Staying Neutral




Sometimes the key to great design isn't found in bright color. At this year's York Show House, muted tones of gray and beige took center stage.Even expansive summer houses, it seems, deserve a conservative touch in times of fiscal frugality. At the Twin Cottage show house in York, Maine, 18 designers from Maine and New Hampshire were asked to rework the interior of a sleepy ocean-view estate, yielding a comfortable, elegant home. Yet even as '50s-era tile was repainted and the house brought back to life, the designers took care not to overstep the bounds of the home's original, muted color palette.

Noticeably absent were the bright greens and large murals that adorned last year's show house. Instead veteran designers Ann Cowenhoven of York and Diane Hughes of Rye based their respective designs on quietly textured grays and beiges, a theme found throughout the house. Hardly a cottage, with 27 rooms, the home was originally built for New York City businessman Henry Blanchard Dominic in 1904 and today serves as the 21st Annual Decorator's Show House, a yearly fundraiser for the Museums of Old York.

Master BedroomIt's hard to imagine that a room as elegant as Diane Hughes' master bedroom could have been inspired by a single fabric swatch. According to Hughes, however, that's precisely how it happened. A wingback chair, upholstered in a carefully chosen gray ikat fabric by Kravet Couture, provides a rich texture to an otherwise sleek, smooth room. Even the bricks of the bedroom's understated fireplace have been smoothed with putty and painted a light gray, a color taken directly from the ikat's lightest hues. This reduction of other textures makes the stately armchair a prominent centerpiece in a collection of elegant furniture.

The tiger maple furniture by D.R. Dimes provides a lively touch of color to the room and includes an arched canopy Sheraton Field Bed and a beautifully carved Dunlap Chest on Frame, a careful reproduction of an 18th-century piece originally made in New Hampshire. The walls of the bedroom, best dubbed a "gray plum," are actually Benjamin Moore's "Winter Gates" and are also reflected in the weave of the ikat, as are the colors of Hughes' silk curtains. The layers of gray that adorn the room give it the kind of sleepy elegance best enjoyed with a book and a hot drink.

KitchenYork-based designer Anne Cowenhoven used solid wood furniture from renowned Maine craftsman Thos. Moser to tie together her kitchen and breakfast room, which were separated by a half wall. While even the breakfast room's coastal painting reflects the home's neutral theme, Cowenhoven says she chose the distinctly Oriental place settings to set the room apart. "I wanted something that said 'different' from most show house dining rooms," she says. "I think Moser's furniture kind of evokes some of that Oriental austerity."

Also vaguely Oriental is the upholstery that adorns the two Moser armchairs that flank the fireplace. In covering the chairs, Cowenhoven took care to ensure that the material's asymmetrical pattern fell identically on both. Though small, the breakfast room fireplace provides a striking focal point in the room. Judy Dibble, a New Hamphire-based faux painter and longtime associate of Cowenhoven's, painted the fireplace's smooth marble surface with what appears to be a richly textured fossil stone that is tiled, complete with grout lines - but you wouldn't know it just by looking. The surface is actually perfectly smooth.

The kitchen's flower and banana pepper motif wallpaper provided inspiration for the entire space, Cowenhoven explains, as well as the nearby home office that she also designed. Cowenhoven feared that the bold pattern may overwhelm the modestly sized kitchen despite being comprised of neutral colors, and therefore again commissioned Judy Dibble to paint the remaining walls in a subtle "strie plaid" design, reminiscent of a well-tailored wool suit.

Master BathroomDespite the relative ease with which she designed the adjoining master bedroom, Diane Hughes admits she struggled at first to find a look that truly fit the narrow, hall-like master bath. The small, outdated space posed a serious problem - that is, until Hughes discovered the perfect wallpaper, a neutral beige striped pattern from Ralph Lauren Home. "It's soothing and soft and has all the right colors in it," Hughes says. While the wallpaper and countertops, both in shades of beige, diverge slightly from Hughes' bedroom scheme, it did little to disrupt the suite's neutral feel, and she designed the remaining elements in shades of gray, allowing one room to flow seamlessly to the next.

Rather than replacing the original tile, an outdated white-and-navy design, Hughes commissioned a local surface painter to repaint the floor. The result feels both fittingly classic and surprisingly modern, with many coats of base dark gray punctuated by a fanciful, curling faux grout lines.

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