Arrangements in Gray and White

March 6, 2012

Text by Stacy Kunstel    Photography by Laura Moss

A gray mist holds just above the thawing ground on this chilly spring morning in New England. Coffee in hand, Nancy Ross draws the collar of her gray cashmere sweater more snugly around her neck and brushes back a strand of thick, silvery hair.

The walls of her Dublin, New Hampshire, home are painted a gray matching the weather outside, but there’s no chill here, just serene simplicity. Room after room, gray walls and white slipcovered chairs make up her entire palette.

Accessories are treasured pieces in shades of gray as well. Hotel silver fills a corner cabinet in the living room, and mercury glass glints from the mantel. Lavender-filled sachets of gray linen in ironstone bowls are scattered in the rooms, wafting a summery scent of laundry on the line throughout the house.

Even though the days have grown longer and less frigid, Ross still lights some candles and asks her husband, Larry, to bring in wood for a small fire. Firelight projects its glow, and warmth spreads to the kitchen with its gray cabinets; to the family room, where a gray armoire holds the television; and on to the gray corbels that rest on bookcases in the study.

Ross has had a long love affair with gray, but this marks the first time she’s been able to incorporate the color so fully into her home. This 1847 farmhouse is her thirty-eighth house with Larry, a retired Army colonel. “Gray and white have been on my mind for the past fifteen years,” she says.

Of those thirty-eight homes, none had gray interiors, not even her last New Hampshire house, a huge rambler done in blue and white. Over the years, the couple resided mostly in military housing with white walls. Anything painted a color had to be returned to white before they left, and, as Ross will tell you, military families sometimes have to leave in a hurry.

Complementing the sea of gray is a collection of primly tailored cotton-denim and vintage French-linen slipcovers. Ross had each made to her specifications: a row of vintage buttons marches down the sides of the dining chair covers, a stiff welt defines the edges of the living room’s ottoman, and a chaise in the master bedroom wears a loose, comfortable-looking cover. “My grandmother and my mother always slipcovered furniture,” says Ross. “If you grew up with it, you just hold onto it. My mother would put out summer and winter colors. I just do white.”

Since before it was the rage, became passé and reemerged as a classic, Ross has been slipcovering furniture. But it wasn’t until she started working for Jocie Sinauer that her love of vintage linens took hold. Sinauer’s store, Red Chair on Warren, which moved last summer from New Hampshire to Hudson, New York, specializes in vintage French textiles. Enamored with the look, feel and even the smell of the homespun linens, Ross started covering her furniture in the century-old pieces.

“It’s a different look,” she says. “I love the look of linen. I just throw it in the washer and dryer too. Vintage linen holds up fine.”

Besides the linen-covered furniture, Ross has stitched vintage linen sheets into shower curtains and drapery panels. She sleeps on full-size vintage linen sheets and dresses the guest rooms’ beds with old linens and vintage duvets in French ticking. Then there are the pillows in all shapes and sizes, sometimes offering faded shots of color in blues or reds. Every pillow in the house is covered in vintage linen. “I don’t know how I describe my style,” she says. “I don’t think it’s European. I don’t think it’s Shabby Chic. Retro?” she asks. “How about clean?”

Simple as sorbet, her gray interiors are like a palette cleanser between courses.

Specifically, Ross loves Benjamin Moore’s Classic Gray, the color she and Larry chose for the walls. “It was the first time I’d done gray on the walls,” she says. “I’d always liked it. It was just a question of which gray would work. I felt this gray suited the house.”

The couple arrived at the hue by painting pieces of poster board and hanging them on the wall next to one another for a few days at a time so they could see how the colors changed with the light. “There were grays that looked mauve in the evening and others that were just too cold,” she explains. “My gray is very light.”

It’s a far cry from the colors they found in the house when they bought it in 2007. The fireplace mantel was painted burgundy, surrounded by orange tile and pinkish brick. “I’d never seen brick that color!” says Ross. She painstakingly scraped and painted the mantel, but there was no hope for the tile and brick, so she had them covered with slate.

The couple took on other projects, too, including refinishing all the floors in the house and adding an enclosed porch equipped with a woodstove. Ross, who has no formal design training, reimagined the kitchen, gutting it down to the studs and reconfiguring the layout and cabinetry. Thick layers of linoleum and tar paper were torn up and a new floor installed.

She made just one misstep in the journey to completion. Though she’d never had dark walls, Ross wanted a dark gray for the study. She watched in horror as the paint went up, knowing she had made the wrong choice. But she quickly rebounded with Benjamin Moore’s Westcott Navy, which at first glance appears to be a deep charcoal but then melts into the woolliest of navy blues. “The library is a cozy little room,” she says. “It’s a delightful place to go to be quiet.”

It’s almost magical, the way a design plan so simple can result in a house so endlessly appealing. There’s nothing ornate here, no one thing that makes a statement. Following her instincts, Ross wisely let her serene non-color scheme do the talking. And what it says turns out to be quietly compelling. •