Prizewinning design blends classic and modern elements

How do you make a late 19th century house, built on historic Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass., livable and lovable for a very contemporary couple and their two teen-age children? The three-story frame house, now 90 years old, was built for a relative of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a style that is both Victorian and Georgian.

Making it fit the needs of a modern family has involved a four-year renovation and decoration project, the final phase of which has just won Boston interior designer Celeste B. Cooper a $2,500 first prize for residential design in the annual S.M. Hexter Awards Program, a competition that each year ferrets out outstanding interiors.

Ms. Cooper, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), worked with the architect who planned the renovation of the house, and then with her own team at The Cooper Group, Inc.

She decorated the house from the top floor playroom and children's bedrooms down to the recently completed living room, which won the award for its use of color, design, integration of furnishings, and adaptability to function.

The couple who now own the house, Cooper said during a New York reception for prizewinners, are professionals: she is a physicist and he teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

``They both have a home computer and each used a computer printout to define for me their specific needs. They were very organized and no-nonsense about it all.

``They said, in effect, `this is the way we are, and this is the way we like to live, and this is the way we want our home to function for us,''' said Cooper.

The husband and wife (who asked that their names not be used) said they wanted interior design that respects the traditional architecture of the house as well as their contemporary tastes, including a collection of modern art and crafts.

They wanted lots of comfortable seating pieces and plenty of flat surfaces to hold piles of books and games and platters of food. The atmosphere had to be conducive to informal entertaining.

The living room that evolved is an eclectic mixture of plump upholstered pieces in contemporary style, some good reproductions of traditional classics, and a modern square coffee table that features a rose granite top, all set on an Aubusson rug. Fabrics are mohair, chenille, raw silk, and tapestry.

Tone-on-tone taupes with atmospheric grays and punches of burgundy and blue provide the color scheme.

The work of the hand is everywhere present - in the handcrafted millwork, the hand-dyed canvas in the pleated shades, the frescoed walls, hand painted by local artisans, and the hand-thrown pottery and other craft objects. Both the interior architecture and the artwork are highlighted by low-voltage spots.

Bebe Winkler, a New York interior designer, also a member of ASID, was one of the six jurors who judged the competition entries.

``The Cambridge room demonstrates what I call a good fit,'' she commented. ``The scale and proportion of the furnishings are right. The color palette is warm and inviting. The idea of using modern crafts as decorative accessories in a vintage house is fresh and of the moment. And the room fits the family for which it was designed.''

This is the 29th year that the S.M. Hexter Company has singled out outstanding work of individual designers in both the residential and contract fields. The first-prize contract winner was C.Sherer Byrd of Houston for her design of an office for the chief executive of a Houston corporation.

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