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Swathed in Style

Writer Marirose Krall  |  Photographer Christine Gatti  |  Designer Alexa Ralff  |  Location Maplewood, NJ

Wallpaper with panache elevates a designer’s Maplewood home.

“I wanted to wallpaper that foyer forever,” designer Alexa Ralff says. The black and white wall covering coordinates easily with the colors in the adjoining rooms. One of the family’s Labradoodle’s, Libby, waits on the landing.

“I love a good project,” says Alexa Ralff, owner of AHR Designs in Millburn. That’s why the designer was thrilled at the idea of purchasing this 100-year-old residence and renovating it to meet her family’s needs. “It’s a typical center-hall Colonial in Maplewood,” Ralff says of the home she shares with her husband, Steve, and two children, Wyatt and Avery. “I love quirks and a traditional home; honoring the 1920s history of this house was my pleasure.”

Ralff’s aesthetic combines a variety of styles. “I am a classicist, a bit boho and a tad traditional — but in the most casual way; I love all things pretty.” She also loves all things orderly. “I can lean into ‘more is more’ with decor in terms of my love of color and pattern,” she explains. “But I was raised by a professional organizer mom, so I like a lot of pattern but not a lot of ‘stuff.’ I like a clean counter, I don’t like a lot of tchotchkes; the eye needs a place to land.”

“I didn’t want to get carried away or choose something that I would get sick of living with,” Ralff says of the wallpaper in the entry. “This will work if I want to switch out the art down the road. The size and scale of it reads as just enough.”

In this case the eye very often lands on the walls. The home is furnished in a palette of blues, greens, peaches and pops of pink. “That’s driven by all of our favorite colors,” the designer says. And much of that color comes from the wall coverings, which are one of Ralff’s favorite ways to elevate a room’s décor. “I’d wallpaper everything if I could,” she says. “I love things layered. Wallpaper acts as one of those layers.”

Ralff used fabrics and richly toned metals to warm up the kitchen. The new island is a favorite spot for family meals. Here, Ralff’s son, Wyatt, sneaks a treat to Labradoodle Hazel while her husband, Steve, looks on.

The inlaid tile “mat” in front of the kitchen sink tops a radiant heating system. “It’s lovely,” Ralff says. “it’s a nice way to do dishes.” The millwork in the adjacent mudroom is painted a gray-green shade.

In the dining room, Ralff chose a deep-blue vinyl wallpaper — “not because I was worried about wear and tear, but because the color was just perfection. It has movement. It’s rich and elevated; you would never know it’s vinyl.”

Hazel (left) and Libby greet guests at the mudroom’s Dutch door. “We definitely wanted a mudroom,” Ralff says. “I can’t stand shoes by the front door. I wanted it fun. A mudroom and a powder room are, for the most part, the two rooms most guaranteed to be seen by guests.”

Ralff selected a subtler, but just as appealing, wall covering for the mudroom. The tie-dye pattern incorporates delicate hues of aqua, taupe and white. “I’ve loved it forever. I’ve had this swatch on my desk for a year and a half.” The wallpaper plays against the stylized floral design of the floor tile. “That’s a good example of being bold with pattern play. Most people wouldn’t put those two things together. Here, they function as artwork. It looks like a little jewel box. People walk into that room and say ‘this is amazing.’” The flooring is also practical. “It’s a simple porcelain tile. It’s easy to clean with lots of variation in color and pattern to hide the world’s sins.”

Soft pink rockers form a conversation area in front of the fireplace in the living room. The wood armchair and the coffee table are vintage pieces.

“I’ve never been afraid of color,” Ralff says of the deep blue wallcovering in the dining room. A settee on one side of the table adds variety to the seating options. “I own six chairs, so if I have people who don’t want to be cozied up, I’ll bring in the chairs. It’s a nice way to add some depth and interest in a dining room.” The built-in cabinets (one shown, at left) are original to the home. “I thought about taking them to the ceiling. But there’s something about their rickety-ness — one door doesn’t really close. They’re so sweet, I couldn’t do it.”

The powder room features another wall covering that Ralff has admired for some time — a vine pattern on grass cloth. The paper posed something of a challenge. “It’s delicate and can fray on the ends, making it difficult to apply on a corner. But I said ‘I’m not losing this paper.’” Ralff solved the problem with white corner panels that create a striking frame for the wallpaper. Much like in the mudroom, the flooring here — a black-and-white basket weave — presents a contrast to the pattern on the walls. Ralff says, “The paper has pattern; the floor has pattern. It all still works.”

Ralff added hits of color to the neutral sunroom with vibrant throw pillows and artwork.

Ralff addressed the challenge of hanging the delicate, grass-cloth wall covering in the powder room by using white strips so it wouldn’t fray at the corners.

In the kids’ bathroom, wallpaper depicting trees in various forms and colors acts as a fun backdrop. “I love that it feels sophisticated yet whimsical. It’s almost a little Dr. Seuss-like.” The designer added a deep green vanity to coordinate with the wallpaper.

LEFT | The kids’ bathroom features whimsical wallpaper against a deep green vanity. “They trust me 95% of the time and really deferred to my selections,” Ralff says. RIGHT | Ralff made use of a narrow nook in the kids’ bathroom by adding a lower base cabinet and open shelving.

Ralff enjoys her work but this project, of course, was a particular labor of love. “Since I do this for a living, I get to see all the fabulous things all the time. This was my first project for my own people.”