A 1920s New Canaan Cottage Receives a Contemporary FaceliftText by Debra Judge Silber Photography by Tria Giovan Produced by Stacy Kunstel
Designer Shelley Morris is up front. “My clients work harder than anybody else’s clients,” she says, without a hint of apology. In her opinion, a client’s involvement is a prerequisite for a successful design. Morris will lead, counsel, educate, and advise, but after that, she says, she wants the person who will be living in the home to make the choices. “I don’t make decisions for them. They have to go out into the world with me, and I work with what they respond to.”
When Morris says “go out into the world,” she means exactly that. For this designer, having clients accompany her on excursions through Connecticut and New York sourcing rugs, furniture, art, and accessories for their homes is not just fun and interesting. It’s non-negotiable. “I don’t accept that they won’t go,” she says. “I tell them that before they sign on the dotted line.”
It’s not something everyone would sign up for. But Patty Coughlin did. The longtime Greenwich real estate agent discovered the designer online, even though Morris’s business, Shelley Morris Interiors, is based in New Canaan. She was impressed by Morris’s transparency and inspired by her emphasis on client involvement. Most of all, Coughlin says, “I loved the fact that not all of her houses looked the same.”
Twenty years in real estate had introduced Coughlin to some of the most distinctive homes Fairfield County had to offer, and she herself owned a lovely condo in Greenwich. But, she says, “I always dreamed of having a sweet little cottage.” When some family members relocated to New Canaan, she found herself spending time in the town, beguiled by its openness and charm. Her decision to join them was sealed when she walked into the 1920s cottage with the diamond-paned windows, second-floor balconies, and spacious combined living and dining room. “It just felt like home,” Coughlin says.
Lovely though it was, the place needed sprucing up. She revived the exterior by replacing the aging balconies and adding copper gutters and a new wood-shingle roof. Then she called in FORM Ltd. of Greenwich, a firm she knew from her real estate practice, to attend to the dark and dated interior.
“It had a lot more of a traditional look,” says FORM partner and design chief John Leontiou. “We modified it to make it more updated and contemporary.” They started in the kitchen, flipping its orientation for a more efficient use of space, and then expanding the opening into the den. In the den, they added a zero-clearance fireplace flanked by bookshelves and raised the ceiling, giving character to exposed structural beams by cladding them in reclaimed barn wood. In the living room, they converted the wood-burning fireplace to gas and replaced two small windows with a larger one, brightening the space. The front foyer got a black-and-white harlequin tile floor. Upstairs, they enlarged the master closet and reworked the layout in the bathroom, adding an elegant freestanding tub.
The completed alterations shifted the interior in a lighter, brighter direction, but there was one critical surface still to be reclaimed: the narrow-strip red-oak floors that Coughlin assumed she’d replace with a similar product. Morris swiftly intervened. “She’s like, ‘Stop! Come to my house and look at my floors,’ ” Coughlin says. She did, and realized immediately what her easy-breezy house needed: wide-plank, glazed flooring of character-grade white oak. “That’s the thing that changed the house the most,” she says. “It lightens up the entire home and gives it a different feel.”
Morris knew it would. What she refers to as the envelope—the ceiling, walls, and floors—is critical to the finished look. She determines the colors and textures of those surfaces first.
Once they are established, she inventories her client’s existing pieces and sets them in a floor plan, striving for balance, but not necessarily symmetry. “Symmetry can be boring,” she says. “It’s nice to have things that are a little unexpected.”
Similarly, she likes to combine pieces that relate in color, shape, or texture, but differ enough to create visual interest. “I try to find things that speak to one another but are also in contrast, pieces that create a sense of harmony but at the same time create energy.”
Choosing those pieces, she reiterates, is up to the client—including Coughlin, who found Morris’s treasure hunts the highlight of the process. Morris took her shopping in her favorite Connecticut locations—Avery & Dash in Stamford for furniture, Westport’s Bungalow and Swoon for accessories—along with a New York outing to hit Brooklyn and TriBeCa. She introduced Coughlin to the work of artist Paul Balmer, whose paintings are found throughout the house. “I fell in love with his artwork. It’s interesting, bright, and happy, just what I wanted this house to be,” Coughlin says.
She admits she wasn’t certain quite what she wanted in her new home, but she knew she was finished with formality. “I was honestly up for anything,” she says. “I just wanted it to look relaxed, a little funky, and the opposite of what I was coming from. Every day when I walk in here, I want it to feel like a vacation.”
And as is often the case when having fun, Coughlin found herself making choices she might not have made under more sober circumstances. Case in point: her home office, where Morris urged her to retreat from the overall aesthetic in favor of a richer, more contemplative space. “She said, ‘Trust me, it’s going to look great,’ and I did trust her,” Coughlin says. The room, painted a glossy Farrow & Ball gray, is now her favorite.
The designer is just as happy with the results as the homeowner. “She was open-minded and up for a challenge, for something new and different,” Morris says of the client who dared sign on the dotted line. “She really wanted it to be a creative journey for her. And that’s what it turned into.”
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