Home Tour: Born-Again Victorian

<< Back to Robb Report, February 2002
  • Christian Gulliksen

Carl D’Aquino knows the owners of the 1895 Pennsylvania country house well; he has, after all, decorated 11 other houses for the best-selling author and her businessman husband over the last two decades. And while period decor figured heavily in each of their previous residences, this time they envisioned something completely different. “This is a country house,” says D’Aquino, “and they wanted an almost modern interior with fresh, clean lines. They didn’t want valuable antiques.”

The soft Hamptons style the owners desired didn’t come naturally to the house, which had been converted into a bed-and-breakfast. Typical of a fin-de-siècle house with Queen Anne and Victorian motifs, an abundance of dark paneling made the spacious interiors claustrophobic and, D’Aquino notes, the house had “gone to rack and ruin.” But the bones were good. “We loved the detailing and the stone from local quarries—the exterior walls are 20 inches thick,” says the New York– based designer. “There is tremendous history to the building.” So before its aesthetic transformation could begin, D’Aquino and his partner Francine Monaco had to oversee a complete structural renovation.

In the process, much of the woodwork was replaced, the new wide-plank floors were ebonized, and the paneling was painted a crisp white. D’Aquino then achieved a breezy Hamptons effect with an array of sisal, muslin, and linen and a subdued palette of putties and green-tinted yellows. “It’s all quite natural,” he says.

For the first time in his career, D’Aquino was also asked to create the majority of the furniture and lighting.  “I decorate full projects, but to design each piece is wonderful,” he says. “There is a sleek contemporary feel to the lines, but also a reference to and a reverence for the classical setting.” While some furnishings, all in ebonized cherry with limestone tops, are clearly modern, others suggest antique origins. This is due in large part to their varied inspiration: An old suspension bridge near the house suggested the dining room console’s contemporary form, while D’Aquino based a curvilinear bookcase in the wife’s study on an Irish original.

The seamless blend of old and new is best exemplified in the relationship between the modern lighting and design elements consistent with the house’s vintage. Groupings of square hanging lamps coexist with a stained-glass window in the upstairs landing and with high-backed Charles Rennie Mackintosh–style chairs in the study. A stylized floor lamp in the library appears utterly consistent with the delft tile surrounding the fireplace.

The couple own a significant art collection but chose to keep it in another residence. In this house, the furniture takes center stage and becomes the art. The exception is the interior’s most striking piece: a 19th-century cast of Canova’s The Three Graces. “Someone else might have said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t have this naked statue in my living room,’ ” says D’Aquino. But the owners didn’t blink when he suggested bringing indoors the sculpture that had rested beneath a pergola on their previous estate. “They are creative and have a sense of humor,” he says, pointing out the crystal ball in the living room’s chandelier. “It’s exciting to collaborate with clients who want your best and draw it out of you.”

The house just might be a metaphorical bridge between the couple’s traditional past and their thoroughly modern future. D’Aquino is already at work on an all-white apartment for them. “I’ve never done an all-white project before,” he says, “and it’s in Miami, of all places.”

Christian Gulliksen is an associate editor with The Robb Report Collection, the new supplement to Robb Report that focuses on real estate, home design, and automobiles.

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