Correction to This Article
An April 12 Home article incorrectly said that Washington designer Darryl Carter once worked for his father's law firm. Carter worked in a legal capacity for Urban Service Systems Corp., his father's waste management and environmental services company.

Darryl Carter's Look

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007

Darryl Carter, working from inherent good taste rather than formal training, has achieved something quite rare in the world of interior decorating: a signature look.

You see it featured in the pages of glossy magazines and in local design houses. You see it in the rooms of his upscale clients and in the furniture and lighting collections he has designed. You see it the minute you step into his five-story townhouse on Embassy Row in Northwest Washington.

The Look pairs extravagant with affordable, perfect with imperfect. Polished surfaces play against pitted wooden artifacts. Antiques converse with bold modern art. Creamy white walls rise above coffee-dark floors. Deliberate symmetry is jolted by a bit of appealing disarray.

The yin-yang balance, refined over nine years in the business, has brought the lawyer-turned-designer to the top tier of Washington decorating. "You have to make the environment pleasing to the eye but comfortable enough to live in," says Carter, putting down a glass of iced tea -- directly, no coaster -- on the well-worn pine table in his breakfast room overlooking Rock Creek Park. "It has to be both practical and beautiful."

Carter has not followed the usual path to design. Growing up in Bethesda, he was always fascinated with art and architecture. Though he dreamed of studying design, he graduated from Georgetown law school and joined his father's law firm. But along the way, he was continually buying properties and fixing them up: a Capitol Hill townhouse, an apartment in Dupont Circle and another in Kalorama's Altamont building.

By then it was 1997 and Carter was coming into his own. Metropolitan Home's design director, Linda O'Keeffe, ran his elegant white and beige place in the Altamont on the cover of the magazine with the headline "The New Traditional." After being published in a book on Washington interiors the following year ("Private Washington," Rizzoli), Carter found himself in the decorating business.

The path to a new career has given Carter a chance to refurbish Georgian houses, lofts and farms for CEOs and art collectors. In 2001, he designed a furniture collection for Neiman Marcus, and last year he introduced classically inspired lighting for Urban Electric Co. He has appeared on HGTV's "Dream House" series. Most recently, he signed a deal with a "major national retailer" (he won't say which one yet) for a line of home furnishings and is collaborating with high-end catalogue retailer Frontgate on products debuting this fall. He's finishing a coffee-table book on his style that is due out early next year.

His home on Massachusetts Avenue, once the Embassy of Oman chancery, is a case study in The Look. The breakfast-room chairs may be prized Gustavian antiques, but the seats are unpretentious imitation leather. Some of the white ironstone pitchers and platters arranged against a pale blue wall date back to England, 1800; others to Ikea, 2007. Three black-and-white photos of Carter's German short-haired pointer, Otis, have been elevated to art. Two-foot pewter candlesticks still have wax drips from a recent gathering. "You light the candles and throw a big bowl of spaghetti on the table, and you have a great conversation, never worrying about the wax or putting the hot plate on the table," Carter says.

The designer likes "signs of life" in a home, such as the crackled top on an old burled table and the scratches on his ebonized floors; he invites guests to bring their dogs. "A house should be a respite, not a hotel room."

Clients seeing the place are drawn to the sense of serenity, sophistication and comfort. "I remember sitting in the living room and saying to Darryl, 'You could just do this room for me,' " recalls David Goodhand, a Microsoft technology specialist who has hired Carter to design a Foggy Bottom condo. Although there will be a lot of high-end pieces, he knows Carter will keep in mind Goodhand's 8-year-old son. "Don't choose things that are so precious that you are fearful of using them," the designer says.

O'Keeffe of Met Home magazine still follows Carter's work and believes he has an even more confident hand today. "He pares down traditional so it becomes modern and contemporary," she says.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company