Good Neighbor Policy

By Deborah K. Dietsch
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Meral Karasulu didn't have to look far to find someone to renovate her District townhouse -- architect Andreas Charalambous lives right next door

Good neighbors can make for good design. So economist Meral Karasulu discovered in tapping the architect next door, Andreas Charalambous, to remodel her small two-floor unit. They live in adjacent colonial-style rowhouses within Beekman Place, the gated community off 16th Street NW near Meridian Hill Park. "I bought him a bottle of wine to welcome him to the neighborhood," says Karasulu. "We found we share similar backgrounds, even though I'm from Turkey and he's from Cyprus, and they haven't always gotten along."

Soon the neighbors discovered a similar taste in interior design as well. "He had renovated his place into almost a loft," says Karasulu, who works for the International Monetary Fund. "It had the type of modern, clean lines that I wanted."

A renter when she first met Charalambous, the design enthusiast hired the architect soon after buying her 1,250-square-foot condominium in 2001. The project quickly became collaborative, with Karasulu supervising construction after her contractor failed to complete the job. "I had done so many mental studies for renovating before the project began, so I was ready," she recalls, noting that buying fixtures herself helped reduce the costs of the $100,000 remodeling job. "I had collected so many catalogues that people thought I was a designer."

The challenge of remodeling the long, narrow condo, Karasulu says, was creating visual drama without cluttering the rooms. To update the bland 1970s interior of the two-level unit and make it feel more spacious, "it became all about subtraction, not additions."

Charalambous, who runs Forma Design on U Street NW, responded to her charge by reducing the interior to a minimalist envelope. Crown moldings were stripped off the walls, and a traditional mantel was removed from the fireplace. Folding doors between rooms were replaced with openings that reach the ceiling. Closets were concealed with doors placed flush to the walls so that they almost disappear. Maple flooring was installed throughout to unite the interior, which had been divided by worn parquet, linoleum and carpeting. Walls and ceiling were painted in variations of light beige. "By creating a continuous floor and ceiling on the main level, we created the feeling of one big space," the architect says.

The biggest architectural change was reconfiguring the entrance foyer and kitchen to accommodate a coat closet, a powder room and a refrigerator nook. Outdated kitchen cabinets were replaced with sleek Italian ones in plastic laminate and frosted glass, including a space-saving, pullout pantry. The horizontal orientation of the wider cabinets and hardware, the owner says, "creates a consistent line through the space" and makes it feel bigger.

Visual continuity of finishes was also important to creating a spacious feeling. Cabinets above the stove and refrigerator are covered in the same stainless steel as the appliances to direct the eye upward. Kitchen counters and bathroom vanities are all topped in beige imitation stone. In the tiny bathrooms, oversize mirrors and matching ceramic tile extending over floors and shower stall create the illusion of more space.

Karasulu has traveled throughout Asia and wanted a dash of Zen in her spartan space. Before remodeling, she had replaced the closet doors in her bedroom with Japanese shoji screens. Charalambous used them as inspiration for a dramatic wall behind the bed. A frame of brown paint matches the screen dividers and dark wood cabinets in the adjacent bathroom. Projecting from this dark background, a light-colored panel incorporates niches for tea lights.

"She wasn't convinced about this design originally," the architect recalls. "I had it built when she was away on a trip to Korea. I told her, 'If you hate it, I'll tear it out.'" The wall stayed. "It adds to the peaceful feeling in here," says Karasulu, noting that the room is sparsely furnished, to encourage sleeping. The TV is banished to the second bedroom, and the dresser, she points out, is built into the closet.

Given the small dimensions of her rooms, Karasulu chose her furniture carefully, buying only a few pieces that deliver a big impact and can be moved easily as her company -- and mood -- change. The focal point of the living room is a fiery red, modular sofa by Italian designer Antonio Citterio. The homeowner purchased the L-shaped piece in Milan with an ivory slipcover for summer. A matching upholstered bench, lightweight Eames chair, folding butterfly chair and pair of wooden coffee tables are rearranged according to the number of guests. Next to the seating area, an extendable dining table and chairs in the same dark stain as the coffee table accommodate buffets and sit-down meals.

Though her living space must do double duty, Karasulu frequently entertains and often teams up with Charalambous to throw parties. "She has a better view; I have a better outdoor space," says the architect, noting the glimpse of the Washington Monument out Karasulu's living room windows. Both agree that inside their small spaces, modern design is on equal footing.

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer specializing in architecture, art and design.

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