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See how an empty nester couple downsized to this Beacon Hill apartment

Design New England Beacon Hill Boston Sudbury
To add drama to the dining room, Michael Barnum stained the floor dark brown, designed custom cabinetry, installed a zebrawood table, and painted the ceiling a glossy chartreuse, a color echoed in the Kravet Couture fabric in curtains and seating.
To add drama to the dining room, Michael Barnum stained the floor dark brown, designed custom cabinetry, installed a zebrawood table, and painted the ceiling a glossy chartreuse, a color echoed in the Kravet Couture fabric in curtains and seating. Michael J. Lee

For some empty nesters, downsizing is a chore filled with dreadful possibilities. (What if the furniture doesn’t fit? Will there be enough storage space?) But for Michael Barnum’s clients, a married couple moving from Sudbury, Massachusetts, to Boston, it presented a welcome opportunity to create a vibrant, fresh new living space.

After a three-year search, the couple landed on a 3,300-square-foot Beacon Hill co-op apartment overlooking the Public Garden. The three-bedroom unit, which covers an entire floor of its 1920s building (one-level living was a must), was snug enough to feel cozy but expansive enough to accommodate three adult children when they visit.

In the living room, Barnum designed a linen-wrapped coffee table and side table with an antique Sheffield tray top, as well as the finial for the chartreuse Murano glass lamp. —Michael J. Lee

Ready to shift from the traditional decor of their suburban home, the couple hired Barnum, whose interior design firm, Michael Barnum Studio, is in Boston, to deliver a livable, functional, and eye-catching decor. The clients’ directive was for a bold palette and a look and feel that was contemporary but not ultramodern.

Barnum, who had worked with the couple before (“The trust factor was already there,” he says, “which was really great”), immediately knew where to start: He wanted to open up the floor plan. Collaborating with architect Paul Paturzo of Paturzo Design of Boston and Boston builder G.L. Nicolai & Company Inc., he removed a wall between the kitchen and dining area and doubled the width of the doorway between the dining and living rooms. He also reoriented the foyer, which had looked directly into the kitchen, and added visual drama to the space with jewel-toned foil wallpaper and a recessed ceiling that he treated with metallic wallpaper.

The foyer makes a statement with foil paper on the walls (by Osborne & Little) and ceiling (by Cole & Son). A John Pomp chandelier and a custom console help pump up the volume. —Michael J. Lee

With the help of kitchen designer Donna Venegas of Venegas and Company in Boston’s South End, the team further separated kitchen and foyer by carving out a butler’s pantry with a pocket door. Taking down walls required retooling the kitchen with a new layout that had to be beautiful and functional (the wife loves to cook). The room’s only potential source of natural light was a light well hidden behind one of the kitchen’s walls. To make the most of it, the design team added a window with textured translucent glass, which would allow bright light to filter in but obscure the view of nearby walls and a courtyard below. Next, Venegas tackled ductwork and pipes that couldn’t be moved by creating functional niches out of various chases. “We made them look like intentional spaces,” she says, noting that the one beside the cooktop can be used for storage and display.

A wall was removed between the dining area and kitchen. The window takes advantage of a light well to brighten the room. A backsplash of etched marble tile softens the space. —Michael J. Lee

By installing a mirror-polished stainless steel hood, Venegas devised a striking focal point; the sculptural volume is echoed in a custom stainless steel leg that supports the kitchen’s bar-height counter. She also subtly developed complexity and depth by mixing colors, finishes, and textures — a signature style that she refers to as “asymmetrical balance.”

The kitchen’s compact design means all necessities are within reach, and although there are no upper wall cabinets, there is plenty of storage. The open plan is fresh and functional, while the pantry’s workspace can be closed off when desired, such as during a catered party. “We crafted a generous, comfortable space,” says Venegas, “while trying to maintain a certain formality.”

Painted smoky blue, the pantry is recessed between kitchen and foyer. —Michael J. Lee

That relaxed formality is reflected in the Regency-like styling of the dining area, where Barnum painted the ceiling glossy chartreuse and selected a zebrawood table with an ebonized oak base. Open shelving was transformed into sophisticated cabinetry with mirrored doors, adding glamour as well as storage. Barnum designed the living area around two stunning case pieces — a 1940s French credenza and a French Art Deco buffet. Two distinct sitting areas with neutral upholstery offer unexpected pops of pink, blue, and chartreuse through pillows, lamps, and artwork that relate to the dining room and kitchen.

The apartment’s bathrooms — though not expansive — are a point of pride for designers and homeowners alike. “I love small bathrooms,” says the wife. “They have to be efficient, and Michael is the master of that.”

In the master bath, a custom cerused oak double vanity in the master bath offers ample storage. —Michael J. Lee

The master bath, with its tricky chases, was a particular challenge, say Barnum and Paturzo. Borrowing a few square feet from a guest bedroom, the duo created a long, rectangular space with a generous shower. “A small bathroom can still be great,” says Paturzo, who is also interim dean of graduate studies at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “You don’t need it to be palatial to be nice.” To that end, a cerused oak vanity designed by Barnum and hidden shelving offer storage galore. “Michael knocked it out of the park,” says the homeowner. “It is just the best bathroom I’ve ever had.”

A daybed in a tribal-themed guest bedroom maximizes space when the couple’s children come to visit. —Michael J. Lee

The flat’s three other bathrooms follow suit. Although none is huge, each is polished and functional, with stunning custom vanities and glass and porcelain tile. Their elegance easily makes the small footprint unimportant. “We tile almost all of our bathrooms floor to ceiling,” says Barnum. “With all the beautiful tile out now, you can really have fun with it.” And, he adds, the rooms are easy to maintain.

Although the couple’s children may have left the nest, the home is still filled with an abundance of youthful energy. Thrilled with their urban dwelling, the couple have already commissioned Barnum for a fourth project — a residence on Cape Cod. “I had such incredible confidence in Michael,” says the wife. “It really worked out. He’s kind of a magician.”

The palette in the master bedroom invites quiet repose. —Michael J. Lee
Design New England, the magazine of splendid homes and gardens, celebrates the region’s best interior design, architecture, and landscape design.
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