Although Nina Dunham was born in the “Mad Men” era, she had never gravitated toward mid-century modern design. But when she walked into an airy 1960s lobby in Southwest Washington’s River Park, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, bright-blue tiles and low-slung Knoll furniture, she felt at home.
“It looked straight out of ‘The Jetsons,’ ” says Dunham, who ended up buying a one-bedroom co-op in the high-rise in 2006. “I just loved it.”
Dunham hired Washington designer Rachel Dougan of ViVi Interiors to gut and decorate the 730-square-foot apartment, which wasn’t looking so modern anymore. Dougan reimagined the home’s floor plan, expanding the kitchen and bathroom and eliminating dark hallways and poorly designed closets. She conjured up entertaining zones, crafted clever storage solutions and added dramatic lighting (while keeping everything pet-friendly for Dunham’s two Somali cats). “I approached this as if I was designing a luxurious suite in a boutique hotel,” Dougan says.
Dunham, 52, an assistant at a private equity group who loves to throw cocktail buffets and Caps-watching parties, says, “I wanted a space that reflected who I was and that made me happy.”
Dougan, 49, gave the place a dramatic new look, with ethereal Fornasetti cloud wallpaper, minimalist Jonathan Adler dining chairs, kitchen cabinets lacquered in turquoise and a Venetian silk chandelier. “Knowing Nina is not a full-on Jetson in her taste or lifestyle, I adopted a rather broad interpretation of mid-century to include many lush — and, dare I say, groovy — elements from the ’60s and ’70s,” Dougan says. “The aim was to capture just enough of River Park’s DNA to maintain a sense of place in the overall design.” She used the colors found in the building’s lobby — blue, black and cream — throughout.
River Park is a rare oasis of mid-century design in Washington. It sits on 11 acres and is made up of 134 townhouses, some with distinctive barrel roofs, and 384 apartments in twin high-rises with distinctive aluminum grills. The architect was Charles M. Goodman, who designed the original terminal at Reagan National Airport and Alexandria’s Hollin Hills community.
Eric J. Jenkins, an architect and professor at Catholic University and River Park resident, has a copy of the original 1960s sales brochure promising “a new kind of living with all electric kitchens, TV antennas and an arts and craft room.” Jenkins says River Park was one of the first desegregated complexes in Washington and also promoted aging in place.
Dunham had been living on Capitol Hill when in 2006 her mother, who was having health issues, wanted to move closer to her. Both mother and daughter bought one-bedroom units in River Park. Her mother died in 2008; Dunham eventually sold that unit and began reevaluating her lifestyle, considering upgrading to a townhouse or moving elsewhere.
But in 2011, she met Dougan at a book club, and they became friends. They talked at length about Dunham’s apartment and what she could do with it. “I realized I didn’t need more space,” Dunham says. “So much of my life had been about larger, better, more. Why shouldn’t I just reuse my own footprint and create the perfect apartment for me?”
She hired Dougan in 2012, and over the next few years, they shaped a new layout and planned a vibrant redecoration. Dunham got rid of almost everything, except art, accessories and a few pieces that had belonged to her mother.
“We agreed we wanted a vibrant style, to bring the energy out in the apartment. But it was important that the space also be calming, a refuge,” Dougan says.
Today, when you open the front door, you enter a glamorous jewel box of a kitchen, with David Iatesta antiqued mirrors, turquoise cabinets and white Italian marble counters. “Our goal was not to look like a kitchen but to function beautifully as one. We wanted you to come in and feel like you are in a swanky lounge,” Dougan says.
To maximize the living area, Dougan divided it into spaces: an eating and entertaining space with a faux leather table that also serves as a workspace; a lounge area for tea or drinks with a William Yeoward mirrored walnut cabinet for storage; and a living area with an olive velvet sectional sofa. A black library wall fitted with an ethanol fireplace defines the right side of this main room and minimizes the 55-inch TV. On another wall, two floating white Besta consoles from Ikea provide storage without taking up floor space.
The bedroom is illuminated by bold Fornasetti cloud wallpaper. Dougan hand-cut the shapes of the clouds to avoid having a hard edge where the wall meets the ceiling. When the blue paint meets the curves of the clouds, it makes the room sort of float. “It’s like waking up in heaven every morning,” Dunham says. A brass display cabinet from a 1930s department store, which Dougan found at GoodWood on U Street, displays a collection of purses and evening bags.
The bathroom was furnished as meticulously as the other rooms. The unexpected black-on-black stylized floral wallpaper and black-and-white marble floor tiles make a dramatic backdrop. Although the Pax storage closet is an affordable find from Ikea, the custom pulls are Lalique crystal.
Dunham says the whole project was a gift to herself, after some tough years taking care of her mother. “This was about pleasing me. I didn’t really think about the resale value of what we did. I invested in what made me happy.” Sometimes, she says, that’s the best investment of all.
Wallcoverings and paint colors make a big statement in a small space, especially if you go bold, as designer Rachel Dougan of ViVi Interiors did at Nina Dunham’s one-bedroom co-op. “Bold and clever use of paint and wallcovering can help make a sad corner cheery, help with an awkward floor plan or turn an architectural eyesore into a feature,” Dougan says.
Here are some of the unique choices she made in this space.
Dining area: Dark Teal by Benjamin Moore (accent wall)
Dining and living area: Wimborne White by Farrow & Ball (ceiling)
Bathroom: Blackened by Farrow & Ball (ceilings and cabinets)
Bedroom: Stone Blue by Farrow & Ball (ceilings and wall details)
Hutch cabinet doors and columns: Pearl Ray Shagreen by Ralph Lauren in Pearl Grey
Dining/living room: Shantou metallic weave grasscloth in Pearl by Ralph Lauren
Bathroom: Velvet Jacquard by Anna French for Thibaut in black and glitter
Bedroom: Nuvolette by Fornasetti for Cole & Son in black and white
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Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Designer Rachel Dougan of ViVi Interiors joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice.