Long before I was aware that Jeffrey Bilhuber had worked with Tom Scheerer early in his career I discovered his talent and rising star as one of America’s greatest decorators in the May 1990 issue of House & Garden – his first major solo commission, for Judy and Michael Kraynick in the Lanark Upper Saucon Township of Pennsylvania. It immediately spoke to my own decorative tastes and preferences for edited, neutral and layered rooms that are at once understated and glamorous. In fact, I purchased two copies – one to keep and one to clip the pages from to add to one of my often referenced resource binders.
The 1920’s Italianate-style villa, Frova House, was in dilapidated state when the Kraynick’s discovered it. It was also not for sale. But they persisted and finally negotiated a contract offering first refusal with its reclusive owners, with one caveat: they would have to wait until the elderly couple could no longer live there. And so they waited, several years, living a few miles away, until news of the husband’s passing and institutionalization of his wife arrived. After five years spent clearing out decades of rubbish and bringing the house back to a liveable state they called in Jeffrey Bilhuber to make his magic.
Bilhuber stripped away layer upon layer of decades worth of incongruous junk until they were left with the structure’s inherent virtues. From there he distilled the essence of each room with intentional vision, void of superfluous ornamentation, producing thoughtfully edited rooms that are calm, almost ascetic in their lack of decoration. Walls remain bare where art or mirrors would typically hang. There is no preponderance of table lamps or decorative items for their sake. And where there is art it was hung in unexpected ways – low, stacked off to the side, and staggered. Soft contemporary upholstered furniture covered in neutral shades bridges the gap between antique and modern pieces with classic, clean lines. Chairs float in comfortable, practical arrangements with pull-up tables at the ready. Every material is tactile, from bark paper-lined walls to parchment-covered tables, carved wood stools, monk’s wool for curtains, and the velvets, linens and leather that cover sofas and chairs. One gets the sense that each item was selected with a curious mind and apprecieation of its sculptural qualities. Subtle gradations in color and texture keep your eyes, and hands, moving from one piece to another in rooms where form, not pattern, matters most. And subtle nuances play up this symphony of contrasts from matte to glossy, rough to smooth, light to dark, organic to made-made, traditional to modern, whimsical to appropriate, and high to low. Never forced, Bilhuber recaptured the glamour of the 1920’s with insouciant style, flair and wit – a forever classic.
Bilhuber purchased reed matting at Pottery Barn and had it painted in an outsize leopard-spot design for the entrance hall rugs and stair runner, their textural yet high style statement furthered by a whimsical mirror suited for Syrie Maugham hanging above a cast plaster faux stone console after one by Emilio Terry.
Purified elegance denotes the living room with walls covered in hammered bark paper reminiscent of Jean-Michel Frank’s parchment lined rooms (See Perfectly Frank). Alongside an inverted Guatemalan mortar as end table are Ming and early Korean vases and bowls gracing the cocktail table.
Everything in the living room was reduced to its essentials, where natural light through unlined curtains creates gradations of color. Bilhuber hung art in an unexpected fashion to create vitality and allow the room to breathe.
To emphasize the height of the room Bilhuber hung a small painting of a woman low and off to one side of the sofa, not centered above as is customary. Unconventional design methods, in capable hands, can produce dynamic results. The bronze mirror cube table, designed by Bilhuber, contrasts the pitted stone cocktail table in its sleekness while continuing a dialogue of simplicity. “My pieces follow the old Parsons School of Design thinking — the simplest possible materials put together in the simplest possible way to yield the greatest possible impact” remarked Bilhuber, whose ethos have certainly evolved in the years since.
Two chairs of diverse origin and period – one a 1940’s Italian armchair, the other an Indonesian prayer seat – reinforce a confident curiosity and endless possibilities. The chair, I believe, came from the New York apartment of Albert Hadley, which he famously updated on a regular basis.
The 1940’s modern chair from Albert Hadley’s New York apartment seems to be not the only decorative element that inspired Bilhuber in the design of the Kraynick’s living room. Photo by Dennis Krukowski.
A Noguchi paper lantern stretches upward toward the ceiling while low profile upholstered chairs gather round a card table – their formidable size seemingly the only design selection that dates this room. I would probably replace this arrangement with a banquette built into the corner.
This photo illustrates a wonderful layering of texture and tonal quality, from the gilded Italian daybed upholstered by Billy Baldwin in a leopard print velvet to the contrasting surfaces of Bilhuber’s bronze glass cubes, a parchment waterfall end table, and a pale sisal rug against dark stained floors.
Bilhuber updated the living room several years later, featured in House Beautiful in 1997. By removing the larger sisal rug and replacing it with smaller matting the white slip-covered furniture for summer living pops against the dark wood floors. Parchment end tables replace the scorched bamboo bookcases, and Bilhuber’s mirrored cubes replace the stone cocktail table. More than ever, the furniture seems to float in a lazy, Gatsby-esque summer’s reverie. Works by Sven Lukin on tar paper arch over the sofa, distributing dark contrast upward and around to emphasize the ceiling’s height.
In a corner of the living room stands a drafting table from the studio of Gustav Eiffel unexpectedly paired with a Lucite chair.
Bilhuber staggered the owners collection of English fern nature prints from the mid-1800’s in simple plastic frames on the walls of the dining room.
Directoire chairs painted with casein surround a Jansen rosewood dining table formerly belonging to tastemaker Babe Paley.
In the summer the dining chairs take on a more ethereal nature with gauzy white slipcovers.
More of the client’s framed fern prints stagger the walls of the powder room, which is outfitted with a hammered copper basin designed by Bilhuber setting upon a lacquered straw tablet.
The scorched bamboo bookcases, originally in the living room, were placed to create two distinct areas in the mid-century modern-inspired sunroom. The mottled wheat-and-black calico of their frames reinforce the golden hues of the split-reed wall covering and graphic punch of the black-and-white diamond floor.
Quietly glamorous, a bedroom features a range of honeyed tonal qualities – from a fur throw, light-filtering curtains, creamy walls, and varying stained woods.
Louis XVI chairs covered in translucent silk check slip covers imbue the master bathroom with an air of ethereal glamour. A 19th-century English faux-bamboo chest as sink cabinet and dressing table were painted from polished wood to enameled white to further the bathroom’s luminous quality.
Bilhuber’s deft hand at balancing varying texture and tonal quality is evidenced again in a guest room where ivory lacquered walls play off a matte cotton-and-raffia rug and an inverted Guatemalan mortar as table, and where pale woods and natural fibers are in balance with the dark floors and black painted furniture.
A guest bathroom is outlined in bamboo to lend it the impression of being tented.
A marriage of modern and elemental design converge in the graphic dark brown-and-white third floor hideaway, which includes a chair by Alvar Aalto.
Bilhuber transformed the porte-cochere into a screened porch, cutting down a table to take better advantage of the verdant view designed by A.E. Bye, and surrounding it with slatted-pine canoe chairs from L.L. Bean. Above hangs a strapwork sphere of his own design.
Perhaps the chicest loggia in America, Bilhuber created an outdoor room for living, filling it with palazzo furniture and layering it with a perfect mix of high and low, dark and light, smooth and rough. To read more about this loggia see my post Loggia Living: My Top Three Picks
The swimming pool, fashioned after a reflecting pool.
House & Garden, May 1990 with photography by Oberto Gili; House Beautiful, June 1997 with photography by William Waldron; Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Design Basics published by Rizzoli, 2003. First terrace photo by William Waldron for House Beautiful; last two terrace photos by Michael Mundy for House & Garden.