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Interior Designer

By Patricia Dane Rogers
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page H01

Celeste Davis was something of an unknown quantity in the local design community when she took on a small garret space at the 2004 National Symphony Orchestra's Decorators' Show House in October.

Over the years this event, a highlight of the area design calendar, has tended to call upon well-established talent. Davis, 41, was new to the field. She had completed design studies but had never been in any show house, much less had her work published in a magazine or newspaper. But she tackled the challenging room assigned her, transforming architecturally awkward angles, nooks and crannies into a sleek, serene retreat using a blue ceiling, creamy walls, ebony bamboo shades, a minimalist teak daybed from Bali, and a white shag area rug.

A room designed by Celeste Davis in Beltsville. (D. Tracy Wildy)

Her confident, low-key style drew praise, and brought its freshly minted designer, a former elementary school teacher, a clutch of new clients, among them Tatjana Keuper and Thierry Chassaing, who live in Montgomery County.

The couple, who moved to the area from France a year ago, say they toured the NSO house explicitly to find a decorator. "There was so much going on in that show house but sometimes less really is more," says Keuper, a vice president of marketing for a food service company. "Of all the rooms, it had the most interesting, unusual details and accessories," she says. "It was tiny but it caught our eye because it was simple, elegant and young. We're in our early forties with three children. Coming from Paris, we were looking for something different with a certain chic to it."

The designer's success is even more unusual when you consider that until last January, Davis was in her 10th year of teaching fifth graders at the Cora Kelly Magnet School for Math, Science and Technology in Alexandria. Only after earning a master's degree in interior design from George Washington University and testing the professional waters did she make the leap and hang out her shingle: Celeste E. Davis Inc.

"Both my grandmothers and my parents were educators so teaching was in my blood. I really loved it," she says, "but a passion for decorating was also part of me."

Davis had been dispensing informal design advice to friends and family for as long as she can remember, but decided to change careers after refurbishing the office of her dentist in Reston. "If he takes my decorating that seriously," she says, "I thought maybe I should take myself more seriously and see about credentials."

Looking back, she says, "I don't know how I did it: teaching full-time, going to school nights and weekends for four-and-a-half years, decorating on the side."

Today she works out of her home, a revamped Sears bungalow near Catholic University, taking on one-room redos, total gut jobs and small commercial spaces. Although she leans towards minimalism, she says "I also like to warm things up with color, wood and texture." Her work reflects an admiration for such design luminaries as Andre Putman, Roderick Shade, Darryl Carter and Barbara Barry. "Barry," she says, "has this wonderful quote I use all the time: 'Simplicity takes discipline.' "

Whether hunting for herself or for clients, Davis casts a wide net, drawing from sources as diverse as the Washington Design Center, Apartment Zero and Jean-Pierre Antiques to second-hand furniture stores including Ruff N Ready, Millennium and Good Wood along Washington's burgeoning 14th and U Street corridors. For lighting, she likes Illuminations in Penn Quarter or Georgetown, and Maurice Electric downtown; for textiles, the Holly Hunt and Donghia showrooms at the Design Center and retail shops such as G Street Fabrics. In Old Town Alexandria, she haunts Daniel Donnelly's showroom for mid-century modern classics and Abaca Imports for finds like the antique Chinese chest now housing a powder room sink for A'Lelia Perry Bundles, the great-granddaughter (and biographer) of African American cosmetics entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker.

In Davis's own house, a Duncan Phyfe-style sofa inherited from an aunt in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she grew up, meets abstract art, a black Madonna and a pair of '40s rattan chairs that were being hauled off in a Goodwill truck when she spotted them. "I ran after it, yelling 'Stop! Stop!' " But her most prized find may be a $150 quintet of theater chairs she landed for her foyer. They appeared in an opening scene of the movie "The Pelican Brief" and she paid $150 for them at the Brass Knob's Back Door warehouse in Adams Morgan. "You never know what you're going to find," she says.

"She has a good eye," notes Christopher Reiter, owner of Muleh, the 14th Street home furnishings and fashion emporium where Davis found the daybed she chose for the NSO show house. He describes her look as post-modern Zen.

"Her work has an understated edginess to it," he says, "a rarity in Washington."

To Watch in 2005

Architects: Marcie Meditch and John Murphey
Furniture Maker: Keith Fritz
Landscape Designer: Edward Colahan
Retailers: Tamara Schulman and Gloria de Lourdes Blalock

© 2004 The Washington Post Company