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Best in Show

Building on the homeowner’s refined taste, intriguing antiques, and love of all things canine, designer Susie Earls created a tailored, timeless living space

You know you’re onto a good thing when the interior designer you’ve hired to decorate your house agrees to indulge your collections, both those that are somewhat conventional and those that are, shall we say, a bit unusual.

Such was the case between Lynne and Mark Florian of Darien and interior designer Susie Earls of Fairfield. The Florians, a couple from Midwestern stock with three relatively grown children and three hounds, were not new to home ownership; together they’d owned and decorated four before this one. But they’d never moved into a new house, this one a builder spec with elaborately paneled millwork and a grand entry hall on three acres in horse country.

Old hands at old houses, when they moved in, in 2005, they’d brought with them from Chicago some 20 years’ worth of precious antiques. There were 100-year-old landscapes and large oil portraits, 18th-century Italian chairs and an 18th-century Italian secretary, antique weaponry including a pair of revolvers, a dueling dagger, and a bonafide saber-in-a-sheath, plus a grand piano, an assortment of walking sticks, a few of Lynne Florian’s own abstract acrylic paintings, and—this is where it gets unusual—a collection of antique dog collars, one of which long ago adorned the neck of a famous canine. 

At 7,800 square feet, the house, hidden away on a flag lot near the New Canaan line, and not far from the historic Stephen Mather house, provided ample space for displaying the collections in an appropriate way. But clad in white shingles, and not the formal English brick of their suburban Chicago houses, it had a decidedly different feel. Freed from the wall-to-wall dark trim they were used to, they needed a way to meld their old pieces with a new environment, and Earls figured out a way to go with the flow.

“I could not have done it without a partner such as Susie,” says Lynne Florian. “It’s a two-way street, like having a teammate. She really respected the things I had but was always honest at the same time. She wasn’t afraid to label certain stuff we had as granny-like, and instead would bring in something more modern and contemporary.”

Cases in point: a slew of antique canes and walking sticks with knobbed handles and brass tips that had been housed in a dark and heavy vessel. Earls transplanted them to a rectangular glass container and made them into a point of interest in the entry hall. The grand piano, showcased in the alcove created by a bowed and draped living-room window, was given a shot of mod when Earls paired it with a 1940s bench made of African mahogany and covered it in white leather. In the family room, industrial elements, including the reading lamp and modern log holder, keep the room from feeling too formal.

In the dining room, birds mounted on Lucite plinths now serve as a shining centerpiece on a vast, double-pedestaled English table that is paired with 18th-century Italian chairs that the owner had re-caned. The Florians found the sconces that flank the fireplace—bronze arms encircled with bracelets—in France and brought them back to the States.

“Susie is great at this,” says Florian. “She took things that I had and brought them into today.”

The overall effect is “tailored,” a signature style for which Earls is known, “with an edge,” according to her client. Earls, who got her start years ago while partnered with Janet Slater as Slater Earls Design, has also moonlighted as a home furnishings retailer. A few years ago, she went out on her own as Susie Earls Design.

“The house has some unexpected elements now,” says Earls. “It doesn’t have the appearance of being planned or contrived. There’s nothing trendy.”

That brings us to the dog collars. On a gilt, faux bamboo étagère with glass shelves, the 18 individual pieces of canine bling—most of them engraved with names like Trixie, Count, and Punch and some affixed with studs or their own padlocks with key holes—are celebrated in style. Etched into the metal of some collars are the addresses— 46th Street, Regent Road, Liverpool, to name a few—of the owners, some of them dating to 100 years ago.

The pièce de résistance: the collar and leash that once belonged to Trooper, the prized pug of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, which are displayed along with a black-and-white photograph of her scandalized owners in an adjacent built-in bookcase, where they get some
extra shimmer from a backdrop of antiqued mercury glass. (Note to Royals rookies: American socialite Wallis Simpson had been married twice before beginning her affair with the Prince of Wales, the married man who would become King Edward the VIII of England. He eventually divorced his wife and abdicated the throne in order to marry Simpson, the woman he loved, and the two of them became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.)

While the dog collars lend the home a fun and quirky individuality, the interiors get their warmth from touches such as the grasscloth wall covering in the front hall, the gilded paper in the dining room, parquet floors stained a reddish brown, and a plush chocolate carpet that runs up the staircase.

According to Earls, the color palette, in combination with the furniture, art, and decor, produces a look that is “handsome” or “masculine, but bright,” in the words of her client.

Florian says her favorite room in the house is the entry hall, which forms an arresting axis terminated by the front door on one end and a pair of French doors that open onto a covered slate patio on the other. Zink obelisks flank the rear doors, and halfway down the hall hang a pair of 17th-century oil landscapes from Venice that are combined in a little vignette with a reclining dog made of stone beneath a console and a crystal ball. The space gets a lot of use during cocktail parties, when the Florians throw open the doors to the patio and equip it with a bar.

Another noteworthy and daring flourish that encapsulates this client-designer partnership is the use of black paint on the walls of the spacious kitchen/family room.

“I’ve had a black room in every house,” says Florian. “I did it once years ago and still love it–it’s totally neutral.” Eventually the painter, who initially “couldn’t get his head around the concept,” according to Florian, got on board, and he now brings prospective clients around to make his case.

While he’s there, one wonders if he shows them the tower of dog collars. It can’t be long before the Florians get a read on whether or not Stephen Mather, the descendant of Cotton Mather of Salem witch trials notoriety, had a dog. And more importantly, whether it was fashionable for dogs to wear collars back in 1788.

Susie Earls, 203-218-4590
Custom Interiors Shop, 203-975-9927
Nautical Needles, 860-399-9754