By Christine Pittel for House Beautiful
Photos by Thomas Loof
Jan 16, 2016
Jeffrey Bilhuber describes how he eclectically designed a fifth-generation estate while maintaining thoughtful cohesion.
Christine Pittel: Lime green, mandarin orange, purple…this doesn't look like any farmhouse I've ever seen.
Jeffrey Bilhuber: I know. It's pretty jaw-dropping. When you think of a farmhouse, you think of scrubbed white rooms, but I wanted this to be bright and optimistic and strong, with great jolts of color. These are rooms for an active, growing family. There's nothing namby-pamby here. It's about confidence and clarity.
Describe the setting for me.
Picture-perfect bucolic, rolling hills as far as you can see. We're in Far Hills, New Jersey, at Dunwalke Farm, which was founded by my client Andrew Allen's great-grandfather in 1928 and is still an active farm. This house was originally built for one of the tenants who lived and worked on the property. But as the children grew up and had kids of their own — Andrew's three boys represent the fifth generation — they claimed their own places, and these houses were transformed to accommodate them. The family didn't want to grow apart. They wanted to grow together.
What a transformation! You basically exploded the farmhouse with that double-height room.
I can't take credit for dreaming that up. It was the architect, John Heyrich, who had the idea to fill the void between this house and an old stone icehouse with one huge volume of a room, along with a new kitchen. So when the focus shifted to the new living room, the old one became a reception hall, with two sofas, comfortable chairs, and a roaring fire to welcome you.
What's that rattan chair doing next to a Queen Anne table?
The table is a family heirloom, one of those touchstones that show the family is deeply rooted in this house. And then one day someone was digging around in the attic and found that chair and dropped it here — or at least, that's how I want it to feel. That kind of spontaneity is what makes those great old houses I love so enchanting.
I wish I had been a fly on the wall when you said you were going to do purple walls in the library.
The library is more intimate, and the deep purple walls encourage you to look inward. It's a quiet, relaxing room.
Quiet? You've got a crimson sofa, an apple-green table, a striped chair, and an antelope rug. How do you know when to stop with the color and pattern?
I wish I could tell you, and I would caution anyone from trying it at home. I'm like an artist painting a canvas when I scheme, adding a splash of color here and an interesting texture there. Years ago, you would pick out a fabric, and running down the side of the sample were complementary fabrics and trims, in matching tones. Those days of decorating by the book are long gone. Now it's completely intuitive. I just respond to color and texture. But it takes a lot of effort to make things look this effortless.
How come there are three different curtain fabrics in the great room?
It's a hierarchy. The center panels on the tall window are done in a big block print that creates a big impression. The side panels are a more simple ikat. And then the persimmon curtains on the French doors were repurposed from Andrew's New York apartment. There is no reason why a good set of curtains can't follow you around.
What prompted you to put a tartan rug on the dining room floor?
That's the old icehouse, built of red fieldstone, and it conjured up images of some great pub or rathskeller where you'd sit in a dark wooden booth, upholstered in cracked leather, and sip claret. The icehouse has its own unique history, and the last thing I wanted in there was the typical Persian rug.
The window casings are hardly typical, either. Why did you paint them chartreuse?
I get so tired of windows that look like bars in a cell and make me feel trapped inside a house. I often end up painting them green, to blend in with the landscape. Or sometimes I paint them pitch black, so the mouldings practically disappear in the evening.
Have you ever met a color you didn't like?
I've never met a room I didn't like, let alone a color! There's not a room I can't improve, because I always see the potential. These rooms will continue to grow along with the family. They will accept change. Nothing is static or fixed. And in a couple of years, they'll look even better.
The former living room in this New Jersey home now functions as a reception hall, with a big, comfortable custom sofa covered in Perennials’ Nit Witty. A vintage American rattan chair faces a 19th-century English tray table. Walls in Benjamin Moore’s Feather Down with trim in Pratt & Lambert’s Obsidian. Jute rug from Patterson Flynn Martin. Painting by Julian Schnabel.
Two paintings by Dan Walsh hang above a custom Bridgewater sofa, upholstered in Designers Guild’s Cassia.
Lilacs from the garden add another burst of color to the room.
The original staircase got a colorful update with Benjamin Moore's Brookside Moss and Safety Black. Missoni's Gregory runner from Patterson Flynn Martin.
Drawings are grouped for impact below an Anglo-Indian mirror. Trim painted in Benjamin Moore’s Bordéaux Red.
In the new double-height living room, “the eye gravitates to that fearless David Hicks flash of color — the fuchsia sofas that flank the fireplace,” says designer Jeffrey Bilhuber. They’re covered in Malabar’s Tabia. A French armchair is upholstered in Designtex’s Parga. The exuberant blue-and-persimmon print on a pair of chairs is Tulu’s Stella. Another sofa, covered in a corduroy from Sonia’s Place, is placed against the old exterior wall of the icehouse. Curtains in Osborne & Little’s Serenissima in the center, Schumacher’s Kasari Ikat at the sides, and Malabar’s Carom at the left. Hanging Schoolhouse lights from Rejuvenation add a casual touch next to a two-tier Classic Ring chandelier from Circa Lighting. Walls in Woodlawn Blue and ceiling in Winds Breath, both by Benjamin Moore. Carpet by Patterson Flynn Martin.
Deep, rich colors warm up a corner of the living room.
"In the dining rooms of fine old houses, you'll often see a small table in a bay window or off to the side," says Bilhuber. "It's a way to enjoy the room with just two or three people." An antique English gateleg table cozies up to a banquette covered in a navy velvet from Perennials. Pillows in China Seas' Lim Bamboo II and Schumacher's Kasari Ikat.
The kitchen table is the same height as the island, so they can be moved together if needed. Island painted in Guacamole and cabinets in Colony Green, both by Benjamin Moore. Lights, Rejuvenation.
“I’m a pushover for gingham curtains," says Bilhuber. Made of Chelsea Textiles' Large Check, they create a focal point in the master bedroom. Custom Radius headboard upholstered in Martyn Lawrence Bullard's Kabba Kabba. Bedside tables, Restoration Hardware. Custom bench covered in Toyine Sellers's Quatre. Wing chair covered in HB Luxe's Natural Strata. Waitsfield rug by Woodard & Greenstein. Chandelier, Circa Lighting. Walls painted in Benjamin Moore's Colony Green.
A portrait of Andrew as a child hangs between windows curtained in Martyn Lawrence Bullard's Bodrum Stripe.
The original farmhouse was enlarged and embellished to suit a growing family.
The silo is marked with the initials of Dunwalke Farm.
Owner Andrew Drexel Allen, his fiancée, Kathryn Ainsworth Long, and Jeffrey Bilhuber take a walk through the fields with a master of the hounds.