Balancing Act

A fortunately timed redesign created a beautiful, functional haven for this Richmond family.

Kip Dawkins

Wingback chairs and grasscloth-papered alcoves flank the fireplace in the great room.

Three years ago, no one was worrying about a pandemic that would confine us to our homes for months on end. It was just good timing that one of Richmond-based interior designer Sara Hillery’s clients was ready to build an addition to her new home and redesign all of the interior spaces. The project took several years to complete, finishing just in time for the homeowner’s family of six, who found themselves hunkered down in rooms filled with light and furnishings designed to surround them with beauty and functionality.

Kip Dawkins

Sara Hillery

The delicate job of designing a home for a client generally begins with an exploration of their tastes in fabrics, art, and colors. When Hillery was selected to redesign the family’s Colonial-style home in the city’s tony Windsor Farms neighborhood, she mined the family’s ethos and realized that music would be her inspiration. “Music is what drives this family. Except for the husband, they all sing or play instruments,” she says.

Hillery quickly discovered that traditional routes to creating the perfect living environment would not work. “I am more of a performing artist,” the homeowner explains. “Sara can draw. That is her art.” Hillery concurs. “I knew that showing her fabric swatches was not going to work.”

Instead, the designer drew upon her years as a student of fine art and began to look at the house in the abstract, as if composing music. “That led me to softer tones with heavier notes throughout, following a jazz composition, which is one of their favorites,” says Hillery.

Kip Dawkins

The entry hall with wainscoted stairway and geometric wallpaper.

The musical approach begins in the home’s entry hall, which is dressed with a geometric-patterned grass wallpaper and stark white molding, and anchored by a stained wood floor. The room’s focal point is a dramatic wainscoted stairway that hugs the walls leading to the second floor. “The light and textured wall covering offers a nice sort of rhythm,” says Hillery.

Flanking the entry hall are formal living and dining rooms. Part of the original home, they received the most dramatic transformations. Inspired by legendary designer Bunny Williams, Hillery used high-gloss paint to create glassy looks in both rooms. In the living room, the buttery yellow paint on the ceiling is punctuated by a leafy gold chandelier sourced from a Palm Beach estate, while the dining room ceiling features a high-gloss pale blue design surrounded by molding, giving the illusion of a tranquil pool above the table. In each room, a seagrass rug grounds the polished finishes to achieve what Hillery describes as an “unassuming and practical” treatment for the home’s formal spaces.

Kip Dawkins

The high-gloss “pool” design overlooking the table in the dining room.

Further balancing formality with casual spirit in the living room, Hillery installed a Highland House banquette under the expansive bay window, flanked by simple Kate Spade armchairs. A beach landscape by Andras Bality, which Hillery found in Richmond’s Reynolds Gallery, hangs nearby. A grand piano commands the other end of the long and somewhat narrow room, creating space for piano recitals for family and friends. the homeowner’s fun collection of miniature busts of famous composers, mounted and framed, hangs alongside. “I didn’t want the room to feel too polished,” says Hillery. “I wanted it to feel approachable and inviting.”

To accommodate the family’s large table, the original dining room was expanded to include almost two-thirds of the home’s former kitchen space. Antique maps sourced from an art dealer in Hillery’s native Texas hang over the room’s fireplace mantel. Hillery selected the chandelier to add a touch of glamour to the room and to highlight the glassy ceiling decoration. “I needed something with enough glitz to hold the table and provide visual comfort without being too fussy,” she explains.

An addition to the rear of the house, designed by Richmond architect Dan Ensminger, includes a great room that flows from the living room and connects to the kitchen and back hallway. “I didn’t want this to be an extension of the living room,” says Hillery. To underscore that difference, wood beams sourced from Richmond’s Wellborn + Wright architectural manufacturing firm stretch across the 11-foot ceilings. In addition, the blue and green hues found throughout the house take on more vibrant shades as Hillery’s musical composition reaches a more energetic pitch.

The room’s focal point is a fireplace flanked by deep alcoves, both papered with grasscloth and furnished with matching accessories. In a nod to the family’s passion for music, Hillery contributed a cubist painting depicting string instruments that she found at an antique show and thought would be perfect hanging above the stone mantel.

To achieve a cozy feeling among so much new furniture, Hillery sought pieces that would seem as though they had been collected over time. An inviting sofa covered with sturdy indoor-outdoor fabric shares the space with a velvet sofa and wingback chairs. “We never got the family room quite right at our old house,” the homeowner says. “This great room is really pretty, and I love having a lot of green in the room. It brings the outside in.”

Kip Dawkins

The kitchen with nearby breakfast room.

In the kitchen, an ample kitchen island and peninsula offer plentiful work space, while the nearby breakfast room comfortably seats the family of six. An accomplished cook, the homeowner enjoys the counter space and Wolf range.

Adjoining the breakfast room is the homeowner’s office, where an explosion of coral tones reflect her high energy. Windows look out to the back of the house, and built-in bookshelves are lined with a collage of the four children’s art collected over the years. In the children’s playroom, just a few steps away, Hillery kept the décor casual; it includes a table for games and sofas repurposed from the family’s former home. Outside, a pool, terrace, and screened-in porch provided the family with much-appreciated outdoor retreats and places to gather safely last summer.

The family’s bedrooms are on the second floor. Hillery decorated the children’s rooms to reflect their artistic interests—a trio of album covers for the musical oldest son, ballet slippers for a dance-loving daughter. Serenity inspired the master bedroom, where the family’s fond memories of beach vacations play out in light watery colors. The bathroom, which has a soaking tub, marble-trimmed walk-in shower, vanity nook, and his and hers wash areas, feels like a decadent spa.

Kip Dawkins

Mirror in the family’s dining room.

“I am really glad we got our project done before COVID. Certainly if you have to be stuck at home, it’s a beautiful place to be stuck in,” says the homeowner. “I look forward to sharing it with others. Making memories with friends, family, and acquaintances will help our house feel more like a home.”


Kip Dawkins

The family’s screened-in porch and outdoor pool furniture provide socially distant seating.

Design Tips 

Making your home more cozy for quarantine and beyond.

The ideal home has large open spaces where you can stretch out and relax with family, good natural light, and private spaces with doors where you can isolate for specific tasks (like work or school) or just get away for a few minutes of quiet time. But even if your home doesn’t have all of those features, there’s plenty you can do to make it more functional for your family.

Give each room an identity. I love both light, bright spaces that reflect and enhance natural light and the opposite—darker, cozier spaces that offer warmth and comfort on chilly days. Paint is the easiest and most cost effective way to achieve either effect and can have a dramatic impact on your emotions. Ask your family members which colors they find calming or bring them comfort, and then hire a painter or do it yourself. And paint is easily changed if you want to change the mood later.

Make a formal living room more functional by adding an attractive desk, game table, or music source. This gives the room a purpose other than entertaining.

Create an extra work space by switching out your nightstand for a bedside table desk. Writing desks come in all sizes and are the perfect height for a bedside table.

Set aside a space for exercise or meditation. You’ll get in the right frame of mind fast if you have a dedicated place where you can spread out a yoga mat or fire up an exercise app on those days when you need to literally work out your stress.  

Appeal to your senses to make your home feel inviting and renewed. Open a door or window for fresh air (and remember to change your air filters). Turn on some music; it can transform your feelings and attitude. Make sure each room and space has appropriate lighting for its size and purpose. Display art that you love and light it well so you can really enjoy it. Add visual and tactile interest with new textures—linen, leather, wood, metal, faux fur, etc.

Go outside. With an outdoor heater or firepit and some washable blankets, your porch can host socially distant gatherings. Arrange the chairs a safe six feet apart and provide snacks in individual servings. In warmer months, add some potted plants and a small fountain for a soothing backdrop. SaraHillery.com —By Sara Hillery

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