Most architectural school graduates spend the first five years after they finish school working for another architect, learning the ropes of the business while they rack up their credentials necessary for registration. And most architects will tell you that those years can be pretty tedious. After three years of working on large projects and 'drawing in toilets,' for another architect, Marilyn Stern found the client of her dreams -- a couple who had bought an unrestored but potentially elegant townhouse in the Embassy Row area of town. The clients were completely sympathetic to her approach to design. There was the usual necessary negotiation between husband and wife, but they were of one mind on most points -- largely because Stern was her own first client, along with her husband, lawyer Sam Stern of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering.
The 1924 house is fille with imaginative design solutions that give it an extraordinarily comtemporary ambience without denying the period touches that gave it its original elegance. The 11-foot-high ceilings on the first floor, the fine molding, the broad spaces, all contribute to a feeling that one has been dropped into a handsome in-town residence somewhere in Milan.
"My grand theory for the house is that it operates like a tree -- there is a central hall and off that hall are rooms, like so many branches of a tree," says Stern. To strengthen that theory, she began by removing the series of tiny entry rooms that characterized what is now the front hall. The archway halfway into the hall marks what was once a second vestibule. But that's where the similarity to the old house and this newly remodeled villa begins. To carry the visitor's eye into the next larger space, and to begin to give one a feeling for this new, contemporary interior, Stern abruptly cuts off the wall just a foot shy of the curved wall on one side. The effect is startling; it makes you want to say "Wait a minute, what's happening here." What is happening is that old spaces have been transformed. The dining room is the same shape, but the same slit wall appears again at the entrance, this time to carry one's eye to the wall that extends up the stairway. In the dining room, two figures, sculpted in high relief mark either side of the original fireplace, now somewhat pared down and mantel-less. The room itself is starkly modern, done in shades of charcoal gray. Interestingly, instead of giving one a closed-in feeling, the room offers a coolness that is transporting. One is impressed with the richness of the gray tones, the reflections of light from the windows on the marble-topped dining room table, and the dramatic expanse of marble at one end of the room. Because the old radiators protruded into the room, Stern felt a piece of furniture, like a sideboard, would be inappropriate. Instead she spanned the room with a steel beam; on it rests a marble shelf about two feet wide. The effect is to emphasize the width of the room rather than its narrowness.
Off the dining room is a hallway kitchen with extra-tall ("laboratory height") base cabinets. All the cabinets are stained gray, carrying the theme from the dining room into this tailored kitchen. Once again, marble is the dominant texture, a richly patterned rust-toned surface that extends into the sink, also marble. A symbol of Stern's attention to detail if the brass swan-head sink faucet mouth. When not in use, the swan's head can be tucked back so that any little dribles are caught by a small drip catch basin. Stern searched a long time for the faucet handles, which she had stripped of their chrome finish to match the swan's head.
In contrast to the purple entry and the gray dining room and kitchen, the living room is awash with white paint and lots of photographs. The main color in the house comes from the Sterns' luscious Oriental carpets. The art is largely monochromatic: either pre-Columbian sculpture, or art photography. i
Upstairs the most impressive room is the master bedroom. A kingsized bed defines two sections of the room: a sort of sitting area on one side, a dressing area on the other. To keep the contemporary flavor of the sitting area and still pay a nod to the original detailing in the house, Stern made use of remnants of what must have been part of the original marble fireplace, which she found in bits and pieces in the garage. Rather that simply apply the fragments to a new mantel, Stern inserted chrome pegs in the new, unadorned wooden frame and used the marble as an applique. The effect is whimsical and appropriate to this newly transformed space.
The bed rests in a subtly canted wall. Above are two recessed lights with framing projectors aiming the light so that only the surface of a book in one's hand is illuminated. A sculpture on the wall by Ed Higgins adds a nice lyrical touch. Stern designed low benches with storage to fit on either side of the bed. Aided by her carpenters, she came up with a design that allows you to store a phone and a radio on either side, out of view except when needed. When the phone is not in use, you just push it down and it disappears. On the other side of the bed is a set of rather ordinary teak chest of drawers. Their unusual feature is the series of platforms on top, each displaying a piece of the pre-Columbian sculpture of which Sam Stern is so fond. When asked why she chose this unusual display surface, Marilyn Stern replied, "If I didn't put them on top of the bureau, Sam would throw his shirts all over the place."