Karen Davis Turns a Spec House into a Dream House
Photos by John Kane
Sometimes a house is just a house, well-built, perfectly situated, but without character or personality: a perfect description of a spec house. It takes someone with a keen eye for design and a vision of what a house needs to turn it into something special. In this case that would be interior designer Karen Raines Davis.
The owners, who live in New York with their two young daughters during the week, had been renting a house in Washington when they decided it was time to buy one of their own. Their realtor showed them various houses and then took them to a spec house built in 2006. A prospective buyer had walked away from it and it sat uninhabited for several years.
“We’d been living in an old-fashioned period house and that’s what we thought we wanted,” says the wife of the couple. “When we first saw this house we immediately thought that at 6700 square feet it was way too big for us, but the setting was beautiful and since it was mostly done and furnished we were able to see its possibilities.” The spacious main floor features a living room, master bedroom and sitting area, office, dining room, and a kitchen/family room. “The kitchen is what I fell in love with immediately,” she admits. “A tremendous space with an open floor plan where I could entertain company and cook at the same time. Invariably when we have guests we congregate around the island and it’s not unusual for me to ask for help with the chopping and cooking.”
There were some issues, though, and that’s when Davis stepped in. “I’d worked with Karen on our New York apartment,” the owner explains, “and she has an amazing eye and a sense of style. She understands how we live so we went through every room, evaluating what was there and what was needed.” “I’d worked with the couple before,” explains Davis. “I know how this family lives and I understood their needs. The house had great spaces and the views were magnificent. In fact, it really didn’t need a major overhaul; it just required some personalizing.”
They love to entertain and the patio space off the kitchen was ideal for summer gatherings and it’s a short walk to the pool, which is surrounded by an extraordinary garden, extending up a hillside, full of every imaginable flower.
Davis is originally from Los Angeles and began her career at Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine magazines. She transitioned into working for two high-end residential and hospitality design firms in Los Angeles and New York. In 2001 she relocated to Connecticut and has designed and overseen projects all over the world.
When Davis came into the project, the family had been living in the house for a while and they knew what worked and what didn’t. “The house was neutral, in paint colors as well as furnishings,” she explains. “We brought in color, some new rugs and textiles, repainted some of the walls, and replaced some of the lighting.”
“Parts of it were beautiful,” adds the owner, “such as the grass cloth wall covering. But the kitchen was a dull gray and the butcher block countertops had no overhang. If we were starting from scratch I would not have chosen those cabinets but they were not offensive enough to replace. We did change out the countertops with granite, which made a huge difference.”
The lighting in the kitchen area was not adequate, so Davis cleverly added a lighting fixture to the wooden beam above the island, which made a huge difference. The island was changed and complementary stools were added for informal meals. Mood lighting in the dining room made for a perfect transition from the casual eating space to the more formal one.
While some rooms simply needed the furniture rearranged, others like the master bedroom were totally redesigned and furnished, adding soft tones of blue and beige and painting the ceiling. The office remained where it was, but Davis added a door, a sleek new desk and leather chair, a rug, and better lighting.
Davis is now transitioning the huge basement space from one equipped for young children to one that will fit the needs of teenagers as well as family and friends. The lower level also contains a very impressive wine cellar.
The house is perfect for this active family. The wife loves to ride, the husband loves to fish; both girls ski. As a matter of fact, the garage has been turned into a repository for all their sporting equipment, neatly arranged and categorized. As for the house itself, while Davis has done a superb job of decorating the rooms and introducing various color palettes, it is a house that people live in and enjoy. There are no rooms that are off limits, no furniture that can’t be curled up on (and that includes the dog as well.)
“It’s a casual house,” says Davis. “There is nothing precious about it. The materials are all durable and easy to care for.” It is a house that evokes a happy family that loves entertaining, eating, engaging in outdoor activities, and enjoying their time together. It’s everything a house should be and that is a testament to Davis’s talent and her understanding of what makes a house beautiful and comfortable.