Something tells us we’re not in Kansas anymore – and perhaps not even in D.C. for that matter.
Entering the 1910 three bedroom, three bath Adams Morgan row house condominium of interior designer John Hutson, one is supremely challenged by its provenance.
Greeted by starry skylights, a 15-foot tall Raphis palm, French grey alabaster urn from a Paramount Studios backlot auction, an Austrian Loetz lamp and Jugendstil box—both circa 1910-14, delicate lanterns of Iraqi glass with Moroccan filigree and mother-of-pearl inlay harem doors, these and hundreds of other artifacts collected by the former California documentary director/producer make for a two-story residence clearly more tactile than traditional.
Punctuated by comely Bertoia furnishings, the 2,000 s.f. space’s midnight blue carpeting and eight different paint colors on the walls of the living/dining area alone attest that Hutson’s tastes are a lot romantic and a little bit rogue. The designer maintains, however, that his style is firmly rooted in the dozen or so trips he has made to Morocco—so far.
Founder and principal of D.C.-based Lyric Space, an interior design firm named for Hutson’s unapologetically poetic world view, in addition to residences the designer has put his mirage-like stamp on such notable Washington eateries as PI, Mama Ayesha’s, Grand Central, Café 8, the former Trattoria Liliana and more.
“The chance to eat out is the chance to go on vacation for two hours and leave behind your troubles, and talk to people you’d never otherwise meet in your life,” Hutson said of his hospitality work and design philosophy. “Regardless of what I’m faced with, I turn (the space) into something that’s more nurturing of the human spirit.”
Moving his business from L.A. to D.C. in 2000, Hutson said an hour at a car wash precipitated a chance meeting with an Italian restaurateur, Liliana Dumas, who became his first client. Emptying his trunk so it could be vacuumed, he walked across the street with its contents and ordered a sandwich, depositing a pile on the table. A book called “Spirituality in Design” by Carol Soucek King caught the eye of Hutson’s sandwich maker who asked to see it.
“She looked all the way through it and I could tell she didn’t like it,” Hutson said, though she conceded she did like one particular design. Turned out it was a project of Hutson’s, and he was hired on the spot to create what would become D.C.’s Trattoria Liliana.
His soul and sensibilities infused with the warm tones of the California sun he’d left behind, Hutson set about gilding and lighting Trattoria Liliana to augment its owner’s skin tones, ensuring she projected vigor and warmth as she visited with her patrons each evening.
“One of the problems in D.C. is that often times people’s complexions are pasty—they don’t get the sun,” he said. For the restaurant owner, daughter of a style-conscious seamstress for a Paris couture house and haute coutured herself, Hutson designed low-hanging onyx lamps that directed white light onto the table and food, but streamed hues of orange, umber and tan out of the sides. “It always gave her a tan,” he said, adding he’d ascertained the happiest times in her and her husband’s lives to be sunset dinners in coastal Liguria, Italy, where they were from. Using orange and yellow stained glass lighting and red-tinted wainscoting throughout the space, the design and its atmospheric results were redolent of photography’s “golden hour” where everybody looks fit and healthy, like those evenings in Liguria, Hutson explained. In fact the decor was noted in a Washington Post magazine review, before any mention of the menu, by food critic Tom Sietsema.
(Not) Lost in Space
Growing up a different kind of Midwesterner in the 1960s, Hutson said he survived interminable childhood challenges from his peers by escaping into the pages of “romantic books.” He also lived largely inside his own head, imagining grand parties and the like.
“I think that’s where I came to realize the power of space,” he said, noting his highly successful salesman father used to wallpaper rooms in perhaps a Zen-like effort to relieve tension. “He showed me that a space may be one thing when the walls are white, but it’s a whole different thing once you put up crazy wallpaper. It kind of came together that if you could imagine a different place, it could happen.”
Relocating as he did to D.C., the Adams Morgan condo living room he would share with city planner Steve Cochran had the ubiquitous white walls—with what Hutson said were tedious microphone lights mounted every five feet beneath an 18-inch bump out concealing an air conditioner. He upended the banal effects of the fixtures’ grey lighting, heating it up by painting the walls terracotta, or Farrow and Ball’s “Red Earth,” with pigments produced by crushed rock in the old manner of the Dutch Masters. Noted for its reflective qualities, Hutson said the paint reacts to light much as crystals would, resulting in a room that exchanged pale and sallow for peppery and sunny.
Below the a/c bump out is a mother-of-pearl inlay wood panel from India, a gift to a close friend of Hutson’s, from now-deceased Moroccan Princess Lala Fatima Zhora. A pioneer and activist against all odds, the princess had formed a women’s union to protect her sisters in business. The panel is said to cure what ails you if burned and the smoke from the mother-of-pearl inhaled.
Also in the living room, two stained glass panels (formerly mounted together) are sited at each end of the axis. Appearing almost as sculpture, they flank two kilim-upholstered couches with 13 different colors in a nest-like arrangement, creating towers of light that raise the eyes to the room’s full 15-foot ceiling height. A dark wood fireplace with a mirror encased in mashrabiya—an intricately carved wood screen often found in harems because of their one-way viewing effect—creates a horseshoe effect around the mirror. Above the horseshoe is a stack of muqarnas balls, defined as a three-dimensional decoration of Islamic architecture.
Along the space’s north wall, which visitors encounter when they climb up to enter (the condominium occupies the 3rd and 4th floors), a seven-foot horizontal photograph of Burma by photographer Antonio Girbes sets the tone for the eclectic environment within. A marble foyer features a back-painted glass expression of the Titanic and notorious iceberg, along with a Moroccan door. A vintage inlay Moroccan secretary with two pedestals, multiple niches and compartments, and even a fez holder complements a 1974 Paolo Deganello torso armchair from the iconic Italian architect and designer’s Memphis period, according to Hutson—admittedly large for the space but a real statement of comfort.
Cabinets, closets and curves
In the residence’s kitchen (Hutson calls it a “cockpit” kitchen), designed to maximize storage—including the homeowners’ 100-strong vase collection— architect Brie Husted, who is Steve Cochran’s niece, suspended maple cabinets over the stairs that lead to the space itself. Cantilevered wall cabinets over the sink also help to utilize limited space. A curved wall projection designed by Cochran works to conceal the scope of the refrigerator, washer and dryer, and contains additional two-story closet space for clothing, with a recessed hanging display for flowers by artist John Dodd. Cochran also added stainless steel base moldings which reflect the living room’s midnight blue carpeting.
In the dining room, an M2L table with steel edges has glass in the center where drop-down leaves would typically be hinged, according to Hutson. This facilitates a curved flourish in the glass – “a sweeping angel wing half circle”—that the designer explained is visible to entering guests before they realize they are glimpsing the table.
Of kings and pop stars
In the master bedroom suite, a California King bed with Indian inlay headboard complements a collection of decorative six mother-of-pearl inlay fez holders on the wall. “What they really use them for is when they’re praying,” Hutson explained of the fez holder’s role in their country of origin. “They need a place to take off their hats and not lay them on the ground.”
Once in possession of some of King Farouk’s furniture, Hutson said he has an even older dressing mirror smuggled out of Egypt. Fashioned with pontoon feet, the designer explained when the Berbers traveled in the desert tents would be erected with layers of carpeting for flooring. The edges of the feet have extensions more like skis or pontoons to remain static and not sink into the sand.
A black and white master bath with crushed marble Bisazza tile features an inventive shower enclosure of charcoal grey fabric, stitched and perforated so the fabric flaps away from what would normally be its silk lining. “We did not want a cold piece of glass and instead use this as a curtain,” Hutson said, adding the tiles measure 22-by-22 inches with 20-inch white circles inside. The effect is both geometrical and dramatic.
In the guest bathroom, a 1980s period mirror purchased from singer Paul Anka has “…pointy shapes, circles, chrome, brass and screws—it’s just whack,” Hutson said. Beginning with a white space and deleteriously oversized magenta sink and toilet, the designer said a two-year investment of time was made in reimagining the bathroom around the mirror.
Citing other elements that include a modern maple desk for Cochran that deconstructs into a 6-by-4-foot cube, Hutson said it is important that people don’t see a space only for its utility.
“I want people to understand that you can really make poetry—really influence the way you feel,” he affirmed. “You can shape your life by how you change a room.”
Photo credit: Rey Lopez