At first glance, Margaret Rubino and Sal Fiorito's boxy split-level brick colonial looks like every other traditional '50s house on their shady street in Chevy Chase, D.C. But a closer look at the front door reveals a hint of the chic originality on display inside.
Fiorito, a noted artist and architectural glassmaker, designed the oversized glass door, which, in its echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright's geometric designs, melds the traditional and the modern. It sets the stage perfectly for the home's in-terior, which serves as a laboratory for the couple's quite different design aesthetics. Rubino, ever the history buff, is a traditionalist who needs to know the story behind each of the antique pieces she acquires. Fiorito is a modernist who favors sleek and functional design. Hence, the vintage leather Italian furniture and antique pique assiette cabinets (with inlaid mosaics made of broken ceramics) are displayed with contemporary paintings and drawings from local artist friends and a pair of black-and-white photographs of the glamorous Rubino taken in the 1980s by Robert Mapplethorpe. But both insist there's no drama when it comes to decorating.
"We always work together; no one person gets to dictate," says Rubino, 48, a former lawyer turned antiques dealer and interior designer, and now the proprietor of www.roomsandgardens.net. "We've found that the design is always better if there's a compromise."
Rubino, who was raised in Brussels and Berlin, and native New Yorker Fiorito, 57, met through artist friends in the early 1990s, and lived in a sprawling rental house in Cleveland Park before buying their current home six years ago. The couple now laughs about how the home they've so thoroughly made their own almost wasn't theirs. When the house came onto the market in the spring of 1999, Rubino and Fiorito had less than an hour to decide whether they wanted it.
"Our real estate agent said there were only eight houses available for sale that week or that day, or whatever it was," Fiorito remembers. "The bottom line was, the pickings were pretty slim. We would have liked to have found a modern house, but in Washington, they're rare and can be kind of blah.
"We walked around and said, 'Okay, there's nothing awful about the house; we'll take it.'" says Fiorito, who has designed the interiors of the Adams Morgan restaurant Perry's and An American in Paris, a clothing boutique in Old Town Alexandria, among other businesses. "It wasn't perfect, but the good thing is, it didn't have a mess that somebody had made by already renovating it that you had to get rid of immediately."
Their big renovation came five years later and involved redesigning the entire back portion of the house. The original galley-sized kitchen and pantry were replaced by a single 14-by-30-foot space, with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the large, leafy back yard.
Designed with almost fanatical devotion by Fiorito, the room is now the house's heart. Just about everything happens there, almost to the exclusion of the lonely second floor. Rubino says the first floor "gets the bulk of our attention when we're at home."
"Bedrooms should be a nice place to sleep or read or do the things that you do there, but it's not where you live," she says. "We like being downstairs and able to see the garden, and have that be like an extension of the rest of the house."
The kitchen was designed around the ebony wood-colored laminate cabinets, which Fiorito lacquered himself. The built-in cabinets store his growing collection of kitchen appliances. "I wanted a kitchen where, for once, everything had a place and everything was hidden," he says.
The couple's 11-year-old son, Anatole, uses the vast marble-topped kitchen table as a homework station; the two-piece table can be pulled apart and set end to end to form a 10-foot buffet for the couple's frequent dinner parties and Rubino's near-constant floral arranging and garden design projects.
The room is dominated by a towering custom-designed walnut china closet, the front door of which features an eight-foot-tall black-and-white photo of a nude pregnant woman by Washington photographer Chan Chao. "We both felt that we would commission an artist for an original work for our new room, both for our own pleasure and maybe to encourage others to do something similar," Fiorito says.
Rubino's penchant for mixing textures and patina is evident in the living room, where a khaki-colored Ettore Sottsass armchair sits atop a hand-woven Nepalese silk-and-wool rug, and one of Fiorito's hammered lead relief sculptures is mounted on the wall above the smooth marble mantle. Rubino suggests a similar approach to decorating to her interior design clients, but she admits that it's not to everyone's taste.
"Not everybody has to enjoy the process of hunting and finding that perfect thing for their house or one particular object that's going to make a room," Rubino says.
Art -- collected, bought or acquired by trading with friends -- takes center stage throughout the house. "The only thing that has real color in this house is the artwork," Fiorito says. "Everything else is basically second fiddle."
Most Washingtonians "consider it beneath them to spend too much of their time or power on something like their design environment," Fiorito says. "I mean, let's face it, a lot of people aren't built to care about every single aspect of how they live. But people are starting to become conscious of what's happening in design. When I was growing up in the '50s, people were only interested in hanging up ferns in their houses."
Jill Hudson Neal is the Magazine's design editor. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.