Integrating a home with its surroundings
Far from their previous homes in San Diego and Panama City, Panama, a designer and her husband have created a New Hampshire home that reconnects them intimately with their natural surroundings.
Interior designer Roberta Garrison and her husband, Peter, once divided their time between California, where their two grown children live, and Panama, her native land. But on their first visit with realtor Betty LaBranche to the Exeter, New Hampshire, house they now own, the couple knew that this was where they wanted to live. It was on that walk-through on a snowy winter day that Roberta reimagined the entire space. “I walked through the whole house, and it took me one hour to design it in my head,” she says. “All my notes were created in the first hour, all the details of the remodel.”
Roberta, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers and graduate of the Design Institute of San Diego, had been designing hotel lobbies in places such as the InterContinental Panama. From her home on the West Coast, she designed the Exeter project, sent architectural plans out for bid, and was ready for work to start in New Hampshire the day after closing. During six months of construction, the couple lived in their three-bedroom finished basement.
When they purchased it, the home was flush with cherry wood: cherry cabinets in the kitchen, cherry trim throughout, and cherry bordering the house’s two fireplaces, making the house feel very dark. “There were a lot of walls,” she says. “You’d walk in and you would see no view. There were arches everywhere; the lights had to be on all day.”
To combat the darkness, walls came down, oak flooring and carpeting were removed, and windows were enlarged or added, including a large bay window. “We wanted to have a view of [Sloans] brook and have all the natural light you could let in,” she says.
“I always start with the flooring,” says Roberta, who chose an eco-friendly reengineered wood from Provenza Floors in wide walnut planks for the first floor. “It is a sustainable product using real wood that is hand-scraped and hand-distressed with a permeated polyurethane finish. It’s wood but doesn’t have the problem of contracting and expanding,” something that is a concern in the cold of New England.
Integral to the flooring, as well as the tile work throughout the home, was Greg Durant of Exeter-based G&N Flooring by Design. “The exciting thing was getting the perspective of a designer,” he says. “This process was happening in her own home and, coming from the West Coast, [Roberta] had different ideas in terms of how she wanted this house to look.” Together, they went through G&N’s showroom and selected her tiling needs piece by piece. Durant also loved the floor selection. “It was a great base for everything,” he says.
The flooring flows throughout the main level, which includes an office and master bedroom. With the arches removed, the front door now opens through an entryway into the living room and dining room, which merge seamlessly.
“I like the living room to be the place you look at when you first walk in,” the designer says. She describes her design aesthetic as timeless European with a contemporary sensibility, a style that is most on display in that space. The room is dramatic in its combination of striking color tones, artwork, and unique furniture pieces. A central coffee table was custom designed by the owner; she used reclaimed concrete Corinthian capitals, salvaged from a Beverly Hills home demolition, to form the base, which she topped with thick beveled glass. Forged iron balusters hold the top above the capitals. “We have a lot of European flair because to me it’s classic, it’s timeless,” she says.
The repurposed fauteuil chairs surrounding the coffee table were originally purchased in a Paris auction house; Roberta was there while her mother served as a cultural attaché. “Since I love blending styles throughout my designs, I gave [the chairs] a more contemporary feel,” she says. “I had the wood frame lacquered in black paint, reupholstered them in white ostrich skin embossed leather, and added nickeled nail heads as the final touch.” Flanking the fireplace, which was redone with stacked quartzite from G&N, are brass pots of Chinese origin. “I like to add unexpected pieces to give it interest.”
The living room opens into the dining room; three-foot wainscoting ties the two spaces together. The dining room’s chairs are by the British furniture designer Christopher Guy, while the brass chandelier comes from RH Modern. The tabletop is a custom creation using a wall partition made of resin and recycled crushed glass. A wall of mirrors enlarges the space and increases the light in the room. The color scheme throughout the house is one she has used before. “Grays, taupes, and browns are usually my go-to,” Roberta says.
Just as the dining and living rooms connect, so do the kitchen, family room, and breakfast nook, which was previously an enclosed sunroom. To design and install the kitchen, Roberta enlisted the help of Exeter-based PKsurroundings. “Roberta is very talented, and we worked well together,” says designer Janice Page. Though the two had short meetings at the house early on, they mostly communicated from different countries during the redesign process. Debbie Karpiak of PKsurroundings Liason Service introduced the Garrisons to Oxland Builders, who served as general contractor for the renovation.
In the kitchen, Page encouraged the Garrisons to remove the cherry cabinetry so that they could start afresh. Now white cabinets brighten the space. The old island, which sat at an angle and contained a cooking surface, also went. “We wanted to create a better work triangle,” Page says. Panels on the large refrigerator help to diminish its apparent size. Torquay Cambria quartz was used for the raised part of the island, Orion granite for the lower countertops. From Panama, the Garrisons brought back a butcher block custom made from reclaimed wood that had been submerged in the Panama Canal for more than 100 years. Roberta selected the gray-and-white, diamond-patterned backsplash and requested turned legs on the island to simulate the appearance of furniture.
Page intended her design, which included new windows and removal of walls, to connect the kitchen with the breakfast nook and family room. During the design and construction process, she and the Garrisons became friends, and she counts herself lucky to see the kitchen in action now that it is done. “I’ve had the experience of going to their house, spending time in the space, and seeing how it’s become a hub,” she says. “We all cook together or bring food to share. The kitchen works well with many people in it.”
Three kitchen pendant fixtures from Hudson Valley add a striking note. Roberta believes lighting is a critical part of designing a home. “It’s important to include it early,” she says. “You integrate it at the building phase.” For her, function comes before beauty, and she views lighting as important for showcasing a home, especially the artwork in it. Above the Restoration Hardware table and rug from Frontgate in the breakfast nook hangs a beautiful yet simple chandelier from Troy Lighting.
In the powder room, one pendant lights the space, but multiple mirrors fool the eye and create the effect of four light fixtures. “I love glass and mirrors,” Roberta says.
Peter and Roberta both make and collect art. A large oil painting of Roberta’s grandmother, done in Paris, hangs in the stairwell leading to the ground level. Flanking the living room fireplace are two pieces by the Spanish painter Joan Miró and a large abstract by James Coignard. A statue of William Lloyd Garrison—a prominent abolitionist, newspaper editor, suffragist, and Peter’s great-grandfather—is in the hallway leading to the office. Another statue of W. L. Garrison that has been in the family for generations is in the kitchen. In the family room, collections of pre-Columbian replicas hang on the walls and pottery pieces fill the shelves.
Several paintings by Roberta hang in the house. Peter, who worked in luxury automobile sales for years, is now a professional sculptor. He made the life-size bronze male torso in the family room and a bronze polar bear that is now used as a yearly athletic trophy at his alma mater, Bowdoin College. Throughout the home there are pieces worth noting—a trio of paintings by Native American artist Fritz Scholder; a collection of beakers from Roberta’s father, a physician; and a hall table made from the root of a tree cast in resin and plated in silver leaf.
In front of the house, red columbine, daylilies, and sedum are among the flowers that greet the Garrisons’ guests. Wickie Rowland of Labrie Associates designed the site. Behind the house, a newly constructed, two-level Trex deck places the homeowners in the midst of their natural surroundings. Rye-based A&R Jackson Contractors brought Roberta’s concept for the deck to life. The lower level, shaded by tree canopies, sits at the woodland’s edge. Both the dynamic tiered deck and the large windows give the home greater connection to Sloans Brook, which was one of the designer’s main goals. “The view is important to me—changing a window or opening a wall brings the outside [indoors],” Roberta says. “It becomes a part of your home.”