Deco Drama

In the Fairlington section of Arlington, the tree-lined streets are positively idyllic, the homogenous black-shuttered, red-brick colonials, grouped in villages, are quaint, the neighborhood is quiet.

By Jennifer Shapira • Photography by Robert Merhaut

In the Fairlington section of Arlington, the tree-lined streets are positively idyllic, the homogenous black-shuttered, red-brick colonials, grouped in villages, are quaint, the neighborhood is quiet. Owners walk their dogs, neighbors throw block parties, everyone knows each other.

The Fairlington Green historic district is the home and home office of interior designer Dolly Howarth. The condo community, which straddles both Arlington and Alexandria, was built between 1942 and 1944 to serve as rental housing for defense workers and their families. The homes were renovated and converted to condos in the 1970s, and in the late 1990s the community earned distinctions on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmark Register.

Having lived in her home for 16 years, Howarth knows her neighborhood, and many of its models, intimately. Though she has modernized her home, and a number of others in her community since the 1970s renovations, she embraces her own home’s rich history, harking back to the 1940s and its origins where she sees fit.

Her home reflects her favorite eras and artistic movements of Art Nouveau, Deco and mid-century modern. Two cases-in-point: the home’s two bathrooms. The basement full bath (and laundry room) adds a bit of retro glamour. Howarth had been on the hunt for a petite sink that made just the right statement. Even though it’s a new addition, the curved basin and towel bar serves as a nod to the 1940s.

When she redid the master bathroom, two floors up, she kept the original style of the banjo-shaped countertop, updating it in soapstone. She chose a color scheme to match the Charles Rennie Mackintosh lithograph in pink, green and black. Three green Motawi tiles are nestled beneath the window, in keeping with the Art Nouveau style.

When Howarth and her husband moved in they figured their condo was a temporary stop. They thought they’d move into a larger home after a couple years. Now, so many years later, Howarth says, “We just love it here. We don’t want to live anywhere else.

Howarth and her husband’s home, like most of its neighboring units, includes 500 square feet of living space on each level—theirs totals about 1,750 square feet. They found a creative way to expand, thanks to a structural engineer who later helped them see roomy potential in the attic crawl space. They broke through to design a sky lit workspace for Howarth, complete with a dramatic spiral staircase as its entry point, something both she and her husband always wanted in a home.

“It’s fantastic,” she says of the bright loft space. All of the furniture she’s placed there is vintage or used; her newest purchase is a small-scale glossy black Deco-style desk. There are ample shelves for her fabric books, neatly stacked copies of design magazines and interesting eye-popping pieces she’s collected over the years.

In one corner sits a lipstick-red photographer’s chair, its triangular shape notable for achieving the best shot. Howarth rescued and rehabbed a headed-for-the-heap vinyl loveseat and chaise that she scored from the teacher’s lounge at the high school where her husband teaches. The loveseat is invitingly parked in her office; the chaise is in the annex below where her assistant works.

“I couldn’t find a better home, anywhere, with its skylights,” she says, adding that, as it happens, her community, Fairlington Green, is the only neighboring community that allows the addition of skylights. Howarth recognizes that was, indeed, a stroke of luck.

The natural light is so great to work in,” she says. “And it’s great to make use of that space in an otherwise finite home.”

During the renovation, she and her husband even managed to “squeak out” some additional square footage for adjacent attic storage.

Downstairs on the main level is the kitchen, dining and living room space. Howarth opened up the kitchen as much as she could, rounding the Caesarstone countertop for a 1940s vibe, creating the tiniest breakfast bar, with one chair tucked beneath. The space features a 30-inch by 60-inch desk/work table from Crate & Barrel that serves as Howarth’s dining room table, dispelling any myths that furniture must be used in a conventional way. A bold Farrow & Ball Lotus print accent wall adds depth to the small space. Howarth also brightened up the space with a full-view door that streams in light from the postage-stamp patio.

The finished basement, with its tall nine-foot ceilings, is both a TV room and guest room. A curtain can be pulled to separate the two areas for privacy. Among the mid-century modern sofa and chair is an ottoman that does double-duty: its padded top is easy on the ankles, and the shelf below provides ample storage. To help make the room feel less “cavernous,” Howarth created a border using a striking graphic-print Maharam wall covering for a wide border that meets the tall ceiling. 

Her small, well-appointed home suits her and her husband. They have no plans to pull up stakes. At the same time, she jokes, her husband is probably happy their home isn’t larger—she’s able to restrain the urge to design more rooms.


(April 2013)