Designer Kelley Proxmire never met the italian count who built this house in 1934. A doctor who married the scion of a prominent Washington, D.C., family, he adapted the romantic style of his European homeland to what was then unpaved countryside just past Westmoreland Circle in Bethesda.
But when Proxmire and her husband, Ted, moved just down the street nearly 30 years later, it was clear that she and the nobleman shared the same love for the hipped-roof elegance of the home’s Continental-style architecture. “The driveway was cobblestone, the roof was made of slate, and the windows were these romantic old-fashioned casements,” says Proxmire. “A beautiful archway led through a courtyard to the front door. I’d never before seen a house like it, and I haven’t since.”
Proxmire received an intimate tour of the home from her new neighbors and instantly fell for the way the house was designed, with its principal rooms—including the living room, dining room and kitchen—placed on the second floor. Known as a piano nobile, this main-living level has large rooms with views of the property’s lush gardens. Below that at street level is the entry floor, where Proxmire installed her design practice after she and Ted bought the house years later.
Proxmire quickly made reinterpreting the interiors a top-of-the-list priority. “The challenge was to honor its European roots while creating a more traditional American-style environment for my family,” says the designer, who started by revamping the entry-floor sun room with custom cabinetry for a television and storage. “That’s when I noticed that the top of a Palladian window visible from outside the house couldn’t be seen from inside the room. I had the ceiling removed and, suddenly, there was the complete lead-paned window—and the original lofty ceiling!”
Proxmire next eliminated the sun room’s fountain, backed by a wall of tile depicting a Renaissance work by Raphael; she saved a portion of the tableau and moved it to the foyer, taking note of its vibrant primary colors. “The house is gorgeously light filled,” she says, “and the energy of the Renaissance colors that the count introduced with those tiles is absolutely right for its rooms.”
Known for her proclivity for bold color, Proxmire set about devising an appropriately hued palette to connect the seven rooms found on the primary living level. She started with her favorite cobalt-blue-and-white pairing, then added a graphic black to call out the kitchen’s original half-timbered ceiling beams. “I pondered how the rooms could easily flow from one to another, and that’s when I hit on introducing yellow,” Proxmire explains. “Farrow & Ball’s Citron balances the strong blue that I love so much.”
Thus, the dining room walls glow with the striking shade, and the color is seen again on the interior shelves of a large-scale bookcase in the living room to set off Proxmire’s collection of blue-and-white porcelain. She chose fabrics that utilize a variety of patterns in blue and yellow to further interconnect the rooms. Accessories also deftly weave together her chosen hues. “Kelley can immediately visualize how furnishings will compose a room,” Ted says, “but the right accents, like her blue-and-white dishes, really make a space.”
A main-floor enclosed porch that the couple had built after they moved in overlooks the back garden and is Ted’s favorite retreat. Its golden wicker furniture and grid of contemporary windows update the period look of the interior architecture, and blue-and-white-patterned slipcovers and pillows remain a strong design element.
Proxmire, however, claims the master suite as her most-loved spot. A romantic space under the eaves at the top of the house, the room has angled walls striated a robin’s-egg blue, a soft departure from the more dramatic shades found elsewhere in the house. “I paint-matched a Peter Fasano fabric I found years ago to get the color,” she says. “Here, I aimed for a pastel mood, but one with a little more depth.”
Indeed, it is the varying degrees of color found throughout the house that realize a fresh American-style aesthetic while still honoring its European influences. Says Proxmire: “I love the beauty—and the power—of color.”