Their blue heaven

Published on April 21, 2016

Their blue heaven

You thought, perhaps, that the founders of a company called Bluemercury would decorate their home in green or mauve? Marla and Barry Beck, who established the rapidly growing luxury cosmetics chain, planted their interior design flag firmly at the azure end of the spectrum when redoing the Bethesda, Md., home they share with their three children, a dog and a guinea pig.

The expansive 21st-century neo-bungalow they purchased in 2011 featured dark and elegant French country decor — wood paneling, glittering chandeliers and sconces, even a gentleman’s cigar lair. It took eight months to transform it into a bright, stylishly casual, kid-centric hive of creativity with a pair of formal rooms dedicated to family dinners and regular musicales.

Virtual tour: Cameron Blake/The Washington Post

It is all done with cool and calming shades, from the palest robin’s egg blue to saturated navy. Decorator Sally Steponkus soon took to calling the monochromatic visual vibe “Marla Blue.”

“When Sally would show me green and other colors of paint and fabric, I kept saying, no, no. I think she finally gave up on me,” recalls Marla, 45.

Besides her preference in tints, she nearly always chose geometrics for wallpaper, upholstery, rugs, bedding and draperies.

The only lush florals appear in faux-antique Chinese vases, bowls, platters and candlesticks from the Kellogg Collection, the four-shop home furnishings boutique in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Textiles had to be kid-proof, which meant sturdy linen, cotton and blends in solid blues; tone-on-tone prints; or embroidery on a white, ivory or taupe field. Cushions and backs on the breakfast-room dining chairs and the bar-height kitchen stools were further protected with plastic laminate.

Marla Malcolm Beck’s self-described cerulean addiction began in early childhood when her mother dressed her in blue to emphasize her startling, icy eyes (her green-eyed younger sister was a constant vision in pink). These days, Beck’s wardrobe is virtually all black to reduce damage from makeup; the identical silk shirts and skinny jeans bought in multiples of three and four also simplify getting dressed. One sartorial concession is a range of vivid blue dresses for speeches, photo shoots and other Bluemercury branding events.

Blue is the dominant color in Marla and Barry Beck’s Bethesda home, including in the sunroom, which features pillows with a geometric pattern. (Above: Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post; below: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

As an entrepreneur in her 20s with a Harvard MBA, she rebuffed original investors’ push to call the proposed neighborhood cosmetics emporia Marla’s Beauty Shop or the Beauty Store. Fat chance. “Bluemercury” was nonnegotiable.

The second half of the name heralds the multitasking Roman god of — take your pick — communication, eloquence, commerce, financial gain and deity message delivery.

Barry, 48, embraced the idea of Mercury as an info wizard because “we want customers to know as much as possible about the products we are selling.” For those who puzzle over the chain’s name, Barry always replies: “What does Starbucks mean? It’s about the shopping experience.”

Photo gallery

The founders of the Bluemercury cosmetics chain wrap themselves in their favorite color at home.

The initial online-only business sputtered, but since the 1999 opening of the Georgetown flagship store, the retail operation has mushroomed to more than 90 high-end cosmetics and skin-care boutiques nationwide. Patrons are encouraged to sample the merchandise, book a facial or direct their questions to a staff deeply focused on the virtues of hydration and exfoliation.

Last year, Macy’s bought Bluemercury for $210 million. Marla remains chief executive and Barry the chief operating officer.

Despite that nine-figure sale, the Becks — who met in 1999 in a posh downtown conference room when she tried to buy his first company for a private equity client — never considered leaving their five-bedroom, four-level home in Bethesda’s Edgemoor neighborhood.

“The house is perfect for our needs,” says Barry, who likes to rhapsodize about what he considers an idyllic, old-fashioned suburb, filled with kids, pets and neighbors who drop in to borrow a cup of sugar. “And it’s close enough to walk to downtown Bethesda. Why would we move?”

Marla and Barry Beck in the living room with their children, from left: Sophie, Luc and Ariel. Soft gray-blues, including striped fabric on the ottomans, highlight the room — site of the family’s Sunday-night musicales. (Above: Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post; below: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Part of the home’s perfection was achieved through a renovation by Phil Leibovitz, CEO of Sandy Spring Builders, who had erected the house for the original owners in 2004 and was called back to convert it into Chez Beck.

“One of Marla’s fantasies when we were looking to move was that when you walked in the front door you could see straight through to the back,” says Barry.

That fantasy was attainable because Leibovitz and the architectural firm Studio Z Design Concepts originally placed the main staircase to one side rather than in the center to maximize light and create unbroken sightlines. Leibovitztook down the walls that had enclosed the cigar lounge to create a sunroom and removed two sets of French doors in the center of the main level and widened the openings for an even broader vista. Steponkus describes the new visual path between front porch and rear patio as “the money shot.”

“It’s brighter and more cheerful than it was, and opening it up really changed the feel of the house,” Leibovitz says.

Today, the heart of the house is a seamless, integrated space on the first floor, which contains the kitchen; the sunroom topped by a dramatic hexagonal ceiling; a breakfast room; and the pine-paneled library/family room.

“This is the most-used area in the whole house,” says Marla. From the start, each child found a favorite spot to study or hang out. Luc, 9, a voracious reader, claimed the family room sofa near the open kitchen, site of a preferred perch for Sophie, 10. Ariel, 12, staked out a corner of the sunroom.

The home’s more formal spaces are in the front, starting with a soaring two-story entryway. The foyer’s dark wooden floor is embellished with a delicate inlaid border and large center medallion of vines and leaves that the Becks at first found a tad elaborate but have come to appreciate for its artistry.

To the left of the entrance is a living room — a symphony of soft gray-blues — mostly used for Sunday-night family musicales involving a baby grand piano and guitars.

Depending on their mood, the Beck quintet roams from classical to rock, from jazz improv to a simple duet of “Heart and Soul.”

The first floor, including a pine-paneled library/family room, is the heart of the home. “This is the most-used area in the whole house,” says Marla, who opted for sturdy linen, cotton and blends in solid blues; geometric prints; or embroidery on a white, ivory or taupe field. (Above: Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post; below: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

To the right of the foyer is the formal dining room with a rich mahogany sideboard, pedestal table and 10 chairs used for family celebrations and holiday dinners. Daily meals are eaten in the breakfast room.

“Most people think we are out every night,” says Marla, but the Becks insist they are serious homebodies. Even when traveling for business, separately or together, the couple will fly out early and come back late to sleep under the same roof as the kids.

If the first floor is the heart of family life, the second floor is the Bluemercury brain. In addition to the master bedroom and a large his-and-her closet, a two-station home office allows the couple to work side-by-side.

While Barry may be scouting new store locations, Marla could be pondering new products for the M-61 “cosmeceutical” skin-care line they sell at Bluemercury and Macy’s.

The curved master bath is far more than a grooming center. It is also a testing lab for all manner of lotions, potions, scrubs, peels, cleansers, gels, masks and makeup, much of it from entrepreneurs eager to place their wares in the Becks’ high-end inventory.

The ever-efficient Marla, who runs a small command center from her corner vanity, often applies one product to the left side of her face and another to the right, to compare how each looks and feels. Storage drawers, cabinets, even shower ledges are filled with products.

The only real pops of color throughout the house are found in the art they have collected. Pieces include a vivid portrait of John F. Kennedy once owned by the former president, a voluptuous nude by American impressionist Childe Hassam and an assemblage by British artist Damien Hirst.

A few rooms in the Becks’ blue heaven remain more or less as the previous owners left them, including the 12-seat theater in the basement done in rich reds. The rec room, which Barry calls the man cave, features a dark bar ringed by green stools, a foosball table, a drum kit and several guitars.

The contemporary pool table conveyed with the house but — no surprise — its original green felt is now a glorious royal blue.

Annie Groer writes widely about design, architecture and politics. She is at work on a memoir.

Virtual tour: Cameron Blake/The Washington Post

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