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Cover Story

Confessions Of A Home & Garden Editor

D Home Editor Christine Allison practices what she preaches as she redecorates her home.

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Confessions of a Home & Garden Editor

The children were graduating from high school. The dog was trained. It was time to practice the good decorating I’ve been preaching in this magazine for years.

A couple of years ago, not long after Christmas, my husband and I looked around and admitted that as rich as the English language is, the only word that could aptly describe our house was “pit.” It was not only worn from the holidays, but also from the patter of our four children, Buckley the dog, and the fact that we actually live in our living room, watch television there, snack there, and put our feet on the furniture there. Our life, to exaggerate only slightly, was a Mateus bottle short of grad student chic.

Not that we aspired to grandeur. We’ve always been focused on our children and our books, adamantly more professorial than posh. Our style was a reckless combination of my husband’s Jed Mace-designed Dallas duplex of the 1970s, our third-floor walk-up in New York of the 1980s, and the winter house we once owned in Key West.

Michelle Nussbaumer

Thus, on the face of it, it might have seemed incongruous, even daft, that we would have turned for guidance to Michelle Nussbaumer, a glamorous Dallas-based decorator who has as many projects in LA and New York as she does locally; a woman who wears Prada to Tom Thumb and sunglasses to evening parties. Nussbaumer is as theatrical as we are not – this is a woman who could make a one-act play out of a trip to the gas station. But the truth was, we were due for a little glamour. And Nussbaumer figured us out in our first meeting. “I will do exactly what you would do if you knew what you were doing,” she says, without meaning insult. She asked me lots of questions and then listened.

BEDROOM: A blissful stay in a William Caligari-designed room at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires inspired the Allisons to finally tackle their master bedroom. Headboard in Cortina leather finished in brass nail heads and muslin curtains with trim are available through Michelle Nussbaumer Design. Swing-arm lamps are from Pottery Barn; shades are from Restoration Hardware. On the mirrored 1940s gueirdon reproduction table are a vintage Venetian bowl and whiskey-colored 1920s French art glass, both Ceylon et Cie. The Sherwin Williams caramel brown paint, against the Ralph Lauren white grasscloth wall behind the bed, creates a neutral backdrop for the blue-and-white linens from Porthault’s collection. The bone-inlaid Rajastan chairs and antique table from Cameroon are Ceylon Portfolio. The Karl Blossfeldt photographs on the far wall are from Vineyard Frame Designs.

Unfortunately, the first thing she heard sounded like a confession – our budget. Sure, we lived in a pit, but it was not going to be a money pit; we didn’t have a fortune to pour into it. Since I so often publish exceptional homes by top designers, I was accustomed to seeing multi-million dollar projects, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure our budget was adequate. I shouldn’t have worried. LESSON NO. 1: While you do need a reasonable amount of money to start, if you are an amiable client, most decorators are happy to work with you. With our mid-range budget in mind, Nussbaumer executed our plan over time. We began with the common rooms – living room, dining room, and library – and eventually tackled the bedrooms. Our funds allowed for painting, curtains, and slipcovers, and we were able to redo our floors and buy a few pieces of furniture. And while Nussbaumer did “have issues” with some elements – the worn wall-to-wall carpeting up the stairs, light fixtures that looked too Pottery Barn, and so on – she was enthusiastic about many of our possessions and eager to help us pull it all together.

LESSON NO. 2: Decorating, when done by committee, is stressful. I have been married for 22 years. Love the guy, really do. But my husband would be very happy if we painted every wall brown, and then filled each room with brown furniture, keeping every floor surface brown, perhaps with brown rugs. “Hmmm,” Nussbaumer says thoughtfully, “I have issues doing every single thing in brown. What else does he like?” “Anything Roman,” I say, suddenly feeling very tired. But Nussbaumer has been through this before. “What do you like?” she asks. I tell her how much I like white. And I don’t think until that moment that I ever really knew how very different brown is – from white.

FOYER: Michelle Nussbaumer pulled together a study in brown and white, starting with the entry hall, which doubles as a library. The table in the center hall is 19th century English, surrounded by a set of 19th century Spanish Colonial tooled leather chairs. The Romanesque bronze chandelier is Panache from ID Collection. The 1920s Mexican pottery from a museum sale in Guadalajara is from the Allison’s collection. Seagrass rug is from Clifton Carpet.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT happened very fast. Nussbaumer brought three samples of chocolate brown paint to the house and her painter swept the walls with test patches. She ended up doctoring Martha Stewart’s Burl from Sherwin-Williams. The walls weren’t perfectly smooth, so we did it all in an eggshell finish, which concealed the imperfections beautifully. Bone-colored slipcovers in linen were made for almost every upholstered piece in the living room. After establishing a general palette for the living room, she found an ochre paint – very Roman – for the entry hall and paired it with terra cotta Fortuny-inspired fabric for the curtains. At Ceylon et Cie, we found a library table and a set of old leather ranch chairs for the entry hall. We brought in Oriental rugs. We took them back. We tried some modern ’50s chairs. We took them back. We found a fabulous collection of blanc de Chine at a great price. It worked perfectly. We bought the entire collection.

And then we stopped.

As thrilling as it is to decorate a house, it is also expensive and time-consuming. Our budget was running low, so after finishing the living room, dining room, and entry hall, we decided to take a little break. LESSON NO. 3: Inertia is deadly. If you are decorating your house, avoid taking a break, unless it is for budgetary reasons. Otherwise you’ll never finish your project. Fortunately, when my husband and I decided it was time to start up again, this time on the master bedroom, Nussbaumer got things moving at a splendid pace. She immediately started pulling fabrics and bringing us Polaroids of various pieces of furniture. Because we had our communication style in place, we were able to work decisively and – suddenly – our master bedroom was the sanctuary I had always dreamed about. The color scheme in our bedroom? Brown and white. Naturally.

In the pages of D Home, we write about the joy that we find in beautiful rooms. But until I worked on my own home, I don’t think I realized the depth of that joy, or how it would filter down even to our youngest child. Had I known this, I would have tackled our house years ago. And that, I suppose, is LESSON NO. 4. With paint, wallpaper, curtains, rugs, beautiful floors, and new upholstery, we now have a home that pleases us. Our plans for the bathrooms are shaping up, and someday, sooner rather than later, we’ll work on our kitchen. The more we pour into our home, the more affection we have for it and the more we enjoy it, together, as a family. And that, in the end, is what it’s all about. 

LIVING ROOM: Comfort is important to the Allisons, who actually “live” in their living room. On the far wall, a 19th century Louis Philippe mirror is surrounded by Old Master etchings from Beaux Arts. With the exception of the 1960s chair covered in Ralph Lauren blue mohair from ID Collection and the chair covered in custom blue damask from Raoul Textiles, ID Collection, Michelle Nussbaumer slip-covered the furniture in Ralph Lauren natural linen. The pair of 1960s marble tables were purchased from Hollywood estate; 1960s blanc de Chine garden stool from Ceylon et Cie; black Chinese lacquer table from ID Collection. In the foreground, 18th century santos atop 19th century mother-of-pearl inlay Chinese table. Pillows covered in antique textiles from Michelle Nussbaumer collection. 19th century Persian rug from Esmaili Rugs. Large chest purchased from designer Jed Mace. 
DINING ROOM: The Allisons’ furnishings were collections from past lives, including this Queen Anne dining table purchased in the 1970s from Jed Mace. Michelle Nussbaumer brought in Robsjohn-Gibbings-designed chairs from Ceylon et Cie. Rock crystal candle sticks from Ceylon Portfolio. Antique globes on stands from Jacqui Stoneman Antiques. Regency-style Panache chandelier is from ID Collection. On the far wall, “Clouds” by Boston artist Ruth Bauer.

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