At the start of every project, designer Gemma Parker asks clients for images that inspire them—a move she uses to take their aesthetic temperature. For a Chicago couple looking to make a home in a new high-rise, their images didn’t so much reference a particular look as much as a color, or, to be more precise, a lack thereof. “The styles of the images varied, but the palettes were all neutral,” Parker says.
Of course, a monochromatic direction brings a particular set of challenges. “When you go that way, you can either go clean and fresh or kind of muddy,” she notes. As you probably guessed, Parker chose the former. She saw another challenge, as well: Using the same color throughout, she notes, “can feel too solid.” The key to her success lay in finding just the right mix of neutrals and weaving in a range of textures and silhouettes for depth.
As Parker was locking in her ideal palette, she came across the ideal combination of cool gray shades. “When we begin a project, we always look for a grounding piece that becomes a thread,” says the designer. She found what she was looking for in the form of an ombre silk Phillip Jeffries wallcovering. Parker hung it in the powder room—which, at first, may seem like an odd jumping-off point. But the logic becomes obvious as the tones, ranging from a graphite shade to a pale, moody gray, lace through the condo. “I love the way you can initiate a palette from a singular piece,” she explains. “And, if that palette is cohesive, you don’t feel stuck. You want your eye to be drawn out. You want your eye to travel. Especially when there are nice views.” And thanks to its enormous patio, the condo serves up plenty of those.
Against the subtle backdrop, textural flourishes abound. In the guest room (which easily converts into a den), floors are covered in a pebble-textured carpet that picks up the dusty-blush tones of the grass-cloth wallcovering. A glazed linen on the ottomans bestows sheen and bounces the light pouring in. In the main bedroom, Parker anchored the space with a mural of clouds behind the tufted headboard and placed a plush carpet composed of high and low pile on the floor. It is, she observes, “ethereal.”
Parker also took care to switch up silhouettes on the furnishings to activate spaces. “It was important that the pieces spoke to one another but that they also held their own and felt unique,” she shares, pointing to square-arm detail on the living room’s generous sectional that’s balanced by the rounded form of the adjacent tub chair, the fluted detail on a side table and tufting on the ottoman. The move served a purpose beyond giving dimension to the room—with 12-foot-high ceilings, a range of forms and sizes ensure things didn’t feel out of scale or too horizontal.
It wasn’t just Parker’s savvy play with tones, shapes and textures that allow the spaces to sing. Blessed with a raw space, she could craft a tailor-made foundation from scratch and amp up the visual interest. For high contrast, she chose a mocha-hued stain for the oak flooring laid in a herringbone pattern in the main rooms that stands out dramatically against the moody grays. Strong architectural moves also played into her vision. “Arches were important to the wife, so we made sure to incorporate them,” she says. “They delineate the space of the entry from the living room, creating visual separation but are also a classic architectural element.”
Reinforcing the space’s rhythm is a stylish bar, but one whose function isn’t obvious. Instead, Parker designed it to hide behind casework and look to the unwitting observer like a stylish built-in bookcase. Similarly, a cocktail pantry feels like a jewel box, with floor-to-ceiling millwork in a steel gray and crowned with a marble-pattern covering overhead. “It’s an organic, playful addition that makes it feel special,” she notes.
The same could be said for the entire home. Spaces that, in the hands of another, might have been lifeless are, instead, compelling and soothing. “We worked on this for two years,” recalls the designer, “and making it exactly what the clients desired was a complete joy.”