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When kicking off a project, most designers find themselves in one of two scenarios: Bringing an existing house back to life through renovations or helping build a new one—floor plan, door hinges, and all are up to them. But Zoë Feldman recently found herself in both camps. Last year, a young family in the process of relocating from New York City to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., brought the designer on mid-construction to help make their 5,000-square-foot spec house feel more personal.
The result is an example of how much charm you can really infuse into a builder-grade house—with a little compromise, of course. In Feldman’s case, it wasn’t so much about making design concessions but getting resourceful. Tearing out the newly completed (and totally forgettable) white kitchen would have been not only financially irresponsible but wasteful. So Feldman proposed painting it all black—from the cabinets to the windows and every surface in between. “Paint is like the great Band-Aid, especially when used in overall saturation,” she says.
Other light touches included adding wood floors in the primary bathroom to warm up the space; painting trim throughout the home to bring a sophisticated, gallerylike feel; and building out bookcases to create cozy nooks in place of empty corners. All of these tweaks brought soul to a home that, as the designer puts it, “is just showing up for the party.” Keep reading to hear how Feldman, in her own words, pulled off the transformation, bringing her client’s dream old-school-but-actually-new house to life.
The key to nailing color:
We never want it to feel like the blue room, the green room, the yellow room. We like to use color as we did in the living room, which is basically a white and black palette, but with a beautiful blue sofa. There are so many other less obvious ways [besides walls] to use color through art, through trim, through doors, through cabinetry, through lighting.
The trick to giving a new build character:
We try to cover as much drywall as possible. We knew our client liked things crisp and wanted to use a lot of white, so we leaned into millwork and curtains and art to add soul and warmth to the space.
The detail I had to sell the homeowner on:
At first, the clients were hesitant to do a black kitchen. They were worried it would be too dark, but we were able to explain that cabinets would connect the space to the living room, almost as its inverse, given the living room has white walls and black trim.
The room the homeowner sold me on:
The clients wanted to keep the entry simple—just some art and a black Windsor-style bench—and initially we thought it would be too quiet. However, it ended up acting as a much-needed palette cleanser alongside the blue study and bold dining room. I also love how the black bench starts that color thread throughout the main floor.
The coolest detail I brought into this project:
We worked with builders Fajen & Brown to create the supercozy yet modern study at the front of the house. We built everything in—bookshelves, a sofa, storage drawers—so it feels really impactful and bespoke.
The material I’ll definitely use again in a future project:
Exaggerated window treatments like we used in the dining room—they completely changed the feel of the room. They add drama and softness in addition to bringing interest without changing things architecturally.
The thing I’d do differently, looking back:
This goes for my projects in general: considering art earlier on in design development so we can be thoughtful about which walls need art. It can be a mad dash trying to sort that out at the end!
The biggest splurge on this project:
The custom built-in sofa in the study. Everything is built in, which we always love, because it really maximizes the use of space and efficiency. The goal [for that room] was for it to feel like a jewel box. It’s her space, her reading room, her study. She wanted it to be so comfy but also fresh.
The biggest save:
Painting the existing kitchen cabinets black rather than replacing them.
The quickest (but longest-lasting) update you can make:
If a space is in need of transformation and time is at a premium, paint is the quickest way to move the aesthetics. While there is always a place for painted furniture, it requires more upkeep than stained wood due to chipping, so that’s always something to be aware of.
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