Photographed by Kirsten Beckerman
Designer Leslie Tunney compares decorating a home to getting dressed in the morning. “It’s like shopping for clothes,” she says. “You go into Macy’s, you go into Target, you go into Kmart ... it’s like putting together a really great outfit.” Recently Tunney, a self-employed designer, gave her own 1950s Cape Cod in West Towson a brand new look.
Tunney’s main goal was to transform the house from a formal space with small, light-deprived rooms into an open, modern home that offers plenty of sunny living space for family and friends. “I like to open things up, so you can live and flow through your house and let the light in,” she says. “We use every space of this house every day.”
According to Tunney, every family home these days needs a great kitchen, a computer room and a mudroom. “You’ve got to make your house work for you,” she says. In much of her design work, her goal is to transform traditional, formal spaces into more functional ones, such as converting a dining room into a home office.
Tunney created the mudroom in her own home by transforming a small screened-in breezeway— installing walls, a tin roof and a large, semicircular window inspired by a transom she saw at Second Chance, the architectural salvage dealer in South Baltimore. The window, which runs almost the entire length of the entranceway, looks onto a covered porch, furnished with teak pieces by Kingsley-Bate. The furniture’s natural wood and boxy design epitomizes the smart blend of classic and modern styles, extending the home’s interior ambience to its exterior.
To the left of the mudroom entrance, a wide, white barn door leads into what was formerly a two-car garage and is now a comfortable family room, home to a pool table and cushy sofas. It’s the perfect niche for the Tunney children: Jake, 15, Mae, 13, and Georgia, 10. Playing off the rustic barn door, Tunney added insulation and wooden planks to the ceiling as well as built-in under-window cabinetry along the walls to give the entire room a “barn look.” The clean lines and dark mocha walls, along with an Eric Abrecht landscape hanging on a far wall, unite it with the rest of the home in a style that Tunney dubs “Greenwich Village.”
The living room and adjacent dining room were once divided by a wall. Now, the only things separating the spaces are a few, slim columns and a change in flooring, as the blue ceramic tile that joins the mudroom, kitchen and dining areas gives way to the ebony-stained hardwood floor of the living room.
In furnishing the rooms, Tunney mixed old and new, traditional and modern, styles. An antique chair from Cuomo’s Antiques basks in the light filtering through the French doors that replaced a large dining room window, and lead to a rear patio. A round wooden dining room table surrounded by IKEA chairs sits between an antique velvet-upholstered chair and an Asian chest from Leesha Lee. A mirror adorns the wall above it, paired with a series of photographs taken by Georgia of Elle, the Tunneys’ serene lab-poodle mix. In the living room is the blue and white rug that Tunney picked up in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood several years ago, the piece that inspired the home’s cool color palette. The rug’s influence can be seen throughout the home, with its predominately white walls, streamlined fixtures and blue- tinted fabrics. Atop the rug sits a Victoria Hagan coffee table. “Good coffee tables are everything,” Tunney offers, praising Hagan’s particularly for its generous dimensions.
The seamless transition from dining room to kitchen offers an open, casual space perfect for the family to gather. “We try to eat at the table at least four times a week. That’s my goal,” Tunney says. “Definitely Sundays.” But, she confesses, “sometimes we sit around the island and eat pizza.”
The island, designed by Tunney and Joe Leatherman, a Hampden-based architect, is modeled after the service counter at Restoration Hardware. Tunney gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase “window shopping,” as she admits to going to stores like Banana Republic to study the store’s furnishings and general design rather than to shop. Metal stools from Smith & Hawken complement the contemporary look of the island.
A hallway, lit with fixtures made of upside-down garden cloches that were custom designed by Tunney and late friend Tommy Travers, leads from the kitchen to the wing of the home that contains the master bedroom and guest bedroom.
In renovating the master bedroom, Tunney sacrificed a foot of floor space in order to install a larger master bath. A self-proclaimed lover of built-ins, she created a white-painted storage space running the length and height of the wall opposite the bed. She also chose to take out one of three windows— the one time Tunney has blocked any natural light source throughout the home— in favor of leaving the double window on an adjacent wall and placing the head of the bed on a far wall.
Here, she mixes old pieces, including two dressers, one of which used to belong to her mother, with new touches. A little white lamp on her bedside table is from designer Thomas O’Brien’s “Vintage Modern” line, found exclusively at Target. The light blue walls are adorned with a piece painted by native Baltimore artist Dean Dalfonzo, mimicking the landscape style and blue-green hues of the Abrecht work in the family room.
Especially in small, often forgotten spaces, Tunney pays particular attention to the lighting and open-air feel. Every bathroom in the house, for instance, has a large mirror on the wall opposite a window— available at IKEA— that reflects light. Along the stairwell leading to the second floor, Tunney opted to knock down a wall and add a banister. New England-style knoll-posts replaced the original colonial posts in keeping with the simplistic vein of other renovations.
Upstairs, Tunney had a drab, uninspiring canvas to work with, allowing her to start almost from scratch to transform out-of-date bedrooms, bathrooms and attic space into colorful, livable areas for her children. She constructed one of her trademark built-ins— a desk for her eldest, Jake— in a once-empty alcove in his bedroom. The patriotic palette of his room is complemented by his collection of footballs. For his bathroom, Tunney traded in retro turquoise and white ceramic tile and furnishings for white floor-to-ceiling wainscoting and updated fixtures. Replacing futile hallway space, another second-floor bathroom was added and is shared by Georgia and Mae. It has also been wainscoted, with their artwork ornamenting the white walls.
At the open entrance to Georgia’s periwinkle room is a Matisse print. Georgia chose the bright pink tapestry hanging over her windows, which are situated above a white window seat that Tunney installed. A door in Georgia’s room that formerly led to a storage space is the entrance to Mae’s hideaway. “She writes with a wit,” Tunney says of her daughter. “You’re born with that.”
Tunney’s goal for Mae’s room was to cultivate that wit by creating a true writer’s niche “all in fresh, beachy colors.” Tunney built part of the space around a large, pine desk centered below one of the room’s two windows, giving Mae plenty of room to write, and an undisturbed view of the large oak tree that winds its way upward from the back of the house. Anyone who enters the room cannot help but notice the large chair that sits at the desk. Evoking a Dr. Seuss-like whimsy, the chair is a bright, canary yellow with bold, hot pink stripes. Tunney first spotted it at Goodwill in its original state: old, green and leather. She brought it to her upholsterer, who then transformed it into the eye-catching focal point of the room.
Beyond the rafters, which Tunney raised, along with a couple of coats of fresh, white paint, is a door leading to a small nook that houses Jake’s drum set. There is no space in this home that Tunney has left vacant. What was once just a cavity in the wall above the stairs, for example, she has now made a second-floor laundry room, exclusively for the use of all three children.
Looking at “before” photos of the house, Tunney muses that “it still needs landscaping. It still needs black shutters.” And she’s continually brainstorming new ways to solve design challenges. She widened doorways wherever possible to give the illusion of space. Any doors that were not going to be closed frequently were removed. Wherever possible, Tunney added built-in storage— under windows, along walls— and employed tricks of the trade, such as purchasing a European washer and dryer set because its dimensions fit a standard closet.
Tunney, who has been a decorator for 15 years, likes to design homes to complement their owners. “I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, and my house doesn’t have a lot of accessories,” she explains. Her home is a reflection of her own style: simple, modern, chic and practical. “Less is more,” she says. “If you add too much, you’ll ruin everything. And that’s true of anything. Outfits ... houses. Less is more.”
Annliese Scott is a Style intern.