No Place Like Home

When Middleburg interior designer Marlene Dennis set out to create a home for herself, she started with a dated ’70s ranch, its good bones obscured by dark wood paneling and multi-hued shag carpet. But simple finishes and luxe materials, as well as some architectural salvage splurges and carefully curated furnishings, have transformed it into a serene, timeless sanctuary.

It’s not often that a former yacht decorator finds her sea legs on land, but such was the case for Middleburg-based interior designer Marlene Dennis. 

“Yacht design was fun and cool,” says Dennis, recalling her earlier years in South Florida and, later, North Carolina. “Clients sent planes for you and invited you to join them on boats all over the world, but it was also tough, working in boatyards at all hours and being exposed to pollutants.”

The break into residential interior design came for Dennis in 2005, when one of her boating clients hired her to oversee an extensive 18-month renovation of their primary residence in Middleburg.

After site visits, Dennis, who is Canadian and grew up in Ottawa, fell for the area and its charms.

“It felt like home,” she says of Virginia’s horse country. “I’ve always been an equestrian. I love the rolling hills, the blackboard fencing and the fieldstone walls. The area is hilly and wooded, just like Ottawa. I also like the climate, having four seasons.”

While working for her clients, Dennis began to look for a house of her own in the Middleburg area. It was at the height of the real estate market in 2006, and there was little for sale that stayed on the market long. At the end of that year, she put in an offer, which was accepted, on a four-bedroom 3,500-square-foot house on three and a half acres, knowing it needed a lot of work. Meanwhile, her local job had led to plenty of other referrals and her residential interior design business was taking off.

Dark-stained white oak floors.

“I always liked the bones of the house, the established trees on the lot,” she says. “I was excited to be close to Washington, D.C., which is chic and cosmopolitan, while being part of a close-knit equestrian community in the countryside.”

Prior to the remodel, Dennis’ house was a one-story red brick rambler built in the 1970s, with an asphalt-shingle roof and builder-grade columns. On the interior, it was a warren of small, dark, choppy rooms. “Beyond dated,” as Dennis describes it, “with linoleum flooring, wood-paneled walls, shag carpets, and each room painted a different color to match its wall-to-wall carpeting—red, gold, lime green.”

Dennis spent some months living in the house, carefully considering her renovation plans and how she planned to use her new space. 

“I work from home, so I wanted an office that was comfortable and bright, with nice views,” she explains. “It became apparent to me that adding a second floor was the way to go. I could have a large office, plenty of storage and a guest suite for visitors.” 

While adding the second story, Dennis switched out the home’s old windows for new ones, making them bigger wherever she could to let in more natural light and take advantage of the outdoor scenery. She also vaulted the ceilings in her bedroom, the foyer, and what became the kitchen, den and dining room in an open floor plan.

“The ceilings went from 8 to 12 feet,” says Dennis. “Removing interior walls also allowed me to re-imagine the overall space, creating larger rooms with better circulation for everyday living.”

For finishes and materials, Dennis kept things deliberately simple with dark-stained white oak floors, warm neutral walls mostly in a flat finish, and trim work in an off-white semi-gloss. The kitchen has painted wood cabinets and honed granite perimeter countertops. The master bathroom is a study in limestone.

“Given my busy lifestyle, I wanted my home to be serene and quiet,” she says of her choices.

Her splurge was a trip to New Orleans to an architectural salvage yard in order to select antique cypress interior doors. Some are glass-paned, while others are paneled. They add character and charm throughout the house, as do antique cypress columns, also from Louisiana, which wrap around—and disguise—the living room’s structural steel posts.

“I had wanted to open up the living room, so I took down its wall,” says Dennis. “It’s such a pretty space. I added architectural interest with wainscot panel, as well as with the cypress columns.”

The living room is also finished in a textured wall covering, adding another layer of interest.

Meanwhile, the house’s exterior desperately needed some love. In addition to a new cedar shingle roof, Dennis added gray-painted window shutters and stonework to the foundation and porch. The old columns were replaced with squared-off, cleaner-lined ones. 

“I painted all the brick white for a timeless look,” she says. “My aim was to get rid of the ho-hum ’70s architecture and create a classic Virginia home.”

Dennis, who brought minimal furniture with her when she moved, began to decorate her home in an unfussy elegant style. In addition to purchasing contemporary furnishings, she also frequented auctions and estate sales for interesting antique pieces. She bought only things she loved.

“I wanted to curate my own home piece by piece. I had no interest in buying everything that matched all at once. I wanted a collected look,” she says.

Dennis had some family pieces to start with—a large walnut chest in her bedroom, several antique oriental carpets, and the family silver—but most of what she has decorated with, she has acquired over time. 

Spatial functionality also plays a part in her interior design choices. For example, the mudroom, kitchen, den and dining area is a large connected space. 

“It reads like one room,” says Dennis. “I didn’t want it to be overly elaborate or especially utilitarian. I might work at the island at night, or be by the fire in the den. I might cook in the kitchen and have company at the same time. It’s where I host my dinner parties,” she says. “It’s a multifunctional space, yet cozy at the same time.”

The furnishings reflect all that, from the scroll-armed bar chairs—comfortable enough for a work night and formal enough for guests—to the African mahogany-topped island, which reads like a piece of furniture. In contrast to an antique rustic French lantern, adding spatial definition to the kitchen, a dressier brass chandelier creates a different vibe above a custom 60-inch round pedestal-based dining table, which she designed. A zebra hide, atop a textured sea-grass rug, sits beneath the dining table.

In the living room, there is a more formal feel, but with the same sea-grass carpeting (this one with an embossed pattern) and natural white duck upholstery (on a tailored shelter sofa, instead of den seating). These touches, along with the mix of art, provide room-to-room continuity, as do the punches of black found in furnishings, such as several lampshades.

“I love bits of black here and there. Black has a strength to it that I like,” says Dennis, adding, “plus I like high-contrast. I like to play off the softness of light upholstery with darker case goods. I especially like walnut.” 

In the living room, Dennis juxtaposes a 17th century walnut table with a contemporary tufted leather cocktail table that is painted with a greige base. Darker wood-framed armchairs are upholstered in a Ralph Lauren herringbone, a nod to Dennis’ equestrian interests. Behind the shelter sofa hang three antique classical etchings in floating gold frames.

But it’s the master bedroom that serves as a mini-gallery for the designer’s art—antique, vintage and contemporary—collected at auctions, estate sales and art galleries. 

In this hotel-like room, monogrammed white linens dress up the bed, and a wool carpet adds warmth underfoot. When closed, woven wood blinds filter light. While open, they invite in greenery from the grounds outside.

“When I come home, it’s so peaceful and cozy,” says Dennis. “Of course, my house is always a work in progress. It constantly evolves with my taste. It’s like a living thing, a reflection of who I am at a given time.”

This story originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.

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