by Beth Herman
Though art aficionados and friendly Francophiles Margaret Rubino and Sal Fiorito wanted more for their standard brick post war Chevy Chase, Md. home, an addition that spoke precisely the same language was not—in parlance of the country they adore—de rigueur.
Defying their standard two-story, 1,200 s.f. Colonial brick issue with a series of small rooms, including an inefficient kitchen also acting as a kind of hallway—a deterrent to their love of food and entertaining, Rubino, Fiorito and architect Steve Lawlor envisioned a kind of colossal glass room with a view, or perhaps two views.
One would extend outward to nature and the couple’s lush gardens, and the other, inherently more poetic, would foster an appreciation of an eclectic, intimate collection of the couple’s cherished art and objects. With all of that, the homeowners did seek some integration of the existing and new structures so that the addition wasn’t isolated “like an appendage,” Rubino said. Much like a disparate, though pleasurable piece of art categorized as mixed media, there needed to be cohesion between the elements.
Accordingly, a faux-Colonial fireplace was replaced with a gleaming marble surround, and openings between the rooms on the ground floor were notably enlarged so the inside of the house felt much more modern in light of the addition, Rubino explained. With Fiorito’s background in glasswork and architectural sculpture, an architectural glass front door he designed for the existing Colonial replaced a tired, traditional entrance, flanked by flush, contemporary porch lighting.
Mapplethorpe, machines and minestrone
“The addition itself is a reaction to the post war house—it’s not like we were trying to extract its DNA—we are playing off the house,” said architect Steve Lawlor. Referencing Leo Marx’s 1964 literary criticism “The Machine in the Garden,” a metaphor for contradictions in society and challenges to our own thinking or interior landscapes, Lawlor indicated the new space was to be a paean to the homeowners' unconventional tastes and ideals.
For globe-trekking interior and garden designer Rubino, owner of D.C.’s—and pre-9/11 NYC's—Rooms and Gardens (featuring early 20th century French antiques, vintage and other kinds of French furnishings, art and garden art), a kitchen/gallery space in which to relax, entertain and quietly showcase decades of cherished art was the goal. Objects that included sculpture — such as polychrome bloody saint’s feet found in Paris, furnishings and photography(Rubino’d been photographed herself by Robert Mapplethorpe) featuring a Jim Sanborn radium clock image — clearly needed a platform, albeit an informal one. For Fiorito, a driving force for many years behind Washington’s emerging and burgeoning art scene, including the pioneering Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), a place to showcase his art collection as well as his love of cooking was high on the agenda.
Siting the new construction at the rear, the original living and dining rooms (the latter subsequently turned into a study) were left in the existing part of the residence, with the living room wall bumped out for a more fluid entry into the new space. The old kitchen became a side entrance, transformed into a mudroom and transitional point to the rest of the house. With the addition conceived of as one large space, a new terrace for al fresco dining can be accessed through ceiling-height glass doors that open to the outdoors.
Defined by sweeping glass and clad in low-maintenance Galvalume (sheet steel) siding and stucco, which worked well with the new space’s massing, the stark contrast to the existing structure’s nondescript brick is apparent. “Hardiplank or wood wouldn’t have looked right, and stone didn’t fit in with the aesthetic they were interested in,” Lawlor said.
Pendant lights and partial nudes
For the interior, the homeowners chose the finishes, and Fiorito built and/or installed them, including marble countertops, ipe flooring and a combination of stained, rift-cut wood and high-gloss lacquered cabinets. White walls act as a clean canvas. “It’s intended to be a relatively minimal palette to showcase the art,” Lawlor said, adding, “…it’s hard for me to tell in this project where the architecture ends and the interior design begins.”
Amiably called “provocative” in everything they do by the architect, the homeowners acquired a life-sized semi-nude (named Tanya) by photographer Chan Chao, featuring the result on a divided pantry door that projects into the space. “A partially-clad woman in the kitchen isn’t for everybody, but it’s exactly them,” Lawlor said, noting because most everything else is built in, the pantry door’s three-dimensional aspect makes it a real focal point.
“I can’t have full frontal nudity in the kitchen,” Rubino quipped, because of their young son. “But she’s actually more compelling the way she is.”
To court the sun and extend the addition’s vistas, fixed floor-to-ceiling light-cut windows, but with operable units at the bottom for ventilation, frame the garden as art.
When the sun goes down, eight Ko No aluminum pendant lights by Tre Ci Luce—six over the marble island and two over the kitchen table—that are lowered and raised manually provide ample task lighting on day-to-day activities. Additional low voltage recessed track lighting is “aim-able,” according to Lawlor, and can be directed toward the table, floor, walls or wherever favorite art and objects would benefit.
“The addition is probably more in the spirit of who the homeowners are than is the original house,” Lawlor said, noting the couple’s art is not just randomly collected, but infused with history and personal memories. “They wanted something different, something big and loft-like—an open space in which they can live with their art and feel comfortable.”
photos courtesy of Maxwell MacKenzie and Margaret Rubino
For design story ideas contact Beth at bh @ dcrealestate.com