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An Inside Job

Interior design experts help the Silvas tackle the daunting "blank sheet" challenge of replacing all they lost in the fire

As the exterior of the Billerica house takes on its final look, our attention turns inward—to all the furnishings. And "all" is not an understatement: The Silvas lost everything in the fire. Since nothing from the past was left, they decided not to try to replace what they once had. Instead, they started from scratch. To help them through this "blank sheet" challenge, we called in the team of Nelly Johnson, an interior designer from Ethan Allen, and Donna Sapolin, the editor-in-chief of our sister publication This Old House magazine.

The process began early. During the construction phase, Sapolin recommended that Sandy and Dick start to figure out the kind of furnishings that appeal to them, whether traditional, modern or a mix. Dick, Sandy and their daughters spent time thinking about the way they'll live in their house. How formal is their lifestyle? What are their favorite colors? Do they prefer patterns or solid colors? Do they like to change things around often? Will they rebuild the Beanie Baby, Hummel figurine, cookie jar and antique toy collections they had before the fire? The fact that the Silvas are avid collectors could affect everything from their choice of paint color to the amount of storage space and number of display areas.

They then thought about how different rooms would be used, an important influence on room design, since form follows function. For example, would they watch television in the bedroom? If so, will they sit or lie down while viewing? The answer will affect the height—and therefore the choice—of the TV cabinet. Will they read in the study? If so, it makes sense to place a recliner near the desks and install built-in bookcases. When these questions were answered, the Silvas began to look through magazines and catalogs, tearing out pictures of pieces they liked, then visiting showrooms and stores.

Finally, they took the pictures they'd clipped and their likes and dislikes to a nearby Ethan Allen showroom and the design expertise of Nelly Johnson. Using the floor plans for the new house, Nelly and the Silvas determined which pieces best fit their taste and needs and figured out an overall scheme for furniture placement. After hours of sitting on chairs, looking at tables, pouring through the company catalog, holding up fabric samples and considering paint chips, they worked their way toward a new vision of the Silva home. Dick quickly ruled out bold patterns and bright colors. Instead they decided on simple fabrics, earth tones and natural woods. Dick and Sandy also recognized early on that their taste runs toward the traditional and that comfort is as important as aesthetics. You can see these preferences played out all over the house.

In the old house, Sandy kept the walls white so that the family could indulge their passion for collecting without having to worry about clashing colors. Nelly and Donna encouraged her to be bolder in her new house, assuring her that color doesn't preclude decoration flexibility and can in fact enhance the impact of furnishings and collections. In the living room, with the fireplace and the flat screen television as its dual focus, they chose a comfortable, centralized seating plan featuring wicker furniture, richly patterned fabrics and an oriental carpet, and a warm yellow paint on the walls. The dining room will be more formal, with two-tier wainscoting, walls of light cream and a large mahogany table for entertaining. The study will have a masculine feel—oxblood walls and deep brown leather chairs—that deemphasizes its high-tech capabilities and takes advantage of the beautiful bay window. Successful decorating reflects the way a family lives. With every decision they make, the Silvas' are filling in the blank sheet the fire left them and setting out the pattern of their new life in their new home. Join us in wishing them well.