What happens when a client purchases a traditional home, with traditional architectural details and a traditional layout, but then requests an interior design style that is modern? (Quite likely the client will also insist that there be no gut renovation to modernize the architectural shell.) And yet, the client craves something modern! We know the technical definition of “modern” is “relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past as opposed to the remote past.” So what happens when your client is sentimentally attached to her inherited antiques, loves her brown wood furniture, and still wants modern? How do you play both sides of this seemingly incompatible game, and yet come out with a winner?
The answer is: carefully!
Wisdom and folklore say, “Get the architectural envelope correct, and the rest will fall into place.” But if you are not allowed to gut the premises, consider these less surgical and more palatable alterations to the envelope.
Remove the curvaceous crown moldings, window and door casings and replace them with simpler, stepped, or squared off versions to simplify the lines or remove the moldings and casings completely. You can also square off the door and window surrounds, which can be constructed of drywall and corner bead.
If this is too radical, simply paint. By joining the moldings and the walls together with a single paint color and a single finish, a modern effect will be achieved. For example, paint the walls, crowns, casings and baseboards entirely with a high-gloss Swiss coffee white. The effect will be crisp and unified and the gloss will offer up a sleek, urban touch.
Dramatic opposites speak modern as well. So a glossy wall and molding contrasted with a wooden floor in a completely matte tone introduce a surprising contemporary flair. There exist resilient matte floor finishes in the newer porcelain tiles. These tiles appear in matte woodgrain, matte terrazzo, matte limestone, and my favorite, matte grass cloth textures. These matte tiles come in huge sizes, up to 48 by 48 inches, which avoid the telltale grout lines, and help broaden the floor’s visual expanse. On the plus side, one of their strengths is that they are indestructible; on the other hand, which I find to be a negative, they never develop a patina.
Lighting and lighting fixtures are another means to a modern look. Replacing the old incandescent spots in the recessed ceiling fixtures with LEDs will give an updated feel. The light quality will instantly transform to a crisper tone with less amber tints, and surfaces will sharpen, taking on a slightly edgier feel. Replacing older, candle-style sconces and chandeliers with newer, modern fixtures made in sleeker metal and glass styles will instantly alter the architectural shell perhaps more dramatically than any other replacement.
For bathrooms and kitchens, the modernizing of the lavatory sets and the sink faucet goes a long way for an updated ambiance, especially since you use them so frequently.
But what to do with those forlorn English antiques that appear so formal and stiff in their overly polite appearance?
In reality, English antiques, particularly the Hepplewhite and Sheraton style, are so rectilinear in appearance, that they lend themselves to the square modern lines. When combined with contemporary art and modern glass lamps, these furnishings sing. In fact while visiting a quite dynamic gallery opening in New York City, I found that the owner had judiciously scattered edgy modern paintings under 1930s Italian lighting and above 18th-century English mahogany. I overheard several excited millennials lavishing praise over the unexpected juxtapositions. The space felt electric, not just eclectic.
Modern is a new way of seeing—a new way of viewing, and in decorating, modern is a new way of putting it all together. A residential room, comprising every piece of furniture, carpeting, fabric, lighting, and architectural element from this current exact minute of time, is as stiff, boring, and stagnant as those polite, all Hepplewhite dining rooms with printed wallpapers and dentil moldings. And for that matter, they are not quite realistic. We tend to acquire, over time, paintings, carpets, upholstery and furnishings, as we go along in our life. A flexible eye and a willingness to try unconventional mixes is your best way to play both sides. Consequently, most of the time you win, but when you lose, it’s not such a big deal. It’s not politics! It’s just decorating.
You can rearrange, reorder, and review so that in the end you can renew.
Now THAT is MODERN.