this estate.