Top D.C. designer Barry Dixon shares tips

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said designer Barry Dixon’s Warrenton estate was 4,000 acres. Dixon owns 271 acres. The article also incorrectly said Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards, Mystics and Capitals, was a client of Dixon’s. This version has been corrected.

August 3, 2011

It has always been tough to describe Washington’s signature style. How do you relate the historic estates in Kalorama and Georgetown to the burgeoning arts quarters on H and U streets? Barry Dixon, one of the city’s best-known interior designers, thinks he’s found a way.

Dixon, 52, whose second book, “Barry Dixon Inspirations” ($40, Gibbs Smith), hit shelves this summer, describes the look as “re-imagined traditional,” a refined and courteous balancing act between honoring the old and braving the new.

“There is nothing exciting about pure regurgitation,” he said, “but there is something exciting about breathing new life into a classic interior. It’s appropriate, it’s ever-evolving, and that’s Washington.”

Although his first book, “Barry Dixon Interiors” (2008), showcased his finished projects, this book begins at his drawing board. He recounts his influences for eight homes, including a beach house in Delaware and a 19th-century rowhouse on Capitol Hill: “Inspiration is everywhere,” he writes. “From the hayfields outside my window, to a trip to exotic Marrakesh, to a treasured cocoa tin from my childhood.”

Dixon was born in Memphis and grew up in exotic locales, including New Caledonia, South Africa and French Polynesia. He opened his own firm in the District in 1994 and now operates his 11-person staff out of Elway Hall, his 271-acre estate in Warrenton. Currently, he is juggling projects in Beijing, Moscow, Italy and South Beach.


Barry Dixon’s book “Barry Dixon Inspirations” includes design tips such as using “deconstructed colors,” like edgy yellows, in urban environments. (Erik Kvalsvik/ERIK KVALSVIK)

His work has been featured in House Beautiful and Southern Accents, and on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and the HGTV cable network. His clients include Diane Sawyer and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist. Dixon was named 2010 Master of Design by Veranda magazine.

In recent years, he has branched out into product design. In addition to his upholstery, fabric and furniture lines, he’ll debut a holiday collection for Bergdorf Goodman this fall and 65-piece furnishings collection for Arteriors Home next year. He’s also flipping an old Warrenton church complex into a studio, warehouse and showroom, due to open in September.

We spoke to Dixon by phone about his new book and Washington style. Here is an edited excerpt.

What is the most important room to spend money on in a home?

Invest in the room you spend the most time in. Spend money on yourself! That’s a luxury we should all allow ourselves. Instead of focusing on a formal dining room, why not splurge in the breakfast nook or kitchen where you’ll be gathering regularly?

Remember, too, that the rooms you’re spending the most time in get the most wear and tear, so investing in quality items makes more sense. The less you use a room, the less you should spend on it.

What are the three biggest cliches you find in people’s homes?

Draperies that are swagged and jaboted, to start, and color schemes like Williamsburg blue, Hunter green, burgundy and gold. . . . These are stale and not very exciting anymore, I’m afraid. Also, overscaled upholstery pieces that look like leftovers from the 1980s. We need a cleaner, more tailored look.

A popular question on our online discussions is what to do with vertical blinds. What do you suggest?

I like using a simple, unlined, sheer fabric on a rod that can traverse over the blinds. It grabs your attention in a delicate, lovely way, and it’s not expensive. The fabric ties the room together rather than just sitting with the eyesore of blinds. The combination itself is complementary, too. The blinds are geometric and architectural, while the sheer is soft and romantic.

What should families look for in pet- and kid-friendly materials?

They’ve made incredible improvements on what we used to think of as outdoor fabric and furniture. I’m using both a lot, inside and outside. Giati, Sunbrella and Perennials all have some fantastic, forgiving outdoor fabrics that are great for rooms where you might need to unzip the pillows and toss them in the washer. Also, these fabrics are still soft, comfortable, tactile-ly pleasing. I use them on bar stools all the time!

What are your favorite paint colors?

My go-to neutral is Farrow & Ball’s Clunch. It’s perfect when you don’t know if you want to go warm or cool. I also love warm grays like Elephant’s Breath, also by Farrow & Ball. A good gray sets a mood, like a sky the moment before a storm.

While we’re talking paint, one great tip is to slather a single color on all the walls of a room. Rather than cutting up a space with a color on the trim, another on the wall, another on the paneling, try just one. It makes the room look bigger, it’s cheaper and it’s easier. And don’t be afraid to include the ceiling!

What museums inspire you?

I love the Phillips Collection and the abstract expressionist paintings at the National Gallery. One Rothko painting inspired an entire custom wall finish I did at a studio in D.C.

You are a frequent browser at the D.C. Big Flea in Chantilly. What are some of your recent finds?

I can’t seem to leave there empty-handed. I recently bought a whole line of 1950s ceramics and stumbled upon a collection of Eva Zeisel’s mixing bowls and glassware. She’s a rock star: She’s 104 and just released a new collection for Design Within Reach!

And the Flea is a gold mine for quilts. A good American quilt will get you through life. If you get tired of hanging it, fold it up and take it to the beach, bring it on a picnic or use it as a throw. That’s getting your money’s worth.

Home Front Chat: Join staff writers Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza for their weekly chat at 11 a.m. Thursday. Go to washingtonpost.com/home.

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