Art House: For collector and designer Christopher Boutlier, the key is to connect with your surroundings
As a 16-year-old boarding school student, Christopher Boutlier spent hours in front of J.M.W. Turner's "Slave Ship" in Atlanta's High Museum of Art, captivated by the violence and beauty of the famed Victorian seascape. Those hours were a turning point for a teenager who had spent his early years on his paternal grandparents' Louisiana farm. "We didn't have art in the house when I was growing up, or art books," Boutlier says. "We had books showing different kinds of snakes, things like that."
Two years later, he had purchased his first piece of artwork, a black-and-white Joan Miro lithograph, for $12,000. "There was something about it that seemed almost kind of sad," he recalls. "It spoke to me in a way that nothing else had. I put it on a credit card, and I remember thinking, How am I going to pay for this? It was like a mortgage, but it made me feel special."
Now, at 30, Boutlier has taken that connection to art and made it the cornerstone of both his personal space and his young interior design business.
After graduating from American University with a degree in international corporate finance in 2004, Boutlier landed an associate position at a private equity firm. But in the spring of 2005, he took a year off to remodel the 1,100-square-foot Dupont condo he shares with his partner, Aaron Flynn, a lawyer. Boutlier had plenty of motivation -- in particular, an ugly set of bifold doors along an impossibly narrow hallway -- but soon realized that he didn't understand blueprints or fully grasp the intricacies of joinery and casings.
"I discovered that it's one thing to have a vision in your head of what you want the final product to look like, and it's another to know how to achieve it," he says. "You can pull pictures out of a magazine, but if you're not a contractor, it's very hard to get what you want. ... You don't have the vocabulary to describe it accurately to the people who can make it happen."
After the renovation, that difficulty reconciling artistic vision with architectural reality stuck with Boutlier and spurred him to learn more. He took drafting and decorative arts courses at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, then transferred to George Washington University's master's program in interior design. Before graduating in 2009, he began working full time for one of his instructors, Lisa Adams, principal of Adams Design in Georgetown, contributing to design projects for the Biden family and a member of Spanish royalty. He launched his own firm last October, leasing a small office space on F Street in Chinatown and bringing on Flynn as a co-owner, and has been mentioned in shelter magazine Cozy Cabins, eBay's trend-spotting site TheInsideSource.com and local magazines such as the now-defunct Washington Spaces magazine.
But it is the project that started it all, his own home -- filled with quirky, evocative artwork and more traditional furniture -- that best illustrates his edgy-elegant aesthetic.
The renovations transformed the C-shaped condo, which has a skinny hallway connecting two living areas, from a design focused on entertainment to one focused on display. "You have very little wall space in this house because of these huge windows," Boutlier says, gesturing toward three that overlook a shaded street. "I really wanted to maximize the amount of space we had, and also have separate areas. If you're in the hallway, you can have one style of artwork there, and another somewhere else ... like clean little rooms. The problem is, if you have a huge open space with all of this different artwork ... it tends to compete."
An open kitchen and bar area were closed in to create a private food prep area. The bifold doors hiding the water closet in the hallway were replaced with simple double doors to streamline the space and shift the focus to the artwork on the opposite wall. Originally dark green, most of the walls were repainted in soft oyster, bringing a bright, relaxed air to the space, and crisp white moldings and window casings were added to frame the walls and the surrounding artwork.
The condo is embellished with large- and small-scale artwork that Boutlier changes regularly. He displays about a fifth of his 100-work personal collection at a time. Eclecticism reigns -- the original Monet pencil sketches he inherited from his French maternal grandmother share space with flea-market finds and works by local artists -- but it's also reined in.
The living space is decidedly traditional, with an air of refined masculinity established by a sleek black leather Maurice Villency couch, a stylish hand-me-down Boutlier acquired from his father. Boutlier creates cohesion by pairing a black-and-gold Baker chest, another inheritance from his French grandmother, with a set of Baker chairs topped with black-and-white gingham cushions. The couch is flanked by lacquered coconut-husk side tables he picked up on a trip to East Hampton, N.Y. A die-hard vintage and flea-market shopper, Boutlier uncovered the Thomas Pheasant-designed Baker tea table frame in a charity shop in Woodley Park and added a glass top.