Design Diary: Ladder District Loft by Duncan Hughes

I thought I knew most of the designers in Boston, until I encountered Duncan Hughes. Talented, inventive, and sensitive to clients’ lifestyles and tastes, I met Hughes when I was assigned to write a story about a young couple’s downtown Boston loft, “Unpolished Perfection,” for Boston Home’s Spring 2012 issue. Hughes’ work, as you can see here, is fresh and functional, with a sense of humor, a bit of drama, and more than a touch of the practical. (Unrelated tidbit: Hughes recently re-designed a home for Katherine Heigl in L.A.)

Photography by Eric Roth

A wall of faux boxwood greets visitors when they step off the elevator. It’s a surprise of the after being on the busy city street. The ceiling is painted black to suggest a night sky. The sliding barn-style doors are mahogany doors salvaged from a school in Milton, Mass., painted electric blue. The contractor wasn’t thrilled about painting the beautiful old wood, but Hughes convinced him. Hardware:; wallpaper: Cole & Sons; stools: Wisteria; coat stand: Abodeon, Cambridge.

The elevator doors are done in chalkboard paint; great for last minute grocery reminders. Hughes helped the couple organize the huge living room space. The homeowner told me, “I never lived anymore where we could fit more than one couch, and it was obvious where it would go. Here, not only is there 20 places to put a couch, you could have more than one!”

Roman shades: Kelly Wearstler ‘Trellis’ for Schumacher; artwork: Yes.Oui.Si, Boston; credenza: Abodeon; gray sofa: Room & Board; brown sofa: The Bright Group, upholstered in leather with mohair seat cushion.

Hughes custom designed the cocktail table, fabricated in Lucite by Altec Plastics in Boston. (Yes, the rug is different in this photo, which I took when I visited for the walk-through and interview.)

Next to the living room is another seating area, inspired by Hughes’ recent African safari. He says, “I was fresh off a safari in Botswana, where we’d gather around a fire with director chairs and a full bar. I wanted that effect here. I didn’t want any matching chairs; I wanted it to feel like people just grabbed what was there and pulled them up to talk.”

The trick to a mix and match chair ensemble? “Getting seat heights about the same height, so nobody feels out of place, and making sure everyone’s feet are on the carpet, even just one foot, so they feel like they’re in the group. “Coffee table and chair on left: vintage 1950s  from Reside, Boston; Womb chair from Addo Novo, Boston; wood chair by Blu Dot; artwork: Yes.Oui.Si, Boston.

The fireplace is gas from Sparks, with no hearth, for maximum simplicity. Hughes says, ” The theme is rustic meets modern with a little industrial sprinkled on top.” The surround is done in salvaged barn wood from Maine. Hughes started out wanting to line it with old railroad ties, for a log cabin feel, but ran into issues with toxicity. He chose each piece of wood very carefully, some with knots, some with old paint, and planned out exactly which sections of each board he would use. Later, the contractor picked them up and promptly sawed them right in half so they’d fit, nearly causing Hughes a heart attack. “I thought he was kidding, but we made it work.”

The sconces on the surround are vintage chrome pieces.

Hughes designed a faux window above the bar. It’s lit with fluorescent strips enhanced with gels purchased at a local performing arts hardware store, to get just the right quality of light that it resembles a window. The vintage chandelier has a bit of a deco feel. The long trestle table was handmade in California by the guy who originally had designed a similar table for Restoration Hardware.

Hughes built in a bar on the back of the entry wall, borrowing space from an oversize coat closet. The couple likes to entertain, so the bar was high on their priority list.

The kitchen was already intact when Hughes was hired, but he did spruce up the old fire doors, and added shelves behind them, creating a shallow space perfect for spice jar storage.

To separate the public and private spaces, Hugh designed the black room divider, fabricated from etched polycarbonate. The cloudy finish allows light through, but obscures the mess of toys and such behind it. The shiny tin panel on the right is a pocket door. The piano sits on an oversize sheepskin rug (six pelts sewn together) from Bowron Sheepskin in New Zealand.

Hughes designed an ingenious reading nook at the foot of the stairs, modeled on the outdoor lawn chairs of his youth. The adjustable back is woven with seat belt fabric. The cushion lifts up for storage. The bookcase is extra deep, and accessible from both sides.

Homeowners Darren and Colette Powell.

Designer Duncan Hughes.

For more about the space, design process, Hughes, and the homeowners, read the full story, “Unpolished Perfection” in Boston Home.

Designer Spotlight: Kara Butterfield

I visited stylist Kara Butterfield at her small but perfectly styled South End apartment in April. You can read the interview, “A Local Design Diva Spills Her Styling Secrets” in Stuff Magazine. (Kara has since moved into a more spacious loft, and I’m eagerly awaiting a peek. Kara, are you reading this?!)

Kara on sofa

Kara hails from Australia, where she studied theater and film production design and worked in set design, which led her to styling homes for magazines in Sydney. She still styles photo shoots today, in Boston, but also does a lot of design work for people’s homes. She’s recently teamed up with Lindsay Bentis of Thread Art & Design. Lindsay is a trained artist turned interior designer, and together they are a whirlwind design team. Kara also teaches style clinics through her business Make Ready, offering design advice on such topics as “Bookshelf and Mantle Display” and “Dinnerware and Décor.”

You can read the article to find out Kara’s favorite trends, must-have items and secret shopping sources. Here I wanted to share an aspect of our conversation that I found particularly interesting, that didn’t make it into the magazine. And, of course, plenty of extra photographs.

Magazine photos of interiors look so gorgeous. Is it possible to live in a space that’s been styled for a photograph?

No, it’s not. That’s why editors aren’t all using stylists now – they want to get a sense of how people actually live. The trend is very relaxed and comfortable; ease of living.

There is an art to photo styling that is different from interior design or decorating; you see things in frames. When you look through the camera lens you see a contained area. In real life there is the issue peripheral vision, which you don’t have in a photo still. There is also the issue of depth of field. You need to modify the tableau for a photograph. You create a composition and adjust it to fit in the frame it will go in, taking into account what will be in the background, foreground, etc.

The still life on the mantle would work, but if I were to shoot the coffee table you’d have to adjust the composition to look normal. If a vase and books are too close, it will look like they’re touching in the photo. And you need to think about shapes more. I’d want a plant to come across with a particular shape, so I will have move it around to achieve that.

kara fireplaceThe fireplace is the focal point of Kara’s living room. When I asked her about common mistakes people make when they’re decorating she said, “Not creating a focal point in the room. You want to limit the focal point to one major feature in the room.” Also, don’t be afraid to experiment. “A focal point can be easily changed by repositioning furniture and forming smaller areas in a larger room.”

kara mantle

Kara’s artfully arranged mantle includes a fab piece of black fan coral and mollusks she purchased through Pam Levine at Surf-N-Turf. But don’t expect it to look this way on the next visit. Kara says, “I change it around all the time.”

kara crabThe horseshoe crab was a boyfriend’s find on a beach in New Haven, Connecticut. He’s displayed under clear plastic stands from, get this, Staples. There’s a fresh idea for all those stolen (excuse me, “borrowed”) office supplies.

kara rocks in glass

Kara picked up the rocks on a Rhode Island beach. They’re under plain old bar glasses. She says, “If you put anything in a glass, or behind glass it celebrates it, gives it meaning, like a picture in a frame.” Other uses for rocks: “You could write someone’s name on them for a place card.”

plantThe plant has been re-potted in a lychee tea tin that’s been placed inside a simple, square, glass florist vase. Kara tells me, “I have this thing at the moment, of putting things inside other things, I am doing that quite a bit.” She loves using recycled containers.

The tin is from Asian market Super 88, one of Kara’s secret sources. Kara reveals that the market has “Great modern ceramic pieces and basics that you can mix with classic white dinnerware, or bowls you can put your jewelry in.

Picture 1

The living room mixes vintage finds, reproductions, and economical pieces for a pulled together feel. Kara’s a big fan of IKEA for basics, which is where her sofa is from. Like many designers, Kara finds that blending low priced pieces with high end ones elevates the whole look. She loves discovering new pieces at IKEA stores around the world. She got a water decanter for the bed side that she’s never seen here, in Australia. And she says that some of textiles are different as well as the gadgets.

kara sapienThe red Eames chair is from Design Within Reach, as is the Sappien bookshelf. She says, “I was only getting one chair, so I thought it should be splashy. It was the first piece I purchased in Boston, and I know it will be the piece I take with me wherever I go.”

Picture 1_2The coffee table is from Reside in Cambridge. Shop owner Pamela Watts curates a beautiful collection of mid-century modern finds. Kara prefers quality over quantity, and strives to keep her environment uncluttered. She admits, “Stylists are known for being pack rats, with lots of stuff and props. My partner is an architect whose style is more minimal, so I have to be mindful of not having shelves of tchokes. We always have our own opinions about beauty and design.

Her advice? Make a conscious effort to un-clutter so you can discover the gems.”Filter to find the aha piece that will make your room complete.” And edit! If you bring something new in, take something else out of the mix.

Picture 2_2

The chest is a Scandinavian design from Machine Age in South Boston, of which Kara says, “It’s a stunning store. It’s filled with twentieth century and mid-century vintage classics in a meticulous layout.” There’s also a Le Corbusier lounge her partner purchased there.

kara art montage“Art,” says Kara, “is the souvenir I collect when I travel.” She also makes her own. The bottom pieces is a framed sheet of postage stamps.

Other tips: “People often hang artwork too high, so it doesn’t connect to the furniture or the accessories placed on the furnishings. The general rule is to hang pictures at eye level, but I tend to place them slightly higher, usually about two- or three-inches. I have found that this adds more drama to the room. Hanging works at this level makes your eye look slightly higher, which helps make the ceiling appear taller and the room more airy.”

Also, Kara pleads, “Art should be displayed in groupings. And, it’s more visually pleasing if the frames have a consistent theme, like a similar color.” A pet peeve? A zillion framed family photos scattered all over the house.

kara lt on tableKara’s obsession? Lighting. “Why do I have a thing for lighting? Maybe because I had fluorescent lighting in my room growing up, and at school. It’s brutal and invasive. I would never turn it on. When my mother told my sister and I we could get new lamps, y sister chose like that. I waited until I found the perfect one.

“These days, she says, “I have many more lights than I need. It’s good to have a combination of task, table, and standing lights. Neena’s Lighting is like a jewelry store for me.”

Picture 2Kara’s bed is dressed with crisp linens. The tall windows are wonderful. The windows are bare. She finds that many people dont’ let sufficient natural light in. (This shot is from her website. She said she’d kill me if I posted the ones I took of her “messy” bedroom when I visited.)

kara chaise

Some parting words, “We can go overboard with obsessions and wish lists. But I think we can be very happy with the things that we already live with it.”