There is something familiar about the creamy colors, wing chairs, glass-topped coffee tables, modern art and brown dining room furniture in Francis and Claire Underwood’s Georgetown townhouse in the Netflix series “House of Cards.”
That’s because you’ve seen this look before. It’s in Kalorama, Crestwood, Alexandria, Arlington and Upper Marlboro. You might call the style traditional. Or understated. Or comfortable. But whatever you want to label it, it’s got a lot of beige.
“There’s a familiarity to beige and muted tones that’s enjoyable,” says Tiffany Zappulla, the Baltimore set decorator whose job it is to capture the domestic essence of Washington in her “House of Cards” sets, whether Doug Stamper’s Capitol Hill hip-yet-restrained apartment or the Underwoods’ White House private quarters. “It’s timeless. It’s safe. People in Washington have stressful jobs. They want their homes to be an oasis. There are a few things that may have an edge, but we are not trendy types here.”
(For the record: The series is filmed in the Baltimore area; Zappulla shops mostly in Maryland and occasionally in the District.)
Washington is a city driven by politics and drenched in tradition, and it’s no surprise that century-old rowhouses have a decidedly untrendy aesthetic. But even the area’s loft condos, McMansions, mid-century ranches and suburban townhouses tend to keep to a neutral palette for walls and sofas — white, gray, taupe or the proverbial beige — with homeowners letting their accessories, artwork and personalities provide the color and tell their story.
Washingtonians aren’t serial redecorators; they freshen up by changing pillows, updating lampshades and switching slipcovers, but the core pieces of the home have to outlast trends. “It’s still a very safe look here,” says longtime Washington designer Frank Babb Randolph, who decorated the official vice president’s residence for the Cheneys. “There is a core of people here who don’t want to be in vogue or in the moment.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Randolph and other top local decorators were often featured in national magazines for combining practicality and luxury — juxtaposing simple linen fabrics and sisal rugs. The late Georgetown designer and antiques dealer Tony Childs dazzled clients with Louis XV chairs and gilt-framed mirrors set against off-white or coffee-colored walls. Today, Washingtonians are still walking on sisal, whose crisp and natural look seems to go equally well with flea-market finds and English antiques.
How little do things change? “The decorator people most aspire to is Thomas Jefferson,” says Michael S. Smith, the Los-Angeles based designer who decorates for the Obamas. The third president was a lover of classical architecture and design, and his influence is seen in Washington’s stately public buildings and in neoclassical details such as columns, moldings, red brick and formal gardens.
“It’s different from many other cities in that it greatly values history. Washington always wants to be high-minded,” Smith says. He finds that the scale of houses in Washington and the lack of high-rises make it a city of more informal and relaxed rooms. “You’ll find traditional and very tasteful decorating mixed with modern art.”
What are some of the common elements of homes from Cleveland Park to Clarendon? Conversations with more than a dozen designers and design purveyors revealed some familiar themes.
“In Washington, books are the ultimate accessory,” Smith says. In a town where everyone seems to be writing a book, or has already written three, stacks of books piled under coffee tables and next to beds are a consequence, or a requirement, of many book parties and book groups. Even if you never read them, shelves of the right books can make you look very smart and plugged in. And independent bookshops such as Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks do a brisk business with book signings and lectures.
“We have more books here than anywhere. This town is very literary,” Randolph says. Many of his clients have rows and rows of books, many by authors who are personal friends. And their vast numbers are nonnegotiable; they all must be displayed. “We’ve built bookshelves all over the house, in living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms,” Randolph says. “One client even had me take out a linen closet and put in bookshelves instead.”
For the most part, Washingtonians are not buying yards of books in a particular color, meant to be seen but not read. Warrenton designer Barry Dixon likes to group volumes by type: biographies, reference books, poetry books. “I don’t use the Dewey Decimal System or anything, but I think people need to easily find books,” Dixon says. “I don’t like them just randomly crammed on the shelf.” A collection of historical books might be paired with a portrait of a historical figure; books on geography could find a place next to trinkets from travels.
For 35 years, the Kellogg Collection has sold painted chests, gold mirrors, ceramic lamps and hand-woven rugs to Washingtonians who love the store’s unchanging look pretty much just as it is. One of the shop’s signature pieces is the Monty, a club chair many customers would say is the perfect size for Washington homes. The Monty is a classic English loose-back down-filled chair with rolled arms and a dressmaker skirt (32 inches wide, 37 inches deep and 34 inches high). What makes this chair at home in Capitol Hill parlors, 14th Street lofts and even in the chambers of a D.C. Superior Court judge?
Comfort. “In a workaholic city like Washington, people at the end of the day just want to nest in a chair like this,” says Christopher Conner, who has worked at Kellogg for 23 years. “The style is timeless and not pretentious.” The chair can be made in any fabric. In the 1990s it was popular in yellow chintz; today, the store sells a lot in cream herringbone, he says.
The Monty is one of those timeless things that baby boomers, and now their offspring, expect to find at one of Kellogg’s four area stores. They and Zappulla, who scours the Baltimore Kellogg for leopard-print pillows, bamboo tray tables, blue-and-white ceramics and other accessories for “House of Cards,” have no interest in of-the-moment looks. They like this one just fine. “People in Washington keep things a very long time,” says store founder Pam Kellogg Green.
Wing chairs are also a staple in Virginia, Maryland and Washington homes. “I don’t know if I’ve ever done a residence without some version of a wing chair,” Dixon says. “These chairs celebrate an old tradition. They give a feeling of a sheltering embrace where you feel safe.” But Dixon’s chairs are not the worn plaid ones flanking your Boston grandmother’s fireplace. He might use the modern Victoria Hagan Wainscott chair, a sculptural barrel-back version, or his own stylized square-shaped Elway chair, which he designed for the furniture maker Tomlinson.
There has always been a place around here for 18th- and 19th-century American and English antiques, or reproductions of these. Whether it’s an inherited chest or something picked up at a local antiques or consignment shop, many homes have at least a piece or two of something old.
“There’s a legacy of antiques in the Washington area,” says Sophie Donelson, editor in chief of House Beautiful magazine. “And there is a love and reverence for old things, old furniture.”
A renewed appreciation for antiques was unleashed in the 1980s, when Washington took the lead in an “English country” decorating frenzy of carved mahogany secretaries, swagged chintz draperies, gently frayed Oriental rugs and dog paintings. It was inspired by the 1985 blockbuster National Gallery of Art show “The Treasure Houses of Britain,” which brought 17 period rooms and 700 items from Britain’s most famous manor houses to the nation’s capital. The show, visited by numerous royals including Charles and Diana, was seen by a million people.
The decorating style became all the rage: silver candlesticks, balloon shades, needlepoint pillows and tufted sofas. Faux finishing became an obsession, as people employed decorative painting techniques to make their walls look like marble or wood grain. Designer Anthony P. Browne moved from London and opened a shop in Georgetown to sell British glazed chintzes and bullion fringes. And in a departure from the usual beige look, there was a passion for red dining room walls, which occasionally still show up in real estate listings in American University Park.
The look of the aristocracy trickled down to the masses. Even modest Cape Cods in Takoma Park succumbed to plump flowered sofas and draperies dripping with tassels. The popularity of scrubbed English pine chests, canopy beds and botanical prints fueled sales at local antiques shops, flea markets, consignment stores and auctions.
Today, there’s still a lot of brown furniture sitting around Falls Church and Anacostia, both the genuine old stuff as well as reproductions of it. If you want validation, visit an auction house where mahogany and cherry dining chairs, coffee tables and headboards are often stacked to the ceiling. “Most of the homes we go into in this area are traditional in style,” says Tom Weschler, one of the owners of the 127-year-old Weschler’s Auctioneers and Appraisers, in Rockville. And as many millennials reject the traditional brown stuff in their parents’ or grandparents’ homes, it ends up on the auction block.
A different era of brown furniture (mid-century) can be snagged at used-furniture stores or on Craigslist, and is popular among the millennials filling smaller apartments in Columbia Heights, Navy Yard and Bloomingdale. At Miss Pixie’s Furnishings & Whatnot near Logan Circle, mid-century dressers and credenzas are brisk sellers. “Everything has changed so much in the last five years. Millennials are looking for fun, quirky but functional items to break up the Crate and Barrel and Target essentials they have in their homes,” says shop owner Pixie Windsor.
Veteran designers will tell you that the residents of the White House haven’t had much influence on interior design in this city — with one exception.
“In my view, the only presidency in my time that ever had an effect on decorating was the Kennedy administration,” says John Peters Irelan, who has been designing homes here since just before the Kennedys were in the White House. “Every client wanted a round dining table to throw a chic little candlelight dinner party like Jackie.”
Dixon agrees. “What Jackie Kennedy did bringing American antiques back to the White House still has bearing in what we are doing today,” he says. “We continue to bring old things into modern houses.”
These days, first families come and go without much of a fuss, design-wise.
Silver Spring designer Iantha Carley, who grew up in Shepherd Park, says she’s always curious as to what decorating is going on in the White House, but it’s generally kept under wraps. “We usually don’t see what’s in the private quarters until the end of the administration,” Carley says. “I waited eight years to see what the Obamas did, and it finally showed up in Architectural Digest the month before they left.”
As for political accessories around town, you’ll see plenty of pianos and cabinets jammed with framed, signed photos of presidents and other VIPs. But most decorators prefer you display those in your office or bedroom.
A common faux pas here, says Washington designer Mary Douglas Drysdale, may be cramming too many donkeys or elephants on bookshelves.
Washington’s world-class museums and galleries have always made this a town of art lovers. The work of contemporary artists has long been popular, especially from artists in the Washington Color School, including Gene Davis and Sam Gilliam. “Modern art is one of the few ways in which modern expression has been acceptable in Washington,” says Drysdale. “Although interiors were always carefully measured, a colorful modern painting was an exception. It added zest to your space.”
Art is a way to distinguish a home and make it personal. “I see people buying investment art,” says designer Darryl Carter, a native Washingtonian. “A special artwork or antique adds to the layers in your house. I see an alchemy taking place as people mix modern pieces with stone and wood.”
The millennial market for art doesn’t always lead to galleries and artists’ studios. At Miss Pixie’s, younger customers are looking for something unexpected for their bare white walls and can sometimes find it for $30, frame and all. “Millennials are buying tons of art. They like original pieces,” says Windsor. “I call it ‘thrift store artwork.’ ” She says she has seen a huge demand for vintage crewel work and embroidered framed pieces that have motifs such as butterflies or daisies. “These customers are so aware of what is in the magazines and on TV. They aren’t afraid to do something unexpected on their walls,” Windsor says.
“Is this a beige town? You’re asking a person whose favorite paint colors are 50 shades of white,” Carter says. (His top choice, by the way, is All White by Farrow & Ball.) “I do like my room envelope crisp and white, but I also want the soulfulness of antiques. A big, crusty gold mirror in a white space is redefining.”
Alexandria designer Victoria Sanchez says she often works with clients who are constantly on the move. “Some people are always preparing themselves for their next town, whether government employees, the military, CEOs or diplomats,” says Sanchez, whose Old Town Alexandria boutique Victoria at Home is filled with coral chinoiserie pillows, blue-and-white ceramic lamps and pink lacquer trays. Although her love of bold colors may tempt her to suggest a dramatic wall treatment, her go-to wall colors are White Dove and Simply White, both by Benjamin Moore. Similarly, Zappulla’s paint pick for the interiors of the Underwoods’ Georgetown home was Benjamin Moore’s neutral Shaker Beige.
“People in Washington don’t care as much about design as they do about politics,” Drysdale says. “I still think of Washington as a monochromatic city. People don’t want too much going on, or too much richness or pattern.” Drysdale is still amused that a number of her clients are hesitant to go a bit rogue with a bold paint color or wallpaper, but in the end she knows “politics always wins out over decorating.”
Northern Virginia designer Lauren Liess says some of her younger clients and her downsizers don’t want too much beige. “They want something different,” she says. In her recent HGTV pilot “Best House on the Block,” she and husband David Liess restyled a small ranch in Rockville for a couple in their 30s. They used a mid-century sofa, layered old rugs and framed pressed botanicals. The kitchen has black cabinets and butcher-block countertops.
But for the wall color, they made the politically correct choice: the milky Swiss Coffee by Benjamin Moore.