For Victor Shargai and staff of the eponymous interior design firm, designing for someone at the vanguard of working women's rights, who has served five presidents, was the 29th U.S. Secretary of Commerce under George W. Bush, held esteemed positions in corporate circles and academia, is an expert on corporate governance, auditing and financial reporting practices, and currently helms her own D.C.-based international consulting firm presented less of a challenge than one might imagine.
On the precipice of a 30-year-long collaboration, the renowned Shargai and Honorable Barbara Hackman Franklin have pondered a progressive set of design issues for Franklin, choices running the gamut from Asian art to furniture proportion to the joy of aeries and cupolas. The relationship has faithfully endured the creation of five residences (four in Washington and one in Bristol, Conn.), two offices (one twice), as well as a small airplane hangar fit for a seasoned pilot and country gentleman: Franklin’s husband of nearly 25 years, Wallace Barnes, retired Chairman and CEO of Connecticut-based Barnes Group Inc.
Genesis and Geography
Introduced to Franklin by mutual friend Jean Sisco, first female director of the Washington Board of Trade in 1968 who’d mentored Franklin, Shargai and company were charged with designing Franklin’s first Watergate apartment with three more to follow. “The first apartment was a one-bedroom,” Shargai recounted. “It had a few pieces of French furniture, a few family antiques, and we set that together with casual French fabrics and probably some chintz – pied-a-terre-ish. It was a warm, inviting apartment.”
As Franklin’s Washington star rose, another Watergate apartment with evolved style ensued, followed by the circa-1995 purchase of a Watergate three-bedroom, two-story duplex, replete with terrace and encompassing river views. Designing for two, as it were, with the duplex to be occupied by Franklin and husband Wallace Barnes, Victor Shargai & Associates senior designer Blair Riggs said Franklin went from environs that "would have qualified as very feminine and country French to a style that was little more elegant.” With an eye to more home entertaining, Riggs recalled their client’s tastes were always fresh “…but a little higher styled now with beautiful fabrics from Bergamo and Clarence House, and with the introduction of Oriental antiques,” as Franklin travels extensively in the Far East. Mahogany, silk and wide stripes also defined the space, along with a collection of patriotic accessories precipitated by Franklin’s career.
Prior to the client’s move to the Watergate duplex, Shargai revealed that Barnes had expressed a “conundrum” in that the former WWII pilot had nowhere to garage his Cessna in Connecticut. Parking it on some acreage across from his Connecticut farmhouse, Barnes had desired a space that would effectively shelter his plane. A decision was subsequently reached with Connecticut architect Charles Nyberg, of Associated Architects PC, to build a brand new home with multiple garages: one for the plane. A contemporary structure with modern art by Willem de Looper and Bjorn Bjornholt, and 19th century Barnes family portraits, a wedding quilt hangs in the living room with its seven-foot mantle and 20-foot ceilings. Leaning historically toward a traditional wood-sided Connecticut farmhouse, according to Shargai, when Nyberg suggested adding a cupola, the designer confessed he effusively requested a real aerie. “God bless, he did it,” Shargai affirmed. “It’s a spectacular (furnished) space where you can see miles because they are very high up on a hill. I do a walk-through with clients every year or so to see how things are,” he added, “and in this particular house we always end up there.”
Savoir-faire in the Sky
Referencing a giant step Franklin and Barnes took in 2006 when they jettisoned their Watergate duplex in favor of a 3,000 s.f. Watergate apartment, Shargai said he adheres to the tenet that “just because the floor plan says dining room,” one is not obligated to color inside the lines. Sited one level below the penthouse with sweeping Key Bridge, Roosevelt Island and Kennedy Center views, firm Vice President Rahman Seraj, who specializes in interior architectural elements, decided to open a chopped up living space by initially gutting the entire apartment. Accordingly, the space went from a smaller living room, library, dining room, kitchen, three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath apartment to a one-bedroom refuge, reconfiguring the aforementioned additional rooms into a huge living/dining space. A kitchen opens to the space with the option of isolating it for catered events. With lower ceiling height characterizing Watergate apartments, Seraj used gallery-like surface mounts similar to Monopoint lighting to achieve the distinctive indirect lighting results the home deserved.
“I think it’s a real success because it’s very elegant and at the same time comfortable,” Shargai said, noting their efforts to accommodate Wallace Barnes’ 6’3 frame and affinity for the great outdoors without precluding his wife’s smaller stature and tastes. A bold, traditional color palate (Prussian blue; cinnabar red; celadon) traditionally found in Tabriz rugs, and features such as a pair of Minton-Spidell chairs, “exquisite French chairs that will fit any man,” Shargai said, complement the use of beautiful fabrics, Oriental rugs – one from the original apartment! – and a working fireplace. “Elegant doesn’t necessarily mean untouchable,” Shargai said, emphasizing comfort overall.
In what the designer called “a true Meg Ryan moment,” a mantle owned by the firm in its early days, acquired years ago by Shargai’s and Franklin’s mutual friend Jean Sisco (the one who’d introduced them) was again in play, made available to Shargai & Associates following Sisco’s passing. “We needed a mantle for the working fireplace in Barbara’s (newest) apartment,” Shargai said, “and somehow God was watching over us because it’s extraordinary that it fit perfectly. It’s made the relationship come full circle,” he concluded.
Noting that both Franklin and Barnes are quintessential cooks, Shargai added that kitchens in the current D.C. and Connecticut abodes are designed to foster the confluence of cooperation and creativity that defines the couple. “I always make sure when I go to Connecticut to check things out that it’s around lunch or dinner time,” he quipped, citing their inclusion of organic food grown at the farm across the road in Bristol.
“Though Ms. Franklin’s a very busy woman, traveling both nationally and internationally, one of the things I admire is that she always has fresh flowers she’s (arranged) herself,” Riggs said of the feeling in the Watergate residence. “It gives me great joy to go there.”