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In one of the boys’ rooms, a David Weeks light fixture, an Artemide floor lamp, and a banquette with a cushion covered in a painter’s drop cloth and pillows covered in vintage wool blankets.
When it came time for Francesca Connolly to design the interior of the Brooklyn brownstone she shares with her husband and three children, she didn’t think twice about hiring out the job. Which wouldn’t be all that unusual if she weren’t one of the most sophisticated design voices of the decade. As a founder of Remodelista, the mother of all home-renovation websites, known for its exquisite curation of everything from door hinges and drawer pulls to sectional sofas and side tables, Connolly is endowed with serious design cred.
So why would she tap architect Steven Harris and interior designer Lucien Rees Roberts for the project? Harris puts it best: “We work with a variety of people, many of whom are quite naïve, others who are extraordinarily sophisticated, like Francesca—and, in her case, the collaboration was very fruitful,” he says. “She has a gift for bringing out the very best in the people who work with her.”
Connolly puts it more demurely. “I think everyone needs a bit of help when it comes to pulling together their own home,” she says in the self-effacing manner that betrays her New England roots.
In fact, it was on the shores of Cape Cod that the Massachusetts native and Julie Carlson, her best friend since childhood and editor-in-chief and cofounder of the site, endlessly traded remodeling tips and sources for the renovations they seemed to be constantly undertaking.
“We both lived in perpetually unfinished houses and were never not looking for a beautiful faucet or the perfect tiles,” says Connolly, a former textiles designer whose résumé includes stints with such marquee brands as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. When friends and relatives began refusing to buy light fixtures or rugs before consulting them first, Connolly and Carlson realized those sessions in the sand could be scaled up—and Remodelista, a name the duo picked “because it was available,” was born.
It’s hard to imagine Connolly, whose obsessive attention to detail is a hallmark of Remodelista, choosing anything just because it’s “available.” But when it came to the 1890s brownstone she and her husband, Marc Agger, purchased 15 years ago, she had to toss all aesthetic principles aside. “It was chopped up into 10 apartments. Living on the parlor and second floors was like being in a pretty little cocoon with the rest of the building crumbling around us,” she recalls.
In the two years that followed, every tenant who lived on the floors above and below moved out, at which point the couple called on 10 different architects to help them reclaim the space. Harris was the only one who suggested they restore the house to its original splendor. “His approach was very academic—he viewed the space like a real classicist,” says Connolly. A complete gutting ensued, and once the warren of rooms was gone, the original floor plan revealed itself. “We put the place straight,” she says.
Having grown up among early New England architecture, Connolly comes by an appreciation for tidy lines and sparely appointed rooms honestly. “That Puritan aesthetic follows me wherever I go,” she says. But translating a yen for Yankee minimalism to a 27-foot-wide home with 14-foot-high ceilings was too much to take on even for someone who can source all of the furniture, fixture, and accessory options in the world off the top of her head. “I love so many things, it’s too hard for me to decide on my own,” she says with a laugh.
“The success of the house has everything to do with scale,” Harris explains. “It would have been easy to do grand interiors, but then it wouldn’t have been very comfortable.” To avoid the hotel-lobby look that such a swath of space can become, Connolly had Roberts to guide her. “He’s a painter with a beautiful sense of color and line, and I knew he would understand how to interpret the beauty of a stark New England landscape into a comfortable interior,” says Connolly.
Roberts began with the bones, lightening the walnut floors and reproducing the original moldings yet reducing their scale so that they wouldn’t read as “overly 1890s.” In the all-white rooms, he opted for minimally detailed furnishings covered in luxurious fabrics, the palette borrowed from one of his landscape paintings that hangs over the fireplace. “Francesca is not one to do anything for show—there’s a simplicity to her lifestyle–so we chose pieces with modern lines but no hard edges,” says Roberts.
He created the 10-foot-long dining room table from a thick slab of oak set atop two Knoll bases. He spied the pair of ballroom-size chandeliers that hang in the living and dining rooms in an upstate shopwindow and knew, despite their glitzy crystal, that the simple forms would appeal to Connolly’s desire for restraint.
“We use the house for so many things—community gatherings, as a testing ground for Remodelista, and to entertain—that I didn’t want anything too precious in it,” she says. Indeed, there’s an effortlessness that trumps the home’s intrinsic grandeur. “It’s like the right white shirt,” Connolly adds. “Timeless, crisp, respectful, and it fits my family and my life perfectly.”
This article originally appeared in ELLE DECOR. Interview by Kathleen Hackett; Styled by Martin Bourne; Photography by William Waldron.