|ROOM WITH A VIEW: Birdsong mixes periods and designers with abandon: Florence Knoll’s Parallel Bar series chairs and coffee table rest near a 1952 Paul McCobb sofa from the Connossieur series. The 40s Walter von Nessen floor lamps have original Bakelite knobs, but Birdsong designed new lampshades to replicate the originals.|
Design consultant Charles Birdsong returns a Turtle Creek apartment to its midcentury-modern roots.
|WALL ART: Birdsong found this 1964 George Nelson wall unit at Century Modern. Aside from its sleek design and practicality, he admires the fact that it leans against the wall, rather than attaching to it.|
By his own admission, local stylist and design consultant Charles Birdsong is not a window shopper. “If I go shopping, I need something to show for it,” he says. One day back in 1999, he’d gone out with every intention of buying a new car, but after lunch he tagged along with a friend who was looking at real estate and ended up with a 667-square-foot Turtle Creek condominium instead. “My friend was thinking of it as an investment property,” Birdsong remembers, “but the unit needed work, and he wasn’t at all sure he wanted that kind of commitment. I told him if he didn’t buy it, I would.” And he did.
“I love the building’s midcentury design,” Birdsong says. “I wanted the finished apartment to look as if the owner had hung on to the building’s roots and let the design evolve over time.” To that end, he used many of the fixtures and furnishings he grew up with in his mother’s and grandmother’s homes. Their history and sentimental value fill the apartment with an energy and life that no new purchase could. “Besides,” he says, “it’s cheating to throw out everything you already have and buy all new. Design is a little like poker: you’re dealt a hand, and you’re not allowed to throw back all of your cards. You have to decide which to keep to build the strongest hand you can.”
|RETRO REDO: Birdsong gutted and reconfigured the kitchen to make the space work more efficiently.|
Birdsong supplemented these inherited pieces with finds from varied sources, including Century Modern and Collage. But he’s no slave to period design: in the living room, a 1960s George Nelson shelving unit shares space with ’40s floor lamps, a small petal table from the ’70s, and a ’50s couch sporting pillows made from an antique Guatemalan peasant shirt. “If you’re over-specific about designing with period details,” he says, “you create a museum, not a home. The design simply doesn’t live as well. It’s not friendly; it offers you no creature comforts.”
“The apartment has come together slowly, over time,” he says. “I don’t buy something until it hurts a little bit not to have it.” An example is the small iron chair in a corner of the living room. Often attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, the chair was actually designed in 1957 by Wright’s son-in-law for a California mortuary. “The first time I looked the chair, it didn’t seem like anything I had to have,” Birdsong remembers. “But when I walked away, it seemed like something I couldn’t live without.”
A year after the project was completed, Birdsong considered selling the apartment, but when he tried to walk away, he found that the entire space had become something he can’t live without.
Charles Birdsong’s design and decorating tips.
Trust yourself. In his 1946 book to young couples starting families after World War II, Dr. Spock said, “You know more than you think you do. Trust your instincts.” That applies to interior design, as well.
Not every job is a total redo. Whether you’re remodeling or redecorating, really think about it before you decide that everything has to go. What can you save or recycle?
Paint your ceilings. Americans pay a lot of attention to walls but leave the largest uninterrupted space in the room—the ceiling—stark white. Decorator Billy Baldwin advised painting ceilings blue; unless your room looks onto a body of water, then you can use green. I favor watery-blue —not baby blue or sky blue—or pale-yellow ceilings.
Lighting is key. Dimmers are a great idea, but most people don’t understand their best use. The beauty of dimmers is not that you can raise and lower the lighting, but that you can balance it.