INTERVIEW WITH HAVILANDE WHITCOMB, HAVILANDE WHITCOMB DESIGN & ROB SANDERS, ROB SANDERS ARCHITECTS
How did the clients find you?
Havilande Whitcomb: I had a project in Wilton that was featured in a magazine. It was a new build that included a building that looked like an old barn. Inside the barn was a personal art gallery that was very modern, and I think it was this combination that caught the clients’ eye. Those are the lucky moments, when the right person sees something. They’re a young couple with children, moving here from Brooklyn, and I was delighted that they wanted to take on an old house.
Rob Sanders: I had done a fairly extensive renovation on the house ten years before for the prior owners. We did the kitchen, some bedrooms and baths, the family room and the loft office as part of that project. When the prior owners sold the home to these clients, they referred them to me.
This house must have taught quite a history lesson.
RS: The fairly ancient front part dates back to the mid-1700s, and the kitchen/bedroom wing dates back to the late 1800s. The previous owners renovated in 1982 when they moved in, and then we came in in the early 2000s.
HW: There was a lot of adding on over the years, as often happens. There is so much history in a house like this, so we carefully decided what we wanted to keep, what we wanted to restore, what we wanted to replace and what we wanted to add. When you start peeling away layers, you find things like old wallpaper, layers of paint of all different colors and periods, and newspapers stuffed into walls. It makes you very aware of a home’s history.
What changes did you end up making?
RS: We renovated the ancient part of the house, which hadn’t been done before. We removed a small stairway, which allowed us to create the master suite upstairs, and we purged some of the bad ideas from the ’80s, like wagon-wheel half-round windows and odd cathedral ceilings. We carefully replaced the windows—they’re indiscernible from the original historic ones—and we made the fireplaces work. We focused on enhancing the historical parts of the house, and there was this wonderful dialogue between old and new that we worked with Havilande and the clients to create.
HW: It was a great collaborative process—we wanted to be very respectful of the architectural character of the house. For the base, casings and doors, we decided which ones we were going to go with. We also unified different architectural elements with finishes and color. We knew our color would be in the artwork, fabrics and rugs, so we went with light walls and warm gray trim. There were raw wood timbers, old stone pieces, old oak flooring of varying widths and lengths, and ceilings of different heights, so it was about making transitions smoother. We knew that if we could get all of that really quiet and let the architecture speak for itself, then whatever we put in it would be able to stand by itself.
What look and feel were the clients after?
HW: I think it was character and soul that the clients were looking for, but I would definitely characterize them as modernists. When they first approached me, it was, “Can we do something in an old home that would feel like us?” The husband is a musician who has guitars, they have some very interesting artwork, they like color, they have photographs of the Rolling Stones and Blondie. When I saw how they were living in Brooklyn, it gave me a strong sense of who they were. They wanted to be in a family neighborhood in a comfortable house where everybody could run around and feel relaxed. The loft they had been in had been somewhat industrial, and she specifically said, “I’m not really into ‘glam.’ I want curated things, but not in that particular direction.” As we were looking at things, that reminded me to circle back to our point of view. When we put new things in the house, it was about whether or not they felt like they should be there. Every detail was considered.
Were any existing pieces brought over from their loft?
HW: Other than the bed and the big chest of drawers in the master bedroom, all of the furniture was new. Some of it was vintage, restored or recovered; some of the wood pieces are Tucker Robbins. In this case, we wanted to have a few references to old things—for example, in the dining room, the new Maxine Snider chairs have a vertical style on the back that looks like it’s making a reference to something old, but it very clearly has cleaner lines than that. Everything needed to have a clean line but be crafted, handmade or have materials that looked like they were made by hand, not manufactured in a factory. Lighting in particular was something we had to think very carefully about. It’s attached to the house, so it’s not the same as an accessory or a piece of furniture. We chose some new fixtures, and we wanted more modern shapes yet not take it too far into “glam.”
Did you need to tackle the flooring?
HW: That was something we worked on a lot. In a house like this, the floors can be different ages, and there was reclaimed wood in the most recent addition. We worked with New England Custom Floors to unify and refinish them. We matched the reclaimed wood and put in new reclaimed wood in two areas where the old floors were in bad shape. Before all of the furniture went in, the floors were crazy-looking in a way. There was a moment of panic, like “We’re going to have to stain everything dark because nothing is going to match.” But New England Custom Floors worked with us to neutralize the tannin in the oak, and once we did that, we thought, “This is so cool.” When the clients saw all of the character in the wood that came out during that process, they really loved it, which was great—some people wouldn’t have liked how un-uniform it is.
The entrance to the home is so striking, too.
HW: When we picked the front door color, I suggested that we look at historic colors, since a lot of them are really strong and bright. This color came from the Mount Vernon Collection from Fine Paints of Europe, and we loved the idea of having a white Colonial with a bright blue door. If you’re driving by, it gives you a hint of what might come inside, because I don’t think you would expect an interior like this if you saw the old house. The foyer wallcovering is from an English firm, and I loved the hot pink/magenta color with the antler pattern. Strong pink is one of the colors the clients love; it’s used in a few spots, and little touches of it go into adjacent rooms.
The blue library tells quite a story as well.
HW: This room is one of the smaller rooms. It’s also probably one of the oldest original rooms in the house that’s intact, and we added bookcases and paneling to unify it. We wanted this kind of French blue on the walls, so knowing we had this color idea, we went looking for slightly irreverent things, slightly funky color combinations, for furniture and fabrics. I love how the rug is grounded in this, the way it references older, original patterns, and it has touches of yellow, orange and pink along with dark blue. We found some really cool vintage pieces as well.
I love the game table off of the living room!
HW: This area had been a porch, then an enclosed porch, and now it’s part of the room, and those vertical timbers in the living room were the edge of the old house. Since this area was long and narrow, the clients said, “We’ve always wanted a shuffleboard table—it’s the perfect space.” I went looking for shuffleboard table makers and found one at Boutique Design New York. They do a version with modern lines and those cool legs, and we chose the finishes. The clients love to have friends over, and it’s so much fun to play.
Did you renovate the kitchen?
HW: It was refurbished and given a facelift. The layout and quality of the cabinets were good, and the previous owner had been a professional cook, so the appliances were good quality as well; we just wanted to freshen the feeling of the space. It was ivory, brown and hunter green before, so we painted it white and black, added the black-and-white tile and changed the cabinet hardware. The middle island has a white marble top, and the white cabinets now have black countertops. We left the other island with the wood countertop, as it went with the floors.
Are the kitchen, breakfast nook and family room open to each other?
HW: Yes, and a lot of these colors had to speak to each other. The clients definitely wanted some color, and I took cues from their artwork. That little print over the banquette? That was an influence on the colors here. The custom sectional in the family room was made for that area because it’s a long, narrow room, and there’s not even a coffee table because the kids are playing there all the time.
Tell me about the master bedroom.
HW: This room is above the living room, so it’s a long space. We had those comfy reading chairs made and found those vintage nightstand lamps from Irwin Feld, which can stand up to that dramatic bed. The Rosemary Hallgarten alpaca panels are really simple window treatments, and there’s a bit of purple in the room, and a bit of softness, with the black and white. The artwork above the fireplace is pretty funky and cool, and when I first met them and fell in love with their artwork, I thought, “OK, so we’re moving into this 1760s house. This is really interesting.” I think that image says a lot about them.
What is your takeaway from this project?
HW: I really got a strong sense of satisfaction that comes from caring for something old and interpreting it for a young family who really cared about it and was involved in the process and all of the careful decisions we made along the way. Having a great architect and builder helped everything go pretty smoothly. The clients told me that when their friends have come over to see them since they moved, they say, “Oh my gosh, this feels so much like you.” Hearing that really meant a lot to me.
Interior designer: Havilande Whitcomb Design, Westport; 203-227-7902; hwdesignllc.com
Architect: Rob Sanders Architects, Wilton; 203-761-0144; rsarchct.com
Contractor: Kettle Ridge Construction, Bridgewater; 860-799-7149; kettleridgeconstruction.com
Floors: New England Custom Floors, Westport; 203-227-2819; newenglandcustomfloors.com
Painter: Castano Painting, 203-918-1453