With arched doorways and welcoming porches, this house has just the right amount of Southern hospitality for a transplanted Darien family
House tours are always a much anticipated event in Fairfield County, and there’s no question as to why. Designers get to show off their work, and we get a peek into our neighbors’ most personal space: their home. The owners get a chance to share their designer digs with the community, and sometimes, the designer might even get a new client out of the deal.
Such was the case with Claudia and Chris Lemmer and designer Julie Nightingale. Several years ago, on the Belle Island House Tour, Claudia walked through a home Nightingale had designed, and although she didn’t need any help decorating at the time, connected with the look and feel of the house. Touring the place was a bit of an undercover interview—she’d never even met the designer, but knew she liked her style.
About a year later, when Chris was moving into his new office in Rowayton, the Lemmers agreed that it needed a new look—but couldn’t quite decide what that look should be. “I said, let’s call Julie,” says Claudia. Nightingale was happy to take on the project, and ended up doing a few things at the family’s home in Rowayton as well.
So when the Lemmers found this new house on Five Mile River in Darien in 2011, they knew exactly who to call to help them make it their own. “Claudia called me when the summer was about to begin and said, ‘We have a new place, it’s really big and it’s really empty, and will you be my best friend for the next year?’” laughs the designer. With their shared Texas roots (Claudia and Julie are both originally from the Lone Star state; Chris has family in Houston and Beaufort, South Carolina), they were well matched to create a welcoming, stylish space full of Southern hospitality.
“It’s a very formal house,” says Nightingale. “There is beautiful paneling and trim everywhere, and cornices and arched doorways and built-ins. It’s layer upon layer of beautiful millwork. It’s really exquisite.” On the exterior, columns and welcoming porches speak to the home’s Charlestonian architecture, created by Alex Kaali-Nagy of The Kaali-Nagy Company in New Canaan, whose design captures water views from nearly every room. Nightingale added the new plantation shutters on the exterior to give it an extra dose of Southern charm.
Since the Lemmers’ kept their Rowayton home furnished while it was on the market, the family was truly working with a clean slate in Darien. The 8,000-square-foot home was completely empty—not even a light fixture in sight.
“We got right on it,” laughs Nightingale. “They needed something to sit on.”
Luckily, since the family moved in just before the summer, they were spending most of their free time in the backyard, barbecuing with friends, swimming, and enjoying all the activity on the river. Says Claudia, “The outside is just as pretty as the inside.”
But they did actually need something to sit on, so Julie and Claudia started meeting twice weekly to work on the project. “I loved my Tuesdays and Thursdays,” says Claudia. “Tuesday was out in the field, and Thursday was delivering and measuring.” They found most of the pieces locally, on shopping trips between Westport and Greenwich.
“My goal in designing spaces is to create elegant, but easy and comfortable houses,” says Nightingale. Because of the extensive architectural detail, “we didn’t want to make this house too casual, but we wanted a good blend of sophistication and comfort.”
They began by painting every room, starting with the foyer, which got a few coats of “Charleston Gray,” a color they coincidentally picked before they even saw the name.
The fabulous custom-made silk-and-nettle rug in the living room was the first piece they bought for the house. Fabricated by Custom Cool in Quogue, the rug set the colors for the bold dining room beyond, which is a bit of a departure from the rest of the design.
“The dining room was the one place where we painted the walls a bold color. Everywhere else they’re very soft. But this room needed it. There was such strong architecture and so much painted trim and paneling,” says Julie. The Benjamin Moore “Hamilton Blue” walls bring the view forward, and at the same time make the room with three entrances feel cozier. The custom dining table, made of old English wood, was one of the only dark pieces in the whole house, and an oyster shell chandelier is an elegant finishing touch, as well as a subtle reference to the water view.
In every room, Nightingale chose to allude to the home’s coastal location rather than going overtly “beach house,” with a palette of cool colors and neutrals, grays and greens and blues, that echoes the colors of the water, and put the focus on the view.
At the same time, however, the home is punctuated with large-scale contemporary art pieces that serve as a counterpoint to that view, and draw the eye back into the space.
To find many of these pieces, Nightingale enlisted a local gallery owner to take her and her clients on a whirlwind art tour of the Hamptons, including visiting the studios of artists Perry Burns and Jeff Muhs. “I was so happy to have Claudia and Chris go to the studios together and really experience the work,” says Julie, who wanted the couple to connect with the pieces they chose for their home. “I think buying art is such a personal thing, and it has to speak to you.”
Something else that’s very personal to the couple are their Southern roots, and Nightingale tied them into the design with organic pieces like a cowhide rug and tufted bench, and a collection of mini-horns and antlers on a wall in the bar area. “Those are definitely references to Texas!” says Julie.
Incorporating materials like concrete, marble and linen was also important to the clients. “Claudia really pressed for the organic quality in every room. The natural fabrics and elements were really important to her,” says Julie.
As for the couple’s teenage daughters, Alex and Sophia, they were very involved in the design of their third-floor hangout space. They went for bold colors and an egg chair, which they’d originally planned to hang from the ceiling, but on second thought, gave it a swivel base instead.
“Alex is the little interior designer of the family. She knew what she wanted,” says Julie of the family’s youngest, who came on a few shopping trips with her mother and the designer. Her pale, shimmering bedroom gives her flexibility to change things up if the designing mood strikes.
Alex’s older sister let Julie take the reins on her bedroom, only specifying that she wanted dark blues and a Baja surfer vibe. Bamboo shades, John Robshaw bedding, and seahorse lamps from Jonathan Adler fit the bill.
“This house is all about the contrast,” says Nightingale, whose skillful mix of many elements—Southern charm, coastal influences, natural materials, and a balance of formal architecture with a more casual family—produced a home with subtle details that quietly reflect the history, lifestyle and personalities of her clients.
And how do they feel in the space? Says Claudia: “At home.”
Julie Nightingale, Nightingale Design, Rowayton, 203-246-9235, julienightingaledesign.com
Alex Kaali-Nagy, The Kaali-Nagy Company, New Canaan, 203-966-8254, kaali-nagy.com
Jeff Muhs, Southampton, NY, 631-287-7690, jeffmuhsstudio.com
Perry Burns, East Hampton, NY, 631-921-6982, perryburns.net
Wallpaper hanger/painter: Enrique Cuber, Stamford, 203-223-7065
Custom Window treatments: Petrone’s Custom Windows, Shelton, 203-926-8483
Dining room table: Knock on Wood, South Norwalk, 203-899-9877, knockonwoodagain.com