Denise Koch and her husband, Jackson Phippin, were dedicated urbanites. The popular WJZ-TV anchorwoman and her director/theater professor mate enjoyed the perks of city living— Center Stage, the Baltimore Museum of Art, restaurants and entertainment. Then, after 17 years of marriage and freedom (and housing stops in Hampden, Bolton Hill and Ten Hills), their long-awaited twin daughters, Meg and JoEsther, entered the scene. Suddenly, musings on carefree trips to New York City were replaced by considerations such as public schools, community pools and convenient grocery stores.
In 1995, the family of four moved to Ellicott City. The suburb was an equidistant commute for Koch and her husband, who was working in Washington at the time. (He is now an adjunct professor at Howard County Community College.) “I never could have lived out here before we had the children— I would have felt very isolated,” says Koch. “But we loved that this area was set up for the convenience of families. We had had so much freedom for years and years, but when you have 4- and 5-year-olds, the fact is, you need to be able to easily go somewhere that serves pizza.”
The home sits at the bottom of a small hill in a stretch of lush woods, a private refuge from Koch’s public life. For several years after the family’s arrival, the home remained much the same as the day they moved in: plain and white. But the initial appeal of the previous owners’ neutral design sensibility wore off after three years. “It started to feel like we were living in a hospital,” says Koch.
Koch knew her busy schedule, and that of the growing twins, would not allow her to tackle a redecorating project herself. Although she was nervous at the prospect of entrusting her private space to an interior designer, Koch selected Linda Robinson of Linda Robinson Interiors, an acquaintance she had met through mutual philanthropic ties.
“I come home to a dark house at 12:30 a.m., so when I walk in I want to shake off the stress and formality of my day,” says Koch. “I probably told Linda a hundred times, ‘we are very casual people, we cannot create a museum here.’” It is not uncommon for the twins to spend hours chasing the family Labrador, Lily, through the house, or for at least one of the two cats to nap in the sun on the kitchen table. Children from the neighborhood are frequent guests. “We live here,” says Koch. “You can write ‘live’ in all capital letters and underline it, with an exclamation point.”
Koch and Phippin had numerous items they had acquired over time that they wanted to retain, a challenge Robinson enjoyed. “This wasn’t a blank slate,” says Robinson. “We had to work with a lot of existing objects, which was more challenging, but also more interesting. It is so much fun listening to people and interpreting what they want.”
A beautiful series of collages of famous women, created for a window display at the old Hutzler’s on Howard Street by one of Koch’s former neighbors, a Russian artist, found a home on the walls of the revamped, minimalist dining room. Relics from trips to China— both the couple’s as well as Koch’s father’s— are displayed throughout the house.
Robinson worked with Koch and Phippin over the course of several years, reworking one room at a time as schedules and budgets allowed. The first directive was obvious: the white had to go. Koch is admittedly timid about color, while her husband, who has a master’s degree in set design, has an eye for the bold. Robinson negotiated compromises between the two, with harmonious results. Heavy, white window treatments in the living and dining rooms gave way to simple draperies in subdued natural tones, which attach near the room’s crown molding on invisible bars— they seem to float off the windows. The overstuffed sofas, previously a dark green, received a face-lift with camel-colored chenille slipcovers.
Every decision in the house was determined with a casually elegant lifestyle in mind. This was most important in the open-plan kitchen and family room, where Koch, Phippin and the twins spend most of their time. The walls are painted “tomato soup red,” as described by Robinson, and the rooms are free of constraining window treatments, so as to maximize the spectacular view of the woods behind the house. “It feels like a big treehouse during the summer,” says Phippin. Both kids and pets enjoy the overstuffed denim upholstered furniture and soft area rugs.
A real sticking point for Koch was the foyer. Robinson and Phippin had to convince her that the rich yellow was the perfect choice for the space. “The foyer needed something edgy,” explains Robinson. “To set off the large Mark Barry painting and Jack’s collection of palm tree artwork, we needed something with an edge.” Robinson really sacrificed herself for the job— she fractured several ribs when she accidentally tripped on the stairs while working in the foyer.
The Koch-Phippin home is a work in progress— Koch is constantly moving items to find just the right placement for each object. In addition, she has a tradition of buying big-ticket items whenever an inheritance happens her way, as a means to remember that lost relation. One of two paintings by Baltimore artist Mark Barry was purchased when Koch’s 99-year-old grandmother passed away. Most recently, when a grandfather passed away, the dining room sideboard was acquired to match the antique French dining set. New objects appear, old items are moved and the evolution of the home continues. “There’s lots of personality, lots of warmth and lots of love in this house,” notes Robinson.
Once reticent about working with an interior designer, Koch now readily espouses the virtues of professional assistance. And while the Ellicott City enclave is a far cry from their carefree days as city dwellers, Koch and Phippin are satisfied with their suburban lifestyle.
“This is not a designer home,” Koch explains. “We run here, we spill here. You have to choose to have a really beautiful showplace home, or to have children and animals. We clearly made our choice. And this life feels richer to me, deeper.”