Transformation > A Truly Great Room

The brilliance of Ann Henderson’s design for the great room in the Portland (Maine) Symphony’s twelfth annual show house lies in its subtlety. The twentyseven- by-fifteen-foot space, which was labeled the “ballroom” on the original floor plan, presented many challenges to the Keene-based designer—challenges that she met by referencing a nineteenth-century painting by Winslow Homer, and by mixing formality and informality, polished with roughhewn. In the process, Henderson turned an anachronistic room into one that is beautifully functional for modern life.

Henderson was one of thirteen designers invited to participate in transforming the six-thousand-square-foot Oakley Estate, which sits on Mussel Cove in Falmouth, Maine. On her first walk-through, she passed by the great room, submitting proposals for other spaces in the fourteen-room, six-bath estate. “The room is such an awkward shape: it’s long and narrow, has four doors in it, and a lot of windows,” Henderson says. “It wasn’t what I wanted to tackle.” But when the committee asked her to design the room, she agreed to take on the challenge.

Not the typical show house

This show house was unusual because the designers had a client to please. The house’s owner, Stephen Goodrich, was about to purchase the property in April 2007 when he learned the symphony was interested in the estate as a show house. Goodrich liked the idea of having a lot of design talent help him modernize the house, so the project became both a show house and a renovation.

“I hadn’t met Steve when I was asked to do the room, so I sent him a questionnaire to help me get a sense of how to personalize the space,” Henderson says. “I learned that he loved to sail and had two young children, and I immediately thought of Homer’s Breezing Up.” The 1876 oil, one of Homer’s most popular paintings because of its optimistic spirit, is of an adult and three boys sailing, and Henderson took many cues from it as she visualized how she wanted the room to look.

“I always like to be aware of the setting of the house when I’m designing, but only in a subtle way,” she explains. For example, she used Homer’s palette— blues, browns and a bit of red—but not so that the room screams “nautical.” “I wanted the walls to suggest water, but not obviously,” she says.

Creating illusion with paint and fabric

To get that look, Henderson enlisted the help of decorative painter Jane Considine who layered three colors of custom-mixed paints in a crosshatch pattern to achieve a depth that suggests light moving over water. “The crosshatch pattern is maybe the most sophisticated of the faux-finish treatments,” Considine says, “but it’s also extremely versatile. It can work in a formal setting or in a very informal room.”

Considine didn’t like the effect that her tools achieved on the walls, so she used a cedar shingle that the carpenters had left behind. “It worked perfectly,” she says.

The layered paint adds an illusion of texture to the room (other well-executed illusions with paint include trompe l’oeil wainscoting and raised panels below the chair rail), but Henderson added plenty of real texture with rich fabric.

“I think if you use a combination of textures, it adds interest to the room and suggests different surfaces,” Henderson says. “Homer does it with his painting—he paints the surface of the sail so that you can see it moving, the luminescence of the water, the wooden boat. For a designer, using different textures allows you to blend formality and informality.”

The dramatic floor-to-ceiling drapes, for example, are made from two layers of silk—“they’re like a dress with a petticoat,” Henderson says—and were made to look heavy, like columns; they help break up the length of the room.

The rug, however, is made from a much-less formal cotton. The banquette in the dining alcove, which Henderson had built, and the shades on the windows are made from an upholstery-weight, nubby linen, and the ottomans are made from smooth, red ultra suede, a fabric known for its family friendliness. “One of the boys in Homer’s painting has a red jacket on, and I used splashes of red throughout to draw your eye around the room,” Henderson says.

The most striking piece of furniture in the room is an antique Chinese altar table that sits along the fi replace wall. Altar tables work particularly well in long, narrow spaces, Henderson says, because they are only between nine and twelve inches in width. “I wanted to have one exotic piece in the room since sailing suggests adventure and exposure to different cultures,” she explains.

The piece is perfect, too, because it embodies the spirit Henderson achieved in the room. It has symmetry, which suggests formality, but is made of a roughhewn wood that has an informal finish. Its beauty is subtle, but you can’t take your eyes off it—just like the room itself.