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Designer sticks to modern home’s roots, but adds touch of classical charm

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Imagine letting a little 5-year-old Norwegian elkhound choose the house you’re going to buy. That’s not exactly what Washington interior designer Tricia Huntley did back in the fall of 2010, but close enough.

She took her dog, Nina, with her to inspect a house in the Palisades area of Washington. “She jumped out of the car and ran straight to the front door like she knew she was home!” Huntley wrote in an e-mail.

Norwegian elkhounds, small spitz-like dogs, traditionally expend their considerable energy tracking moose. Nina, not so much. So the fact that this house, built in 1949, had a fenced-in backyard that was more than Nina-length meant it met Huntley’s dog-conscious criterion for a new home.

But Huntley had another priority: After years of working for established design firms, including Solis Betancourt & Sherrill, she was developing her own design business, helping homeowners achieve rooms that are balanced between modern and romantic. Her ideal house had to have a separate area for offices, with its own entrance and room for a library of fabric and other samples. This house had the potential for all that.

Huntley had one more criterion, which either got people nodding in agreement or stupefied them: She wanted a house that needed work.

“As a designer, I can’t justify paying for someone else’s improvements. I know what things cost,” she says, “so a real estate agent is not going to convince me a house is worth an extra 100K because the kitchen is outfitted in Home Depot cabinets and stainless-steel appliances.” In the end, she paid $760,000 for the 1,472-square-foot house with more than 7,000 square feet of fenced-in lawn.

The fact that this house, which sits low and square on its narrow lot, was mid-century modern was a plus: She wanted a non-traditional layout. “Since it’s just me,” Huntley says, “I didn’t want to have a house with a second floor chopped up by a lot of bedrooms.”

The ground floor immediately feels non-traditional. Floor-to-ceiling glass across the front allows a visitor to survey practically the whole ground level even before walking through the front door. (Yes, curtains now solve this problem.) The living room is immediately to the left of the front door, with a dining room behind it in the center of the house. Walking through the dining room leads to a 1970s addition that stretches across the back of the house, what Huntley calls the sunroom. So the main public rooms form a sideways H, with the dining room’s horizontal bar linking the two sides.

The kitchen is hidden away to the right side of the dining room. The whole left-hand side of the house holds less-public quarters — two bedrooms and a bath. The upstairs, also added in the 1970s, houses a large master bedroom suite with bath.

But the house was a rather tired old tract house, “so I had to do a lot of correcting,” Huntley says.

That doesn’t mean she violated the modern spirit of the house; in fact, her idea was to embrace it: “You have to respect what the house is.” And that, Huntley continues, is a good thing. “It helps you narrow your decisions, cuts 75 percent of your ideas. You listen to what a house says; you listen to what is there.”

What there is in most mid-century modern houses are white walls often punctuated by a colorful lamp or a wall of teak cabinets. But strictly mid-century is limiting. Yes, many of the furnishings here are pale and contemporary, but the overall mix — a classical bust, a Paul Evans-style coffee table, a whimsically elongated wing chair — is quite varied, what Huntley calls a “curated” look, one that evolves over time and reflects the depth of a homeowner’s personality.

“I believe in tension between things,” says Huntley, who came to Washington to get her master’s at George Washington University and has been here ever since. “Classical molding wouldn’t have made sense [in the house], but a classical chaise, sure.” Which is why her simple white Parsons-style dining table is ringed at the moment with Queen Anne-style chairs under a Brutalist vintage chandelier, and why a Louis XVI-style lit de repos, a kind of daybed, shares the living room with a contemporary armless loveseat.

Huntley mostly worked with the existing bones of the house. She couldn’t raise the low, eight-foot ceilings, but she beefed up the wood trim around the doors just a little to make it more substantial, refinished floors, changed all the door hardware, added downlights in the ceilings and hard-wired sconces in the walls. Plus, of course, she painted and papered.

A lot of work was about turning “a tomb” of a basement into her design studio. But another effort, again in service of mitigating the “tract house” look of the place, was to make the opening to the dining room, directly behind the living room, symmetrical, to match the opening at the other end of the room. Now a broad opening allows full view of the eating area and turns the space into a kind of long gallery that leads to the sunroom.

Breaking up the white walls in the front and rear rooms is a dining room papered in an overall repeat of classical temples, dark gray on cream. The pattern is punctuated by sconces and a large piece of word art — “Disconnect,” commands the large painting on the wall. The word serves as a reminder to Huntley when she comes upstairs from her office and enters her private space.

Hanging across the opening between the dining room and the sunroom are curtain panels, now stacked to one side, in a taupey-blush color. In earlier, draftier days, these “portieres” would close off a room to hold in the heat. Huntley, who is originally from Minnesota, uses them simply to announce the entry to the more ample of the two living rooms. Although . . . that rear wall of glass, with sliding doors, could be the good for Nina with her thick fur coat but maybe not for less hirsute occupants.

Some of the furnishings here are also furrier, nubbier — a pillow, a cozy throw, a warm copper-color rug. And there’s drama, thanks to a pedestal in a corner by the back door: It holds a large, classical bust, the imperious gentleman gazing out on the grassy expanse behind, no doubt keeping an eye on Nina. (Huntley doesn't have to worry about losing Nina: The dog is always ready to signal her whereabouts with the piercing yelp that for centuries marked a moose sighting. In a later e-mail, Huntley acknowledges, “Her bark can definitely melt paint off walls.”)

The Queen Anne chairs in the dining room may be stand-ins for more chairs yet to come. “Things change around here,” says Huntley. “Have you ever seen a designer’s house where stuff wasn’t constantly changing?”

Good point. In fact, between visits, the front living room had been rearranged a bit and the front curtains had been hung. Huntley has always maintained an accessories closet — now she has a small room — where she can keep all those pictures and bowls and lamps she keeps discovering and simply has to buy (she bought the Louis daybed years ago, but this is the first time she has had a spot for it). “You can’t have everything out all the time,” she notes. “There needs to be negative space around things [that are displayed] so we can see and appreciate them.”

Huntley also satisfies her shopping jones by simply photographing wonderful objects and interiors and incorporating them into her design blog, Luxe and Lucid, followed by fans in 75 countries.

Two projects lie down the road: updating the perfectly fine but slightly dowdy kitchen and maybe, just maybe, swapping out the sliders in back for more gracious french doors. The sliding doors say “mid-century” better, but Huntley’s “curated” look has more in common with the divided lights of the more traditional doors.

At the moment, though, the designer has more important things to worry about. In addition to clients in two countries clamoring for their curtains, there’s the DC Design House. The show house, where a slate of designers re-imagines a fabulous house, usually for sale, sells admissions that benefit Children’s Medical Center. This year it is scheduled for April 14 through May 13, and Huntley is designing the master-suite sitting room.

No doubt the sitting room will boast Huntley’s curated look. But one signature Huntley element will be missing: Nina. Surely the designer wouldn’t want the elkhound’s bark to melt the paint off those walls.

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