At Home in Fairfield County - October 2009

At Home in Fairfield County

October 2009
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To visit interior designer Shelley Morris at her home in New
Canaan is to spend time with a woman in the throes of her
own aesthetic evolution.
Just off Ponus Ridge Road, on the spine of a gently slopinghill,
the low-slung, cupola-topped ranch sits within a stone’s throw of
Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Though Shelley’s home was built just
seven years after the architectural icon was, in1956, and expanded
over time, the one-story, white cedar-shingle-with-a-courtyard house
bears no recognizable resemblance to its famous neighbor. Whether
its owner has been influenced by the proximity of greatness, how-
ever, is another matter entirely.
  Before purchasing the house in2007, Shelley and her husband,
Seth, an executive in women’s sleep wear, were living across the
state line in Bedford, NewYork, in a house they managed to unload
just as the market was morphing from a stiffly boned corset into
a plushly piled robe.
  The empty nesters then spent four bewildering months without
a clue about where they were headed, ultimately moving into a
rental.  New York City was an option, as was finding a suburban fixer-
upper to flip.
From New Rochelle to North Salem, real estate agents weren’t
showing them houses they liked, perhaps because they assumed their
interior designer-client required a structure of architectural note or
antique character. So, with the lease on the rental running out, they
headed across the border.
“I had a gun to my head,” says Shelley, recalling that the weekend
she found the house was the last she had left to hunt.
One iron-clad prerequisite was that the total package – house and
property combined-possess an appeal capable of luring the couple’s
25 year-old daughter out of the city and into the country for an occa-
sional weekend with friends.
“Location comes first, property second and footprint third,” says
the designer. “You can always make a house fit your needs.”
  This philosophy ultimately guided her toward the 3,400-square-
foot linoleum palace that sat on two acres a.long what struck her as
an exceedingly pretry road. And its courts for tennis and bocce, a
pool, an expansive bluestone terrace-and an entire wing that could
be dedicated to a bedroom-bathroom combination for their afore-
mentioned only child-sealed the deal.
“Usually I fall in love with houses; they speak to me,” she says.
“This one was different. We had no time left, and this was the best
financial decision we could make.”
They moved into the squared-off horseshoe: a center-hall with
eight-foot ceilings that Shelley says had no relationship to the features
of the land that lay outside its windows, including gnarled apple
trees, large rhododendrons, climbing roses, and a pergola full of
ancient wisteria.  A pool table dominated what is now the
kitchen/dining area; the plumbing was shot; there was no powder
room to speak of; and there was plenty of wall-to-wall nylon carpet-
ing applied directly onto the slab, and lots of, er, linoleum.
What had appeared to be a purely cosmetic job soon revealed itself
to require a complete gut. After a misstep by her original architect-
involving an omission about the necessity of support beams-
Shelley called in her collaborators: Architect Jeff Kaufman of JMKA
Architects in Westport and New Canaan and Rick Krug of Redding-

based contractor TR Building & Remodeling. Together they executed
a suite of interior alterations intended to transform the house from
hunkered-down bungalow to airy sanctuary.
“Jeff got to see the extent of what I do, and he knew exactly what
I wanted,” she says, adding that they now frequently collaborate on
projects.”We were very simpatico.
“The master punch list included raising the ceilings to 12 feet in
some cases, laying wide-planked floors of white oak, installing100-year-
old beams reclaimed from the bottom of a river where they
landed after falling off a barge and re-fenestrating the entire building
with windows to the floor.
“My intention was to make it feel integrated with the property,”
Shelley says.
When, after three or four months, permits were obtained and
the construction began to impinge on life as they knew it, Shelley
and Seth moved into another rental and remained there for about
eight months.
  Though she may have begun her career steeped in English coun-
try antiques, collecting all manner of Staffordshire transferware-
black, brown, and mulberry, for the record-and generously layering
with trim and tassels, she has now emerged on the other side of the
design continuum. Texture has trumped pattern, and she is forever
in search of a place where her eyes can rest.
“There’s no question I’ve become more of a modernist,” Shelley
says. “As I get older, I edit down more and eliminate the super-
fluous things I don’t identify with. I’m a completely different
human being.
“She points to the simple lines of the trestle table in the dining area
of the kitchen and the dreamy quality of the oil-on-board painting
she picked up in Florence ten years ago, which she finds”restful.”
”architecture and light source are the most important elements,
“she said. “The better the architecture, the less need there is for
In this spartan ambience she now favors, a muted, natural palette
predominates, serving as a back drop that showcases Dutch and Bel-
gian influences. In the living room,she upholstered her sofa and
chairs in fabricswith a deliberately slipcovered look. A 17th-century
Swedish table has nary a hint of paint left and thus serves as a coun-
terpoint to a shiny baby grand piano.
Interspersed throughout are French, Italian, Asian and African
pieces. A large clock from a train station in France hangs on
the dining-area wall above an old bakery table she found in
New Preston, Connecticut. Chalice-shaped bronze sconces that look
as though they could have been designed by Giacometti are mounted
”Axel Vervoordt is my God,” she says. ‘John Saladino, Vicente
Wolf, Michael Smith- I look to them when I’m lost to get me back
on track.”
Evidence of her well-trained eye is everywhere. In the living room,
where she raised the eight-foot ceiling and created a tray effect, she
also covered up the 1950s brick fireplace with drywall and Venet-
ian plaster and then installed a honed black granite surround and
hearth that is flush with the floor to expand the space. The dining
room features a19th-century Italian chest-bone escutcheons, original
hardware-once owned by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward,
while the library features a massive16th-or17th-century European
tapestry, complete with the wear and tear of age.
  One-hundred-year-old ironstone pitchers line a kitchen shelf; a
large and arresting self-portrait by a female Czech artist who lives
in Westchester (and reminds her of her daughter) regards her
daughter’s bedroom; and ornaments from African tribal headdresses
accent the mood in the library; a primitive Turkish urn sits atop
a flamed mahogany pedestal in the dining room
A fine art major, Shelley once worked as a fashion stylist in adver-

rising at Macy’s before joining the executive training program as a
buyer at Bloomingdale’s.  It was being “sent to Siberia,” i.e., the Bloom-
ingdale’s Toy Department, that ended her retail career, though not
before she met her husband,who was selling Snoopy and other
Peanuts toys.
Together they purchased a house in Pound Ridge, and
Shelley decided to study interior design as a way of learning how to deco-
rate it.  Over the course of four years, she attended Parsons at night,
all the while designing interiors for clients on the side.Her creative
juices flowing, she found she could not get enough.The freedom to
design in three dimensions proved irresistible.
Seventeen years into owning her own firm,Shelley has designed
homes for clients in Connecticut, Westchester and the Hamptons.
Occasionally she moonlights on special jobs that take her into New
York City, up to the Cape, and out to California.
She regularly sources goods all over the state from dealers and
shops in Stamford, New Canaan, Sharon, Woodbury, New Preston,
New Milford and Hudson,and says she prefers to work with
vendors with whom she has a relationship.
“I feel I’ve earned this, “she says about the house she admits would
be tough to leave. “I worked so hard to be here, and in my darkest
moments, I didn’t believe it could happen.
“The former traditionalist has migrated toward her own interpre-
tation of modernity, producing a totem to the tranquility and
simplicity of that famous house around the comer.
With phase one complete, phase two-re-designing the cupola,
tweaking the exterior finish, adding a pediment to facade, shingling
the roof and adding copper gutters and leaders-can’t be far behind.
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