A Visual Feast
Inside an interior designer’s home
By Brita Belli
Photographs by Jeff McNamara
Dawn Gepfert’s Fairfield home exudes comfort, with plush furniture, a spacious kitchen made for entertaining and cooking, and a dining room designed to draw people together. For the holidays, she emphasizes seasonal greens and flowers and artfully placed silver ornaments amidst red and green baubles and over-the-top tinsel. Small, square, fabric-ivy wreaths hung in the windows with ribbons stay up year-round. “Design is not necessarily about buying things,” says Gepfert, who comes to Fairfield by way of both California and Chicago and has been practicing interior architecture and design for 25 years. “It’s about creating space.”
In general, she likes to start with the bare bones, adding to a residential home organically as it unfolds, from designing the outside landscape, complete with gardens and statues, to planning the placement of windows and the layout of rooms, to choosing wall colors and cabinets. Her home design is greatly influenced by her experience with commercial buildings as well as her background in architecture. For Gepfert, function and aesthetics go hand in hand. “The best time to begin [designing a home] is right at the beginning,” she says. “I’m a huge proponent of having process and organization. That makes it easier to weather storms.”
Her home, which she moved into 18 years ago, was built in the 1940s and had just one owner. Although state-of-the-art for its time, it needed a trained eye and a great deal of renovation to bring out its full, modern potential. Gepfert knew it was the right home when she first saw its front doorknob. “It was a large, oversized, round knob,” she recalls. “I liked the proportions.” She also saw something in the elegance and gracefulness of the rooms underlying the outdated décor. A former sun porch became the home’s lounge-worthy family room, accessed by a set of French doors. A staircase was added to the home’s entryway to replace the old back stair. A two-car garage became the dining room and the kitchen was expanded to make way for modern appliances and a sizeable central island.
The home is as notable for what remains as what’s been lost to renovation. The kitchen’s long stainless-steel countertop is now a central feature of the detached pool house. Original leaded windows still frame the outdoors and have been left uncovered in almost every room to let in the light and views—the edible garden outside a circular breakfast nook, the pink rosebushes framing the pool. “I don’t like things on the windows unless there’s a reason,” Gepfert says. “If you have great architecture both indoors and out, you don’t need to do that. You have to find balance between honoring what’s there and fighting with it.”
While Gepfert did not particularly like the pink and gray color scheme in one of the home’s original downstairs bathrooms, she wanted to pay homage to that time period when renovating and recognized the incredible workmanship that had gone into the room. She went with small, square, black and white tiles for the floor and had the existing wall tiles and tub re-glazed. An original built-in sitting area of Venetian glass remains—a testament to 1940s style.
Overall, Gepfert favors neutral wall and furniture colors—muted blues and off-whites—using throw pillows to add splashes of seasonal color. But there are also black and white accents throughout—a common design thread linking the rooms in playful ways. In the living room it’s found in cowhide-style throw pillows; in the family room, there are several black-and-white photographs of zebras framed in black; in the dining room, shelves of black and white plates add decorative focus to one wall. “A punch of black anchors a room,” says Gepfert, noting that the dark-wood floors and white trim offer variations on that theme. “You need contrast or nothing stands out.”
The particular combination of elements that makes the dining room both relaxed and sophisticated seems uniquely her. She eschews an overly formal dining table for an inviting farm table with a backed bench for seating on one side. Floor-length blue curtains soften the room, while an antique-silver display lends a touch of formality. For holiday dining, she arranges her varied collection of plates at each setting, topped with a silver ornament. Gepfert likes to collect silver pieces—including specially designed sterling-silver cocktail glasses—and uses them regularly. “You can use silver,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be overly formal.” She also has fun changing out candlesticks for different holiday occasions and is always scouting antiques shops, vintage shops, and garden centers for new decorative finds.
If she needs more seating for a larger function, Gepfert adds a couple of round tables in the dining room to keep coziness intact. A room should serve a family’s needs, she advises, and should be designed to be used. In her case, she and her family—husband Jay; 20-year-old daughter Zoe; and 16-year-old son Jake, who attends Fairfield Prep—need a house that can accommodate a lot of entertaining. “We’re known for having dinner parties that go on and on,” Gepfert says. “We like making people feel welcome and comfortable.” Her dining area is inspired by ones she remembers in California, she says, where formal dining rooms are not the norm.
Another personal touch comes from elegantly framed chalkboards throughout the home, with handwritten quotes that inspire the designer. One that hangs in a hallway connecting the dining room and kitchen reads: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Cooking is central to Gepfert’s life, and her kitchen reflects a room that is lived in as much as it is used for whipping up masterpieces. There’s a large, colorful painting on one wall, a minimum of upper cabinets to encourage additional light, a generous center island with its own small sink, and a row of counter seats. “This is where I live,” she says.
She is an avid gardener too, and has created space for roses, vegetables, and herbs outside the kitchen windows, but during the holiday months she’s in her kitchen, welcoming friends to a home full of inviting spots for everyone to enjoy.