From the October/November 2017 Issue  

Old Is New Again

Writer Iyna Bort Caruso  |  Photographer John Ferrentino  |  Designer Tracey Butler  |  Location Essex Fells, NJ
  • Interior designer and homeowner Tracey Butler relocated a staircase to create a dramatic foyer with a gallery feel for her art. The 18½-by-5-foot oil drawing on parchment, bought at auction, dominates the space.

  • Although this is called the family room, Butler says all rooms of the home are considered family rooms. Comfort is key. Here, the eye goes to the vibrant green chairs covered in durable emerald green velvet—“the stars of the room,” she says.

  • In the den, the coffee table is a freeform walnut slab that looks as though it was sliced right off the tree. The wall covering features a bold banana-leaf gold stencil on rust, which picks up the color of the sofas.

  • Butler converted a first-floor closet into a powder room. The bronze sink is flanked by a pair of midcentury candlesticks that were electrified. The wiring is hidden in the limestone countertop.

  • Hand-painted tiles line the walls and play off the teak woodwork in the kitchen. Butler loves mixing items, new and antique as well as fine art with more affordable pieces such as the pendant lamps purchased at Ikea. She says the kitchen has a retro Partridge Family-Brady Bunch feel.

  • Butler designed a kind of lounge where people could hang out while she’s in the kitchen. The wood sculpture of a female torso at right, carved from an acacia tree, plays off the honey-colored teak woodwork. Just off the seating area is a spot for casual dining.

  • Complementary wood tones ensure a seamless transition between the kitchen and the dining room.

  • A black and white oil painting makes a statement in the dining room against a cream palette that includes asymmetrically hung macramé light fixtures. The midcentury table and chairs are teak, and the wallpaper resembles the bark of a tree to “speak” to the wood in the room.

  • A single continuous color—used on the grass-cloth wall covering, bedding and carpeting—envelops the master bedroom in warmth and sophistication.

  • he walls, floors and vanity countertop of the master bathroom are made of Calacatta gold marble. The vanity was originally an antique mirrored bar using an eglomisé technique in which the back of the glass is gilded in gold. With the clean modern backdrop, “it’s like jewelry in the room,” Butler says.

  • A pair of bronze and glass arched-top double doors that Butler found at the Brimfield Antiques Show in Massachusetts years ago lead from the master bathroom to the master bedroom.

A 19th- century home gets a midcentury makeover.

When Tracey Butler undertook a renovation of her 1895 center-hall colonial-style home in Essex Fells, New Jersey, she brought the residence up to date—although that date largely stopped midcentury. The home is now retro and relaxed, even a little bit Partridge Family meets Brady Bunch, says Butler, owner of b. home interior design and the R. Home Interior Design Store in Livingston, New Jersey.

The 4,000-square-foot residence was in “terrible condition” when she found it. It had an awkward addition and a layout at odds with modern living. Still, Butler saw its potential in two exceptional assets: large original windows and nine-foot ceilings on each of the three floors, so she set off to polish this diamond in the rough.

The renovation took a year to complete. Six bedrooms were reduced to five. Worn distressed flooring was replaced with Jerusalem gold limestone to create a clean and modern feel. Dark, heavy moldings were removed and salvaged.

The most ambitious undertaking was relocating the staircase from the foyer to the living room. A striking entryway was at the top of Butler’s must-have list. The designer, also an art collector, wanted the entry to have a gallery feel. In addition to removing the staircase, she removed all visual clutter. Even the doors to the hall closets and the powder room seem to disappear into the walls. The hallway space, set off by the limestone floors, is now airy and spacious. The art dominates. In that way, it is also a stage-setter, giving visitors a hint of the drama to come.

Butler’s art collection, mostly modern, is prominent throughout the home. In some areas, she plays off the colors, coordinating the art with the palette in the room. In the den, for example, the rust, burgundy and green colors of the artwork coordinate with the carpet and furnishings. In other areas, she lets the art be the color in the room, such as in the foyer and dining room, where quiet palettes allow the art to pop.

Butler’s design approach to her own home is very much in keeping with the approach she takes with her clients. She transforms any style home into one with a traditional or modern clean-lined interior. She says it’s peaceful and elegant. And practical. “Once you make the architecture clean and modern, it can accommodate anybody’s furniture taste. With my house, I didn’t care that it was from 1895. The surprise element from outside to inside is exciting, both for me to live in and for people to visit.”

The kitchen certainly has a definite element of surprise. In renovating, Butler popped up the ceiling and turned it into a half cathedral rising 28 feet at its peak. The walls are covered in hand-painted Mexican tiles and installed all the way up the wall. “I usually don’t go primitive or rustic, but I flipped for these tiles,” Butler says. The black and rust tiles play off the honey color of the custom teak walls, island and cabinetry and infuse the room with warmth. The kitchen opens onto a lounge, which is in keeping with Butler’s emphasis on creating comfortable living spaces that are family-friendly with stylishly durable furnishings and finishes.

Each room of the home is distinct but connected. A design element in one room is picked up and repeated in the next to create consistency, flow and tranquility. Visitors may not realize it, she notes, but they feel it. A green rug in the den references green chairs in the living room, for instance. “I don’t believe in going from a red room to a purple room to a blue room,” Butler says. “Something from one room must lead to the next room so they all tie together, which makes the whole experience of the house continuous.”

As a designer, Butler says her goal isn’t all about looks. “It’s about how I would want it to feel. And that’s always based off personal instincts.” She doesn’t hesitate to take more risks and make bolder choices for her own homes, and neither does she hesitate to encourage clients to expand their comfort zones. “I always ask clients to push themselves if I think it’s going to make a huge impact.”

As much as Butler has loved this home, she has since moved on and is renovating again. See her new home in a future issue.

“Once you make the architecture clean and modern, it can accommodate anybody’s furniture taste. ”   – Tracey Butler

Iyna Bort Caruso is a writer based in Rockville Centre, New York.