The Art of a Home

A 1940s house becomes a live-in gallery for an avid collector

It seems like every room — every alcove — of Eric Stark’s Garrison home is filled with contemporary art. As he shows visitors around, the interior designer tosses off names ordinarily associated with hushed gallery settings: Robert Ryman, Frank Gerritz, James Turrell, Ingo Meller. Even in his kids’ playroom, which is part of a converted garage, an outsize canvas by Jason Middlebrook commands wall space, reinforcing the idea that, despite the possibility of sticky fingerprints, art is meant to be lived with, not locked away in a museum.

As it happens, Stark’s introduction to the Hudson Valley began with just that — a museum. Not long after Dia:Beacon opened in 2003, Stark made the trip upriver from Manhattan to check out the new gallery space. A gallery owner himself at the time, he had spent the previous 20 years representing contemporary artists in the city. But he was so instantly smitten with the region that a couple of days later, he was back again, looking at houses for sale.

Stark and his wife, Kristin Sorenson, eventually found a stone house in Garrison that looked solid and inviting. But inside it was, to put it kindly, a work in progress. Unoccupied for several years, it had peeling linoleum, chipping plaster, antiquated plumbing and electricity — all the usual suspects. But Stark saw the possibilities. What made the 1940s house special to him was that it was built by an artist, using stone dismantled from farm walls throughout the surrounding countryside, old two-by-fours, and other found materials.

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Not that everything was worth keeping: wall-to-wall concrete in an exterior courtyard, for example, had to go. On the other hand, Stark felt strongly about preserving the pastiche of windows throughout the house, particularly on the first floor, where they are most visible from the road. “They are obviously slapped together from various places, but that’s the charm of an old house like this one,” he says.

If there was one selling point for Stark, it was the living room. The most dramatic space in the house and bathed in northern light, it was originally a painting studio. “When I first saw this part of the house I was awed, because it was totally unexpected,” says Stark. “I respond to things that have really interesting proportions. From the outside, the place looks like a farmhouse, but then you come inside and see this artist’s lair.”


 Click on the images below to explore Stark’s home
Stark's kitchen and dining areas

The set-apart quality of the room comes not only from the fact that you step down into it, but also from the beamed, coffered ceiling, which creates an enclosed effect. To do justice to the living room, Stark created his own whitewash-style paint using lime, pigment, and rabbit skin glue, a traditional artist’s ingredient. “This ‘paint’ is part of the wall,” he explains. “It’s drawn right into the wall, opaque but also somewhat translucent. One of the most amazing experiences I had the first year we were here took place late one afternoon, when I saw the light change and the way the room holds the light and color from outside. It’s a very Hudson Valley thing.” Here the work of Beacon artist Winston Roeth, acknowledged as one of the great contemporary American colorists, is shown off to best effect over the baronial hearth.

At one time, the house consisted of little more than the living room and a bedroom upstairs. Over time, the original owner added on, and his son lived in the addition with his own family. A garage attached to the house by a dogleg was built in the mid-1950s; its second floor became the artist’s drawing studio.

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The result is a rambling warren of rooms and odd spaces; even the staircases turn corners. Stark tweaked the plan further, enhancing the charming quirkiness. He converted a 1950s sunroom off the living room into a master bedroom. To add a master bath, he borrowed space that was once part of the kitchen, shoehorning in a curved tub where a kitchen sink once stood. He also turned the garage into a family room, enlarging the dogleg into a bump out from the kitchen to connect the spaces. The former drawing studio that now serves as his office was once only accessible from an outdoor staircase. Stark reshuffled the arrangement by adding an interior staircase in the family room. (His wife’s diminutive office is tucked in a room that once linked the original house and the first addition.)

It’s hard to pin down the style of décor, but that’s exactly what Stark had in mind. Throughout the house, you’ll find 18th- and 19th-century antiques mixed with contemporary pieces — for instance, a Directoire settee and Italian neoclassical armchairs grouped around a mid-century modern coffee table. “Eclecticism interests me more than anything else in terms of style,” says Stark, whose portfolio of interiors includes furnishings as disparate as 1950s Italian lamps and 1890s carpets from the Caucasus. He also designs furniture with subtle historic references that blend well with the simple lines of the antiques he favors.

But in his own house, what you notice first is the art: a stripe painting by Gary Lang contrasting with 1800s French chairs in a dining area, or a flakeboard work by Willie Kopf offset by an American hand-hooked rug. What makes it work? “It’s that tug between classical modern and highly contemporary works of art,” Stark replies.


 Click on the images below to explore Stark’s home

A few design tips from Eric Stark

  • Most importantly, decorate to suit the way you live. There’s no point in having a formal room that’s never used.
  • Design with furniture in mind. Work out a floor plan to scale, then draw in pieces you wish to keep and those you plan to buy, creating groupings for conversation, watching TV or other activities. Be sure to leave pathways across the rooms.
  • Minimal settings feel serene, but most of us don’t live like monks, so pure minimalism is hard to maintain. If you crave a quiet sanctuary, carve out a single space where you can keep things simple.
  • The most interesting interiors mix periods, styles, and cultures. For example, primitive furniture or art can easily coexist with the sophisticated. Make it work by choosing carefully, and buying the best you can afford.
  • Use design magazines for ideas, but don’t copy slavishly. Trying to create a 19th-century southern parlor in a mid-60s raised ranch will just lead to disappointment. Try to identify the feeling evoked in pictures of rooms you like, then translate that sensibility — light, color, scale, proportion, texture — into something that works in your own space.
linen velvet
  • Don’t over-renovate an old house or you’ll lose its charm. Save as much period detail as you can, even if it means letting some of the degradation show. Celebrate the beauty of age by just freshening details.

 For a luxurious look without the worry,
choose fabrics like linen velvet —
it’s kid- and dog-proof

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  • Don’t be afraid of color. A friend of my mother’s once asked her if blue and green went together. My mother suggested she look out the window at the nearest tree contrasted against a cerulean blue sky. The lesson? When it comes to color, nature is the best teacher. (A $10 color wheel is also a useful tool.)
  • Color on a paint chip will look a lot darker when it’s on the walls, so always choose a shade or two lighter than you want. Remember that the darker the color and the higher the sheen, the more any imperfections will show.
  • If a room looks bland, it could be because every color in it has the same value, or intensity. Take a black and white photograph, and if all the colors appear equally gray, you need to add lighter or darker tones in furniture or accessories for contrast.
  • Designing should be fun. If you’re not having fun doing it, call in a professional who can help define what you want, and create it within your budget.

Check for more design tips


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