The Cornwall home of TV executive Liz Nealon demonstrates her flair for bold colors and shows off the artwork collected on her worldwide travels
by Mary Forsell â€¢ photographs by Thomas Moore
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the Cornwall-on-Hudson, Orange County, home of Liz Nealon bears an unmistakable resemblance to the set of The Upside Down Show, a new series for Noggin that she developed in her role as executive vice president/creative director for Sesame Workshop.
On the show, slated to debut in fall 2006, a vibrantly colored living room has endless doors that open unto unexpected settings. Chez Nealon, there’s that same sense of adventure. One room might be painted an intense red and decorated down to the last detail with a quirky blend of Chinese antiques and Australian paintings. Another might have a dirt floor and peeling paint — not to mention lots of unopened mover’s boxes.
Nealon and her teenage daughter, Jules, moved in last spring, and things have been upside down, so to speak, ever since. “We do one room at a time, and we are definitely not about matching,” says Nealon, who doesn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by her half-unpacked state.
After all, she’s used to living out of a suitcase, having traveled extensively over her 25-year television career, which began at MTV as a member of the original launch team. As senior vice president of international programming for MTV Europe and executive in charge of production on MTV Brazil, Australia, and Japan, she resided at various times in England, Australia, SÃ£o Paulo, and Hong Kong. Whatever the setting, Nealon has shopped with admitted abandon at antiques stores, junk shops, and galleries, purchasing whatever grabbed her.
Later, as the executive producer for Out There, a ’tween drama from Sesame Workshop, she returned to Australia for an extended stay, this time with daughter, Jules, by her side, aiding and abetting her mother in the purchase of local art. Given this lifetime’s worth of acquisition, it’s understandable that her home is filled with unopened boxes.
Tucked on a mountainside just minutes away from the 500-acre Storm King Art Center, the 1854 former icehouse had been in the hands of a local family for three generations. One owner, a Cornwall schoolteacher with a reputation as a rebel, salvaged the oak and pine floorboards of two popular dance halls in the town that were shut down during Prohibition and installed them here. The same schoolteacher also planted elaborate gardens, now overgrown.
In fact, the entire property was rough around the edges when Nealon first saw it. “The house was neglected. The exterior desperately needed a paint job. The roof was shot. The windows were old and leaky.” Despite the work involved, she took on the house with gleeful anticipation.
“I’ve redone two homes in the area before. I just love the process of it,” explains Nealon, who grew up the eldest of nine children in far-flung Vestal, New York. The house had a few pluses besides: two working fireplaces, as well as a second-floor porch perfect for watching sunsets.
For Nealon, decorating is a work in progress based largely on instinct, not to mention years of on-the-set experience. “I worked on a teen bedroom makeover show a few years ago, and as executive producer, I’d oversee the interior designer, the faux painter, all the decorators,” she recounts. “The amazing thing I learned is that even the pros wouldn’t know how to do something or get the colors right. I saw these guys just try out endless combinations and toss out wacky ideas. I can’t tell you how liberating that was for me in decorating my own place.”
With a bold hand and a “whatever works” philosophy, Nealon has used daring, dramatic color throughout her home, freely mixing artifacts of wildly differing provenance — Japanese cafÃ© chairs with an English pine table, or a 19th-century Chinese apothecary chest in the same room as a 1903 Victrola. Her only unbreakable rule: start with a piece of art you love and decorate around it. Instead of using neutral gallery white as a backdrop for paintings, Nealon adds the dimension of color.
Her cozy bedroom combines chocolate brown woodwork and Chinese red walls flecked with iridescent copper washes. Nealon did the paint treatment herself. “When you have a room that is relatively small with a low ceiling you can go two ways: light and bright or cozy; so I went with making this into a rich little nest.” The Oriental sensibility is emphasized by an ebonized wood 19th-century Chinese chest and a painting by Vietnamese artist Nguyen Thanh Binh, who favors minimal brushstrokes and white, brown, beige, and gray tones.
In the breakfast room, where an overstuffed armchair and ottoman invite pajama lounging, oxblood walls make a striking backdrop to works of Australian painters Greg Hyde and Rachel Carmichael, each with a signature, hauntingly beautiful style. Nealon particularly admires Hyde for his ability to capture the authentic Australian palette, “all rusts and golds, an especially dry yet full look.”
Ascend the staircase to the second floor, then step into the TV room to view an outsize painting by Australian Steve Kalcev, whose work is in private and corporate collections worldwide. The oil-on-canvas work intrigues with its brownish black ground punctuated by gilt symbols, but the mustard yellow walls of the staircase make it all the more riveting. (Just don’t look across the way to the living room, which is still in decorating limbo.)
On the softer side, a butter yellow dining room is a subtle foil for a series of black-and-white photographs of Alice Liddell by the Rev. Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), picked up at a London gallery in the ’80s.
Here also resides a ceramic torso by Liesbeth Peters-Rutten. “This is the first piece of art I ever bought,” Nealon recalls. “I was living in London, working for MTV Europe, and was in Amsterdam on business. It was a sunny spring afternoon, and I passed a tiny gallery where there was an opening party and wandered in.” After meeting the artist, Nealon emerged with the sculpture, just in time to catch her evening flight to London, cradling the statue in her lap like a baby.
Nealon never stops searching out new artists. Right now, she has her eye on French Canadian painter Maryline LeMaÃ®tre. “She combines Eastern and Western elements. I plan to visit her gallery next time I am in Montreal.” She probably won’t come out empty-handed.
“I end up wandering into galleries and museums when I’m on business trips. That’s when I have the most personal time,” says Nealon. Still, she also supports local talent. Amid all that Australiana, you’ll find the work of Kingston artist Alan Adin, who paints old brick kilns in pastels. Cornwall artist Terri Clearwater’s painting of a farm at sunset hangs in the foyer. Clearwater has also mentored Nealon’s daughter in her oil painting. Another local, Rebecca Darlington, contributed a cheerful sun-washed scene with a three-dimensional quality.
Jules, by the way, took on decorating her own room, throwing a paint party with girlfriends to the soundtrack of Wicked. The result: purple walls splashed with blue and yellow streaks. “You can see the energy in the pattern,” says Nealon.
All that restless spirit will have a home someday, when Nealon transforms a raw bedroom space into a painting/writing studio for herself and Jules. After that, maybe she’ll somehow find time to finish the living room, redo the kitchen cabinets, and tame the landscape. She dreams of a terraced vegetable garden out back that she and Jules can admire from the porch, shaded by a weeping willow tree — at a time in their lives when things won’t be so upside down anymore. ■