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A Back Bay brownstone that’s “highly, yet invisibly” functional

Thursday, August 20, 2020   /   by The Villages Home Search

A Back Bay brownstone that’s “highly, yet invisibly” functional

Like Rainbow Row in Charleston or the French Quarter in New Orleans, Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is iconic not because of a single towering landmark, but because of many charming structures that sit easily side by side. Behind the preserved exteriors of these Victorian brownstones, named for the sandy sedimentary rocks they were built from, are any number of styles, some period, some not, so when a young couple approached Lisa Tharp about decorating their new three-story home, she didn’t feel like they had to be bound to a single decade or era. She was free to mix, blend, compose.

However, there were a few restrictions. The clients were “minimalist at heart,” she says. “They wanted to respect the historic nature of the building, but they wanted to bring a cleaner, more streamlined style to the interior” than one might expect to encounter. Working alongside Hopkinton-based architects Mellowes and Paladino, Tharp set out to transform the tall, bright rooms into an ethereal, artistic living space that balanced a little whimsy against a lot of luxury.

A worm’s eye view photo of a grand staircase and skylights. The staircase, walls, windows and ceiling are all white and the banister is a dark, rich brown color. There is a pendant light hanging in the middle of the ceiling, along the cross section of four sky light windows.
Light pours in through the central staircase. Before the renovation, there was a simple spiral staircase, but Mellowes and Paladino decided to turn this into a key feature of the home. Tharp emphasized it with an Art Deco-inspired chandelier from Arteriors.

A clean, all-white kitchen with ample built in cabinets. The kitchen is accented by two gold metal-framed chairs that are tucked neatly under the kitchen island. There is a large bouquet of freshly-cut flowers sitting on the island.
Hopkinton-based architects Mellowes and Paladino designed this clean, bright kitchen, which features white marble countertops and hardwood floors.

Take the entryway. This area, says Tharp, is “an appetizer for what you’ll encounter as you move through the residence—a microcosm.” The predominant feeling is one of light, soft texture, thanks to the satiny luster of the upholstered Channel bench and the inviting pile of the abstract rug. The handsome wooden floors, the original walnut door, and the sweeping staircase with its chocolate banister and bright white steps anchor the room.

“The stairwell was a crowning achievement of the architect’s vision,” Tharp says appreciatively. It spirals up through the house to the skylights, which form a sort of floating sunroom and allow sunlight to pour into the heart of the home, all the way down to the well-dressed bench.

Although a far more private space, the bedroom is similarly clothed, done in lustrous, neutral-hued fabrics. There are velvet pillows on the bed and wool curtains over the windows. While the color scheme—lavender, gray, gold, and black—and glamorous light fixtures skew Art Deco, a number of midcentury silhouettes muddy the reference waters so that the home never feels like a movie set. Tharp placed a plywood Eames folding screen near the fireplace, where its rosy wood tones warm up the stark stone, and a pair of pale gold PearsonLloyd chairs by the window, where they create an intimate seating area for the couple. “These clients travel a lot,” she says. “They wanted a calm oasis that is highly, yet invisibly, functioning. Even in the seating area, we didn’t put a table. We chose another chest, so they have three more drawers in which to store things.”

A large bedroom with a bay-window accented with light brown curtains. In front of the bay window sit two light yellow, modern arm chairs and a small brown dresser. There is a tufted bed made neatly with a tufted grey quilt. Across from the bed is a fireplace with clean modern lines.
The owners’ bedroom features wool curtains, which Tharp notes “drape beautifully.” “There are different levels of sheen at work,” she says. “There’s high luster velvet on the square pillows, lower sheen on the quilt.” The range of texture within a limited color palette is, according to Tharp, part of a well-dressed bed.

A modern white chair with wooden legs sits in front of a golden-wood room divider and fireplace. On the floor is a stack of large art and design books.
Throughout the Back Bay brownstone, designer Lisa Tharp scattered a mix of older items, like this classic midcentury Eames folding screen made from molded plywood, and new ones, like the tufted upholstered bed, a Restoration Hardware find.

Rather than create clusters of vignettes like one might see in an Art Nouveau interior or a Sister Parish-style country home, Tharp went more modern. She chose to integrate bold pieces throughout the townhouse, selecting large, abstract paintings to hang over the mantelpiece in the bedroom (by Ellen Rolli), over the living room sectional (Takefumi Hori), and the living room fireplace (Caroline Rufo). In the bedroom are two sculptures Tharp describes as “unexpected,” an abstract midcentury piece (artist unknown) placed by the window and a small classical bust on the bedside table.

Tharp continued with the theme of quiet colors offset by strong lines in the living room. “The client wanted clean and minimalist, and from there, we created an ethereal envelope, which is about texture, not color, to work as a backdrop to the sculptural furniture,” she explains. “We matched the millwork to the wall color and ceiling, so that your eye travels calmly through the space, and it flows.” The dark floors ensure that it’s not too ethereal. “They keep it from floating away,” says Tharp.

“And then,” she adds with a bit of excitement in her voice, “you get a peek of one of my all-time favorite chairs. It’s famous.” She’s talking, of course, about the iconic Alky chair, designed in the 1970s by Giancarlo Piretti, that completes the circular sitting area. Perched across from the window, this version features a Holly Hunt lavender velvet and chrome plinth legs. “It looks like someone took a flat piece of soft furnishing and folded it to create a super comfortable extra chair,” she says. “It’s good company to mix in. Like when you’re at a great party, where you mix personalities of the guests—it’s a great chair to invite to the party.”

A cluster of globes form a pendant light in the living room. It hangs above a grey tufted daybed that is placed in front of the living room fireplace. Above the fireplace hangs a piece of abstract art with a blue/teal palette.
In front of the fireplace in the living room, Tharp placed a midcentury-style daybed as a “counterpoint to the classical architecture.” A ginkgo leaf table provides a note of freshness. Above the fireplace hangs a piece by artist Caroline Rufo.

A sun-drenched view of a modern, outdoor loveseat with throw pillows on a private roof deck. A large shiny skyscraper is visible in the background.
“Up here, it’s about the geometry and styling,” says Tharp of the roofdeck. “It’s having streamlined, modern simple lines of the sofa, and then to throw in a classical urn on a pedestal—it elevates the space.”

Against this sea of almost-white texture and angular millwork, Tharp installed a striking, bulbous chandelier made with hand-blown Venetian glass. “That was one of the first pieces we collectively decided upon,” she says. While she thinks a black-and-white palette would have been great in this home, she believes there’s something more interesting about the lavender and gray. “It reads very harmonious, and it doesn’t feel cold,” she says. “We kept the upholstery of the curved sectional and the midcentury daybed both in the gray family, but shifted it amethyst in a subtle way.”

That’s the key to this house—Tharp takes what you might expect to find and turns it one degree to the left. The chandelier is not made of globes, the walls are not quite white, the furniture is not all midcentury, the room is not quite Deco. “There’s been a resurgence in interest in Art Deco recently,” Tharp says. “But as you can see, we never reference just one thing.” A good example of this can be found by the living room fireplace, where a funky gold little table, shaped like a gingko leaf, arches delicately over the daybed. “It’s the little grace note that is unexpected, but it makes the composition sing,” says Tharp.

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