All in Good Fun
A colorful new look for a penthouse in an old Boston townhouse is just right for a young couple on the verge of becoming a mom and dad.
If relocating to Boston from Paris didn’t offer enough in the way of culture shock, Kelly and David-Alexandre Gros were just days away from becoming first-time parents when they moved into their Back Bay condominium. One thing that didn’t add to the pressure, luckily, was the redesign of their penthouse unit in a nineteenth-century townhouse. Interior designer Rachel Reider took on that task, with a four-month deadline to bring the condo up to date and give it the youthful, family-friendly look and feel her clients had in mind.
Reider seemed a natural for this particular project. The mother of two small children herself, she has plenty of firsthand knowledge of how to create a space that suits grown-up sensibilities while being practical for little ones. And as a young designer (she was one of New England Home’s “5 Under 40” winners not long ago), she gravitates almost instinctively to colorful, lively interiors.
Reider asked the couple to leaf through magazines and identify spaces that appealed to them. “I always ask clients to pull images that resonate,” she says. “A picture really is worth a thousand words. I can see themes emerge—things they might not vocalize, but that are important to them.”
With Kelly and David-Alexandre, she says, “I got a sense that they wanted their home to be sophisticated, but fun, a little bit edgy.”
At the same, time, however, they appreciated the historic nature of their building. “We wanted to keep as much of the old as possible,” Kelly says. “We kept the old woodwork and moldings and some of the original windows, with their beautiful wavy glass.”
The unit was in good shape, Reider says, with many of its original architectural details intact. The kitchen and baths needed modernizing, the old floors with their horsehair insulation were due for replacement, and updated electrical and heating systems were a must, but the floor plan needed just a tweak or two. The rooms were also graced with high ceilings and blessed with plenty of natural light.
Having come from a home in which neutrals predominated, Kelly and David-Alexandre were up for experimenting with a bolder palette. Reider introduced that boldness gradually, beginning with the dining room. With its location just inside the entry, this space gives visitors their first impression of the home, the designer explains. And a stunning first impression it is, beginning with the 1950s Baccarat chandelier that once hung in David-Alexandre’s grandmother’s house in Grenoble, France. “We knew it was going to play an important role, but because their taste isn’t overly traditional or formal, I wanted to pair it with something more casual in feel,” Reider says. The thick wooden slab of a dining-table top strikes just the right balance. The square table sits on a silky shag rug in a silvery hue that pops against the new, dark-stained floors. Chairs with what Reider calls “a French feel” are upholstered in plush purple leather. Reider kept the walls quiet, covering the space above the white wainscoting with grasscloth in pale gray with subtle blue undertones. A large, framed photograph by Simon Procter, with its depiction of a woman outfitted in a couture gown astride a rearing horse, adds a final touch to the room’s old-new feeling.
A wide doorway opens to the living room, where the boldness factor amps up a notch. A sofa with exaggerated tufting (“sort of a modernized Chesterfield,” says Reider), clad in cobalt-blue velvet, joins a pair of chairs outfitted in fuchsia fabric. All three pieces cozy up to a metal cocktail table molded in the shape and texture of a tree trunk. Overhead hangs a custom light fixture whose multiple, flexible metal arms sport raw filament bulbs. The fixture, with its variable-length arms, solved the problem of a ceiling medallion that isn’t quite centered above the seating arrangement, Reider says. To keep the jewel tones from overwhelming the space, Reider treated the tall bay windows to draperies in a warm-hued but sheer and slightly shimmery fabric. The space is further grounded by a Tibetan rug with the barest hints of blues, grays, and plums in its raised damask pattern.
Another door in the dining room—this one covered in brilliant-blue leather studded with brass nailheads—opens to a den that takes the vivid palette a giant step forward. Bright-blue grasscloth covers the walls, and Reider replaced traditional bookcases with floating shelves that hold David-Alexandre’s collection of antique books. “Because they don’t take away from the footprint of the room, the shelves keep the space airy,” Reider says. The room has fun with texture as well as color; the mohair sofa is the color of a candy apple, a brass-framed chair is covered in white flokati fur, and a plush woven rug is soft underfoot. For even more texture, Reider added the cowhide ottoman/coffee table. Her clients, she says, “are a little nervous about pattern, so this helped break up the solid colors in a way they would feel comfortable with.” An abstract painting by Kansas City artist John Ochs pulls the whole room together.
Every room has a starting point, Reider says, and for the kitchen it was the black Bertazzoni stove that the couple fell for. Pale-gray cabinets and a glass-tile backsplash reflect the room’s abundant natural light. Kitchen designer Donna Venegas conceived the island with its burnished metal base and butcher-block rosewood top.
Kelly says her favorite spot in the house might well be the kitchen’s sunny banquette, but it’s a safe bet the baby’s room is a close second. A blue-velvet-covered Louis XV daybed—another heirloom from her husband’s family—makes a comfy perch for a bit of bedtime reading to her one-year-old son. A sheepskin rug layered atop one of sisal is also a favorite spot for both mother and baby. “I like it for the aesthetic,” says Kelly, “but he loves it to play on. We roll around on that rug all day.” •
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