A Zen garden inspires a Chevy Chase couple's décor, as they bring the outdoors in.
When Cynthia and Joel Rosenberg bought their classic Chevy Chase colonial in 1989, they gutted it and turned it into pure ’80s drama. They hired a designer to fill it with arresting black, white and purple color combinations, including a giant rug with big geometric patterns in the family room, and oversize upholstered furniture with fat, rolled arms. “It was a different time in my life—there was just a lot of hustle and bustle,” Cynthia Rosenberg says.
A decade and a half later, it all seemed a bit dated. Cynthia, a psychotherapist, and Joel, a cardiologist, were alone in the house, their two children grown. “Peacefulness and quiet just seemed to fit the bill,” Cynthia says.
The Rosenbergs decided their surroundings needed to reflect this new chapter in their lives. About five years ago they had a Japanese Zen garden with a small waterfall built out back. And they wanted the interior to be infused with the garden’s tranquility and soothing green colors.
Cynthia went looking for a relatively new designer to help achieve this goal. “I like to help new designers,” she says. In 1989, she chose a little-known designer named Thomas Pheasant, who is now nationally recognized. This time she found Raji Radhakrishnan of Raji RM & Associates in Brambleton, Va. “I liked the very clean-cut simplicity of her work, yet it was a very rich mix of things,” Cynthia says. A yearlong renovation, completed in 2007, turned into a partnership: Cynthia communicated the look and feel she was after, and Radhakrishnan identified the details that would make it happen.
“So many clients leave it up to me and say, ‘Do your best.’ Cynthia, on the other hand, knew what she wanted,” Radhakrishnan says.
The color green was the guiding theme throughout, starting in the family room, a 1989 addition. It has floor-to-ceiling glass on the rear wall and overlooks the waterfall and garden beyond. “I wanted to have the windows primary” over everything else, Cynthia says. “I really wanted this room to be an extension of the outside.” Myriad shades of green make an appearance in every room, which the Rosenbergs appreciate year-round. “To me, it’s like still having summer inside,” Cynthia says.
Radhakrishnan preserved two Donghia armchairs from the original design at Cynthia’s request, but she replaced the black weave upholstery with neutral cream, which doesn’t compete with nature’s color scheme outside. The designer also placed a new cream sectional from B&B Italia in front of the windows, where its low back preserves the view of the gardens.
Liberal doses of green in throw pillows and accessories reinforce the theme.
One of Radhakrishnan’s goals was to celebrate the family’s frequent travels—especially to ancient sites in Egypt, Greece, Israel, Cambodia and India. The designer went through stacks of the couple’s photographs and found some from trips to Greece and Israel. She had portions blown up into full wall murals and placed them on each side of the family-room entry into the kitchen.
Radhakrishnan also unearthed the mugs, glasses and tea cups the family collects on every trip and displayed them on bookshelves in the kitchen—a colorful daily reminder of the couple’s travels.
In the living room, the designer assembled their favorite artwork for display. Cynthia “insisted on how she wanted to be able to see out,” Radhakrishnan says. Since a full sofa back would have obstructed the view toward the wall of windows, she had a chaise longue custom-made to go in front of the entry into the family room.
The rest of the living room pays homage to the couple’s love of art deco. Two deco-style vintage chests by Baker Furniture anchor the room.
“Rooms for me are about the antiques and the crafts,” Cynthia says. But Radhakrishnan was there to help edit down the couple’s collection. “That is one of the things that Raji insisted on—you have to give art room to breathe.”
The place of honor over the fireplace mantel is reserved for a painting of a typical New Orleans house—in acid yellows, greens and blues—which Joel Rosenberg, a native of that city, bought there for his wife.
On the mantel below is a papier-mâché figure of a woman bought by the couple in Spain. Cynthia marvels at how the pieces in their art collection, purchased from so many different places, all complement each other. A small stone Buddha head,—the first piece of art the couple bought while in college,—sits next to a vivid blue ceramic vase given to the Rosenbergs by a Spanish artist who was a heart patient of Joel’s.
“They’re my best friends,” Cynthia says of the artwork. “It’s like being surrounded by love.”
In the dining room, Cynthia had closed off a window in 1989 to accommodate a heavy French deco cabinet that contains the couple’s wedding glassware. “I really wanted a dark room,” she says. She wanted the space to feel like a cocoon.
To continue the outdoor theme, Radhakrishnan went with a deep, dark green on the walls. She wanted to lighten the room with a creamy white rug, but Cynthia went for more dark green. “I’m sorry, but we live here and we drop things,” she says.
She also hung more art on the walls than the designer would have liked, but each piece is extremely personal. The effect is to keep the eye constantly moving, from two unusual pieces of ceramic wall art on one side to a large print collage of kimono fabrics on another.
Radhakrishnan takes it in stride. “You have to have negative space for the positive space to be appreciated,” she says, “but this is not a museum, it’s a home.”
Cynthia says she and her husband love the resulting design as much now as when the paint first dried. It’s every bit the tranquil living space she was after.
“When we come back [from traveling], it’s so nice,” she says, her voice trailing off as she looks around her house. “It’s really nice.”
Jennifer Sergent grew up in Bethesda and Chevy Chase and now lives in Arlington, Va. She was previously the senior editor of Washington Spaces magazine.