Minimal Space - Maximum Impact

The Washington Post
Thursday, September 3, 1998
Minimal Space, Maximum Impact

It was the late-night hammering overhead that drove Liz Myers to the door of her upstairs neighbor and future husband. The pounding had been going on for weeks, and Myers, the head of her Dupont Circle building's homeowners association, had traced the racket to its source, an interior designer named Pier Domenico Pierandrei. Recently arrived from Italy, he had been consumed by the after-hours remodeling--some might call it deconstruction--of his condo one flight up from hers. It looked like a stage set from the movie "Blade Runner."

The most amazing feature was a dropped ceiling in which a gaping hole with ragged edges had been chopped. The original ceiling, which he had painted black, could still be seen. So could the twinkle of tiny halogen lights that simulated a starry night. Pierandrei explained to her that he was in his "1984" Orwellian phase. In keeping with his Big Brother I Watching motif, hea had rigged the TV to swivel 360 degrees.

Nothing says more about a designer than his or her own space. And, to Myers, an advertising manager for Bell Atlantic, Pierandrei reinvented rooms spoke volumes. She admired avant-garde design but says, "Until I met Pier, I couldn't imagine anyone devoting so much energy to it."

Little did she dream his obsession would be contagious and would lead to an Italian-inspired, contemporary setting for two in Glover Park. Or that their first encounter, so fraught with potential for disaster, would end with wedding bells.

For several years, Pierandrei recalls, they just said breezy hellos as they passed each OTHER IN THE HALLWAYS. Then, out of the blue one day in 1991, "Liz called and asked me to go out for dinner. I was already cooking pasta, so I said, 'Why don't you come up, instead?' That," he says, "was the beginning."

Today after five years of marriage, they're still busy embellishing the rooms of a 1930s Glover Park town house. Basically, it's their design laboratory and creative playground. But, unlike Pierandrei's old apartment, it represents a spirited collaboration instead of a single vision.

He's the math and she's the music.

"We both love Modern, but I'm more of a hard-edge Minimalist; Liz likes curves. I'm monochromatic; she likes warm colors," says Pierandrei.

His color preference prevails in the gray speckled walls of the master bedroom, while that of his wife perks up the fiery orange dining room they call "the Inferno."

Every space is different, but that's the point. As an architectural project manager for DBI, an area firm that focuses on large commercial interiors, Pierandrei relishes trying out this and that in a considerably smaller format. Say, using fancy baroque molding to frame the dressing-room ceiling and its angel-wing cable lights like a portrait. Or a Philippe Starck light fixture to give the stair hall a focal point. Shaped like a rhinoceros horn, the light is grandly mounted on scarlet Ultrasuede. Dark plywood panels with exposed bolts cover one living room wall.

Born in the United States but trained as an architect in Italy in the early Eighties, Pierandrei, now 40, came of professional age in a time and place when adventurous design notions from influential Milan-based studios-notably Alchimia and Memphis-were finding form.

Myers, 38, brought a brightly patterned Memphis rug designed by Nathalie Du Pasquier and a pair of three-legged, round-backed Café Costes chairs by Starck to the marriage; Pierandrei's contributions include anything glass, steel, gray or black.

Together, they've filled their house with the latest in designer Italian trappings including a signed ceramic box by Ettore Sottsass, Memphis's founding father. The family cat answers to the name Alchimia.

Of course, the impulse to take a material meant for one thing and use it for another has been around since the '20s when Marcel Breuer turned bicycle handles into tube metal chairs at the Buhaus.

In Glover Park, Pierandrei has taken electrical conduit pipes and transformed them into silvery stair rails. To soften the gritty, industrial effect, Myers has gussied them up with plump, oversized red tassels.

Beyond appearances, there also were practical considerations, the most critical being how to update on a shoestring yet make the most of minimal existing space when there's scant room to expand.

Before joining DBI, where he has worked on large-scale projects including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Pierandrei cultivated his eye for detail on assignments in Washington, New York and Fort Worth for David Schwarz/Architectural Services, where, for the most part, budget was not an issue. Between the Schwarz stint and DBI, he took on residential clients of his own, including the owner of Mobili, a contemporary furniture store now within walking distance of his house.

At home, he and his wife saved money by using mostly off-the-shelf materials and doing virtually all construction work themselves. Myers is the resident faux-finisher. Using a small, electric wire brush, a jeweler's tool, they created their own low-cost version of trendy brushed aluminum for the surface of their kitchen pass-through. For the kitchen, they splurged on a granit floor and counters and designer pulls but traded off with mid-priced appliances and cabinets. They shopped at Hechinger's for bathroom marble.

They made good use of otherwise wasted space by converting a 4-by-4-foot niche in their bedroom to a half-bath and turning a 7-by-10-foot third bedroom into a walk-in closet/dressing room. They gained two feed of wall space required for a breakfast counter by closing in the back door of their six-foot-wide kitchen.

They also discovered an untapped source for storage. Borrowing one foot from each side of the dining room door and building out yielded twin closets that they equipped with floor-to-ceiling shelves. For a display area, they recycled glass shelves. For a display area, they recycled glass shelves from the "1984" apartment. Among the treasures here: their Sottsass and their "100% make up" vase. The shape, designed by Alessandro Mendini for Alessi in 1992 was given to 100 artists to decorate. Each of their designs, including this one by American architect Robert Venturi, was reproduced in a limited edition of 100.

Recently, their thoughts have been turning to the basement, the only unimproved space. Guest quarters for when his family visits from Italy, Pierandrei says, or, perhaps, a modest home office?

All along, says Myers, the idea has been to jazz things up but also to make the house livable. She wonders just how adventurous they can be without affecting future resale.

"Unless you're so wealthy you just don't care, my feeling is, it shouldn't be too extreme," she says.

The lesson learned from the sales of their previous apartments may or may not be relevant. From the time they finally got together, Pierandrei encouraged Myers's creative instincts. Indulging her wildest fantasy, she fauxed her walls a rich, deep red as sumptuous as Spanish leather. In the end, she says, her buyers asked that she repaint.

Pierandrei's condo? It sold as is-hole in the ceiling and all.