This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
“People hire designers to bring together all the seemingly disparate parts of their lives,” says Shelia Bridges. “And to bring them together in a way that makes sense.” The Harlem-based interior designer faced such a challenge a few years ago, when a New York couple with two young children hired her to decorate their Victorian townhouse near Gramercy Park. The husband and wife, who are both from New England, own vintage American pieces but find themselves drawn to Art Deco and modern styles. They are in possession of a superb art collection which includes works by Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn and Le Corbusier. “Like so many people,” Bridges says, “who these clients are is a combination of what they grew up with and what they discovered for themselves.”
Not only did she need to integrate the couple’s collections into a seamless whole; she had to make the stately townhouse suitable for families. Guests had fallen in love with the marble fireplaces, high ceilings, and French windows that invite sunlight into the living room and dining room. Yet the innate grandeur of the houses did not entirely suit their lifestyle as young parents; it was built in 1857 for a state Supreme Court justice, who no doubt amused himself with a formality encouraged by the rigid, square divisions of the rooms. Architect David Hottenroth reconfigured the first floor layout, knocking down the walls between the living room and dining room and opening up the dining room to the kitchen. The result was a spacious canvas on which Bridges could work. “For me, the goal was to make it beautiful but also livable and comfortable,” she says. “These are the kind of parents who want their home to be accessible to their children. They want them to take advantage of all the spaces.
Bridges is known for fusing tradition – she’s never encountered a scratch she didn’t like – with a contemporary sensibility and carefully measured edginess. (A good example of this unorthodox sensibility: her cheerful, witty wallpaper pattern titled Harlem Toile de Jouy.) She had the living room painted a bold, cheerful yellow. “It’s fresh and young and unexpected,” she says. “It’s not what you typically see when walking into someone’s townhouse.” A Belgian mahogany bar cabinet and Austrian armchairs are a nod to the couple’s love for decor; even a contemporary zebra coffee table evokes a 1930s Faubourg Saint-Germain living room. At the same time, Bridges upholstered a matching sofa and chairs she found on 1stdibs with a vivid pattern of circles and squares. “When the set arrived it was upholstered in a brown velvet which felt heavy and heavy. I love how the geometry plays with the Deco theme.
The dining room is relatively understated, with muted pops of color and pattern: yellow and blue striped silk curtains, hand-painted floor rug of abstract clover leaves, matching chairs of own design by Bridges in a pale blue botanical print. Still, it’s comfy enough for kids to play or do homework at the dining table while parents cook – and these designs hide kid-induced spills. “We kept it all scooped up,” Bridges says with a laugh.
Bridges embraces eclecticism but understands the importance of keeping the various elements from clashing. For this home, she limited potential chaos by using a consistent color palette and subtly repeating textures and details from floor to floor. Shimmering mercury glass appears in an arrangement of antique bottles on 19th-century cabinets in the dining room and again in a pair of lamps she chose for the master bedroom’s sitting area.
Consistency doesn’t preclude surprises, however. Bridges wanted to introduce some vitality into the dressing room and convinced the owners to let her cover the walls in a hand-painted mural of Central Park, with recognizable buildings, set against a brilliant blue sky. “It adds a lot of fun,” she says.
Another unexpected touch is the second-floor library, which looks like a classic men’s club, with polished mahogany paneling and antique leather club chairs. Here, the palette shifts to gray, brown, and red. The husband works at an Irish writing table, circa 1840. Bridges designed a sofa upholstered in rust-colored wool, and the floor-to-ceiling curtains are a bold Regency stripe. “The idea was to create a bit of formality,” she says. “There’s something about this stripe that’s masculine without being over the top. They are not the kind of people who want things to look overly decorated. I don’t think people who want that hire me.