Q. What design input can you give towards revamping the US Consulate rooms while still maintaining the original color palette of the villa?
A. The interesting history of the building was recently explained in a casual conversation with Genevieve Libonati, our current Consul for Political and Economic Affairs. The building itself was originally two separate houses (late 19th century), and the USA purchased them both from the British after WW II. During the war they were used as the Nazi headquarters, secreting prison cells in the basement while showcasing palatial-style reception rooms on the main floor, draped with red and black swastika banners. I had heard about this years ago, but had never really considered the visual impact before. Thankfully, when the building passed on to US hands, the front entrance portico was built and the two houses were fused, transforming them into the space we recognize today.
The ballroom was originally painted green, varying in shade through many refurbishments. Consul General Karen Johnson showed me a section that had been stripped down to show each consecutive layer of green paint, which is a very useful tool in determining accuracy. Most Americans think of Erbsengrün more in terms of the phenomenon of “avocado green”, which together with “harvest gold” graced many kitchens and bathrooms of the 1970s. In Germany, this muted warm green is still commonly found on building facades and interiors alike. How do you make this color come alive in a large ballroom? Lighting, application and accents play a major role in the final effect, especially if you are locked into a former color mandate.
The first choice is, of course, hue. With many gold-finishing accents on the framed walls and ceiling ormolu, it is useful to choose a tone that will either subtly compliment these highlights or bring them into contrast. I tend to think of gold trim as a nice “light-catcher” rather than a pronouncement, so I would vote for a very light and warm green (i.e. yellow undertones), falling more in the “apple” family. With slightly fresher, paler green walls, light will bounce from the elegant chandelier, the windows, and the parquet floor in a friendlier manner. If a total change of green tone isn’t historically feasible, then a suggestion of using one of the past greens as the main wall color, with the framed insets and the ceiling two strong steps lighter than the wall shade, would help to open the ballroom space. Look at palaces such as Sanssoucci in Potsdam, where you can see this concept widely used as a solution to overwhelming color when rooms are grand and spacious.
Flanking the ballroom are terra cotta colored marble columns, which aren’t the most harmonious when it comes to green walls, although they look beautiful with the warm wooden floors. To bring the two colors together, artwork and textiles play important roles. Window treatments of a simple nature (less swag and more clean valence work) in a solid color is a good choice. The current drapery color of muted persimmon makes a nice statement, although a friendly cream-based stripe or damask might be favorable to modernize the room and let in more natural light. I say “less is more” in this room with an already busy agenda. As for artwork, in addition to searching for more varied paintings as Ms Johnson explained, the current selections are not necessarily unsuitable. The Statue of Liberty painting in the reception room is actually a very nice piece and would be more noticeable hanging on a fresher, lighter wall. Most of the paintings are fighting with the green walls for attention, and the effect isn’t complimentary for either medium. Traditional painting lamps are a tad old fashioned, but a new, sleeker light fixture could be added to “up” the impact of otherwise faded art. Additionally, professional canvas cleaning can help a tired piece regain some of its original luster.
One “must have” is a dimmer switch on the large chandeliers. Soft candlelight might not be an option (fire hazard), but a dimmer switch can cozy the space for more intimate gatherings. Speaking of electronics, hiding the acoustic trolley in a beautiful sideboard or closet would better serve the elegance of the ballroom.
Furniture can be another accent in this multi-purpose room. Whereas the space is commonly used in an open state to accommodate large parties, receptions and lectures, the area by the large back windows could easily support a divan or wing chair arrangement, creating an inviting space for private conversation. In fact, each window area is a natural choice for a side table and chair combination, or perhaps even a large potted palm or plant, accentuating the green walls to perfection. Textiles can be readily re-upholstered on chairs and sofas to incorporate the green and clay colors, all based on a lighter background.
One question was posed concerning the staircase carpeting, and the answer now seems obvious. As the entry hall color is a shade of peach (yikes! I was stumped as I absolutely despise peach…my own personal taste struck me mute for a change) the current dark carpeting is a hard sell. A grand staircase of this type needs to have runner-style carpeting (with securing rods for easier cleaning purposes). And the color choice is…drumroll please….spice! With that green ballroom and terra cotta columns, plus a peach wall entryway bonanza, a warm spice carpet will do nicely creeping up that grand staircase. Two shades darker than the columns should do it: think cinnamon.
What a treat to be able to watch, with pride, the continual evolution of these historical rooms in Consul Johnson’s hands. It is nice to have a woman’s touch combined with the desire to open the US Consulate to the American community with style and grace: an inspiration to us all.
Let’s raise our glasses to the on-going design process… Cheers!
Now on to the front rooms….
originally published in Currents June/July 2008