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Lightening Up

Writer Ren Miller  |  Photographer John Ferrentino  |  Designer Tracey Butler

A more open floor plan, simpler textures and a lustrous palette create a modern look without sacrificing drama

  • Creamy iridescent paint and wallcovering and crema marfil marble floors lighten the foyer while a series of paintings high on the wall adds subtle color.




The layers of dark molding and brown, heavily patterned wallpaper in the foyer were overwhelming, as was a home office with dark green walls. A warren of small rooms, closed off to one another by French doors, was almost suffocating. Furnishings had luxury brand names, but the styles hearkened back to the conspicuous consumption proclivities of the 1980s, even though the home had been professionally redesigned much more recently.

It was serendipitous, then, that the owner of the Essex County home wandered — Starbucks in hand — into a home design store one day during a foray into downtown Livingston. When the store owner, designer Tracey Butler, explained the concept of the business, the homeowner noted coincidentally that she and her husband were considering redoing their master bathroom.

She invited Butler to visit the home to talk about the bathroom project, and the moment she arrived the ideas started flowing for other rooms also. The homeowner liked the ideas so well that before all was said and done, Butler had redesigned the entire Livingston home as well as the couple’s vacation home in New York state.

At the Livingston house, the owners appreciate dramatic design. The previous designer responded to that mandate with dark walls, traditional furnishings, faux finishes, many mixed patterns, and layers and layers of details. “I proposed creating drama with a lighter, simpler, more modern look,” Butler says. “We started by getting rid of everything except the architectural details, some of the expensive furniture they purchased for the previous redesign and whatever was sentimental. From there, the owners gave me free reign to create a more open floor plan, simpler textures and a lighter palette.”

Any new furnishings had to stand up to the couple’s three children (two were in college and one in high school when the project began) and their friends. “The owners also do a lot of casual entertaining of their own friends and extended family, so it was important to them that everything be comfortable and durable,” says Butler, who has since relocated her design business, b. home interiors, to New York City and launched Clear Home Design, featuring luxury Lucite® and glass home furnishings.

Butler’s first impression of the home came in the foyer, which she found depressingly overdone. “The homeowners are so stylish, so well put together,” Butler says. “This space didn’t reflect who they are.” The owners wanted to keep the applied molding and ceiling trim, so Butler lightened it with cream-colored paint with subtle iridescence. She replaced the dark wallpaper inside the molding with an iridescent wall covering in the same shade as the paint. A light-wood demilune chest with a metallic finish and colorful paintings on the upper walls add more drama. Dark terra cotta tiles with heavy grout lines were replaced with 18-inch crema marfil marble tiles with tight grout lines. “The iridescent and reflective finishes give the foyer sparkle,” Butler says. “The homeowner got the formality and glamour she wanted, but in a much more modern way.”

Modernizing a room when you have to keep some traditional pieces can be a challenge, the designer says. “But including two extremes offers a balance,” she says. A case in point is the dining room. The owners wanted to keep their Queen Anne mahogany table, chairs and sideboard, which were all good quality pieces. To balance the strong traditional presence, Butler replaced an ornate oriental rug with one featuring a geometric pattern, switched from striped wallpaper to an accent wall of bold eggplant grass cloth (the color was extracted from the new rug), added modern art above the sideboard and replaced a crystal chandelier with an abstract contemporary light fixture. “If I had chosen just a transitional light fixture rather than contemporary one,” she says, “the room would have still looked too traditional. By using a polar opposite, there’s a better balance.”

  • A large modern painting, a bold grass-cloth wallcovering and an abstract contemporary chandelier are among the steps the designer took to balance the traditional feel of the dining room’s Queen Anne-style mahogany table, chairs and server, all of which the homeowners wanted to keep.




Sometimes the traditional aspect that needs to be updated is based in structure as well as style. In this home, for example, a family room opened to an office that opened to a billiards room. The rooms felt small because they were closed off from one another by walls; French doors that were intended to connect them actually served to separate them. Butler disposed of the doors and widened the doorways, creating a much more open space between the family room and what is now a game room, and between the game room and the billiards room.

In the family room, Butler extended the fireplace wall 12 inches into the room to add dimension and covered it with ribbed wood paneling painted gray. She also replaced the fireplace itself with a larger direct-vent model in more suitable proportion to the rest of the room. Leather and fabric-upholstered chairs in modern shapes bring the room up to date along with modern lighting and contemporary art.

  • The fireplace wall was extended 12 inches into the family room and covered with ribbed wood paneling to add dimension. A French door was removed and the doorway widened into the game room, formerly a home office.




Beyond the family room, the game room takes shape in a space that was formerly the office with dark green walls. It now features creamy-hued walls and a round table circled by chairs covered in the same shade of gray as the ribbed-wood fireplace wall. Nearby is a faux-crocodile-covered chest that opens to reveal a bar. A piano sits in front of a window on the other end of the room.

Beyond the piano is the opening to the billiards room, where the owners wanted to keep a traditionally styled billiards table and a wall of dark-stained bookshelves. “To counteract the traditional aspects of the room,” Butler says, “I used two hide rugs on the floor [replacing an oriental rug], chose a faux horn light above the billiards table [replacing a rectangular Tiffany-style fixture] and added to the horn ‘theme’ with a closeup painting of a black bull head on a black background.

  • Another set of French doors and the opening widened from the game room into the billiards room. The homeowners wanted to keep the traditional billiards table and bookcase. Designer Tracey Butler added modern touches with hide rugs, a lighter color for the billiards table playing surface and a bright wall covering behind the bookcase. The faux horn chandelier and artwork depicting a horned bull add a touch of modern whimsy.




“The cool faux animal effects modernized the serious traditional style of the room — and no animals were hurt,” Butler says with a laugh. She also lightened the pool table itself by replacing the red felt on the playing surface with camel-hued felt, added a swivel leather chair with nail-head trim and a side table in the shape of the letter D made of reclaimed wood with a steel top. Bright blue grass-cloth wall covering brightens the room, and a small table in the corner holds a chess set.

The kitchen also required a delicate balance of styles. “The homeowner wanted a mix of rustic and formal,” Butler says. “We replaced ceramic floor tile with dark stained wood that feels rustic. The floor and a midcentury marble table help to balance a formal crystal chandelier, which used to hang in the dining room. Most people wouldn’t think the chandelier would ‘talk’ to the oversized linen-shade pendants over the island, but they actually do, and the scale of the pendants makes the room feel youthful and energized.”

  • A brighter white finish on the kitchen cabinetry, a new marble backsplash, a midcentury modern marble-topped table and chairs, and oversize pendant light shades over the island help to balance the traditional chandelier, which used to hang in the dining room.




The designer also enlarged the island, changed the cabinetry from “white white” to a creamy lacquered white for consistency with the colors in the foyer and had a Wolf range lacquered in cream auto paint. She chose a Carrera marble backsplash to match the countertops.

In the master bedroom, the wife wanted to keep the four poster bed, which had been faux painted, but everything else is new. Butler used the same cream shade as in the foyer, appearing here in the repainted bed, modern nightstands, a new sofa and simple panels in the window alcove, and on the upper part of the wall and the ceiling. For drama, she added navy grass cloth to the walls, replaced a too-small oriental rug with a crocodile-print navy and cream rug and chose navy bedding with cream borders. “The navy and cream combination looks incredibly rich and yet serene,” Butler says.

  • The master bedroom carries through the creamy palette found in the rest of the redesigned home, but it gets a hit of color with navy in the grass-cloth wall covering, a crocodile-print rug and the bedding.




Perhaps the room most in need of redesign, Butler notes, was the master bathroom — the room that brought designer and client together in the first place. Above a dated tile wainscoting of mottled tan, a mural depicting ocean and sky wrapped the room in almost-neon shades of blue. Ornate gold-framed mirrors above equally ornate dark wood vanities filled one wall while a shower, soaker tub and awning-striped valance over a sheer shade filled another wall. Underneath, a black and white animal-print rug covered part of the black-tile floor. Butler replaced the furniture-style vanities with Deco-inspired models and joined them with a drop-down makeup area. She replaced the mirrors with larger, more simply framed versions. The vanities and mirror frames are painted a creamy hue. The dark tiles on the floor were replaced with 18-inch crema marfil marble. The walls were stripped of their dated tiles and now wear an iridescent champagne wall covering. The shower and the wall at the foot of the tub are covered in a capiz shell-like mosaic tile. “When you light a candle, the light reflects off of the tile to set a glamorous atmosphere,” Butler says. The square-within-a-square light fixture matches one in the adjacent bedroom. “There’s power in consistency when rooms are adjacent,” she adds. In fact, that consistency now ties together the entire house.

  • The master bathroom was gutted to eliminate a dated tile wainscot, a nearly neon ocean mural, ornate mirrors and vanities and other incongruous elements, Butler says. In their place is an elegant space with a lighter palette, a new makeup table and capiz-shell-like tile in the shower and on the wall at the foot of the tub that captures and reflects candlelight for a glamorous atmosphere.