It’s a Colorful Life

Claire Messinger's eclectic home proves that family-style interiors don’t have to be style-free.

Steve and Claire Messinger bought their vintage red farmhouse in Country Club Hills in 1991 when they were expecting their first baby. Fast-forward 21 years and they now have four kids, five cats, a parrot, a gecko and several fish. The house has changed, too. Today, its whimsical décor is consistent with the tenor of daily life in the Messinger household—colorful, exuberant and loud.

Claire is an interior designer, but her family digs don’t feel like a showroom, as is often the case with designers’ own homes. Family portraits and forgiving furnishings cheerfully combine with original art pieces to create a relaxed, functional, welcoming environment that’s as full of life as its inhabitants.

“I want my home to express a feeling of energy, life, happiness and fun,” says the busy mom, who double-majored in art and psychology at Randolph-Macon College and later earned a degree in interior design from Marymount University. She started her home-based business, Claire Messinger Interiors, in 1996. “I also want to create a feeling of interest and curiosity for those who visit.”

Lots of people do. When Claire isn’t painting, designing or training for a marathon (she will run the Marine Corps Marathon for the third time on Oct. 28), she’s entertaining. Plans are currently under way for a potluck pasta (read: carb-loading) party the night before the big race for local friends and out-of-town guests who are coming in to participate or cheer.

Other events revolve around the kids—Nick, 20; Grace, 18; Lily, 16; and Stephen, 8. In one particularly busy month this spring, the house served as a venue for Grace’s after-prom and graduation parties, Lily’s dance-team picnic and a business event for Steve, a partner in the Clarendon office of Seattle-based ECG Management Consultants, a firm that provides business consulting to hospitals and medical groups. (Also a fitness fanatic, Steve participated in Maryland’s EagleMan triathlon that same month.)

Day-to-day, the house is a popular hangout spot for Lily’s Yorktown High School friends and Stephen’s Jamestown Elementary School buddies, as well as the occasional visiting college kids (Nick is a junior at the College of William & Mary, and Grace starts her freshman year at Roanoke College this fall). When Hurricane Irene struck last year and Nick’s campus was evacuated, he called his parents to ask if he could bring home 20 fraternity brothers and friends who had nowhere else to go. The gang stayed for five days.

“Kids slept everywhere,” Claire recalls. “I borrowed air mattresses from a friend, and I went to the grocery store almost every day. I missed them when they left, but was happy to be rid of wet towels and clothes all over the place.”

Originally built in the 1850s, the Messingers’ New England-style farmhouse is one of Arlington’s oldest existing homes, although it has evolved over the years to keep pace with the family’s changing needs. When the couple first moved in, it had plenty of charm, with original German wood siding and handblown windowpanes, but the 3,200-square-foot space also had its share of problems, including tiny rooms and a choppy floor plan. The owners have since remodeled twice, moving the location of the front entrance, updating and expanding the floor plan (it’s now 4,400 square feet), and adding a river-rock swimming pool and half-size outdoor sport court.

Though the interior spaces maintain some vintage characteristics (think wainscot beadboard, exposed beams and knotty wood floors), they also speak to Claire’s taste for bright hues and bold, graphic patterns.

White—in wall paint and furniture coverings—serves as a quiet foundation. “I like to use a lot of white and then infuse strong colors,” explains the designer, who meets me for an interview clad in a sporty tangerine dress with a dash of pink lipstick, her long blond hair tucked behind one ear. “White is the perfect canvas, allowing colors to really pop. I never embraced the neutral trend. Life is too short to live in a beige house.”

That mantra certainly applies in the kitchen, where fire-engine-red cabinets are offset by black granite countertops and white walls. Most of the cabinets have solid, Shaker-style doors, although two that have seeded-glass doors look unquestionably like miniature British telephone booths. Tucked under the 8½-foot-long island are black leather bar stools that Claire ordered online from a restaurant-supply store.

Artwork, on the other hand, is not something she tends to buy. Most of the colorful works found throughout the house are homemade, including an abstract painting above the kitchen fireplace that one might easily mistake for a pricey gallery piece. To create it, Claire laid a 48-by-60-inch blank canvas on the foyer floor and painted the background red. She then filled plastic bottles with white acrylic paint and let Nick and Lily, who were 8 and 4 at the time, randomly squirt and splatter its surface.

Twelve years later, that masterpiece remains a fitting accompaniment to a bustling kitchen that is nearly always in use: Nick is known for hamburgers seasoned with his proprietary Caribbean-jerk blend; Grace and Lily bake crème-de-menthe brownies: and Stephen likes to make pumpkin pie for the holidays with a little help from Dad.

“The kitchen is a nice family gathering area. It incorporates so many functions—cooking, eating, relaxing—all in one place,” Steve observes. An open-air porch off the kitchen allows indoor-outdoor living and provides overflow entertaining space.

The dramatic dining room—which Claire uses as a staging area for design projects when she’s not hosting parties—is no less striking. It’s anchored by a 13-foot rough-hewn table, custom crafted from pine beams that were reclaimed during the home’s second renovation. Walls painted in chunky horizontal stripes of nautical blue and white form the backdrop for several of Claire’s paintings, including abstract florals, and a landscape of Maine’s Tenants Harbor Light, a lighthouse that once belonged to artist Andrew Wyeth.

But the brightest spot in the house, by far, is Grace’s Technicolor bedroom, decked with turquoise walls, neon Andy Warhol prints, and an overstuffed chair covered in aqua Sunbrella fabric (the durable line of water- and stain-resistant fabrics is a smart choice for a house full of kids.) The vibrant window panels, with their giant pink peonies, are made out of Target tablecloths that Claire hung from IKEA drapery wire and clips. Proof, she says, that a high-style look can be achieved using affordable, off-the-shelf items. It just takes a little creativity.

Not all of the design elements are contemporary. In the family room, an old railroad tie from the Washington & Old Dominion line serves as a structural support for the ceiling, and one wall displays barn-style doors made from antique pine. This cozy space connects to other rooms on the first floor through a tower-shaped, 19th-century pump house (the original well is still under the floorboards). The house has twice been part of the Historic Garden Week in Virginia tour—in 1996 and 2010.

Claire gets a kick out of blending the old with the new, noting that her recent acquisitions include three mid-century chairs that were purchased on eBay, along with various quirky pieces discovered at roadside stalls, flea markets and yard sales. (She even confesses to swooping up a threadbare settee that a neighbor had discarded and left out as trash.) As a result, the basement has become a repository for found treasures that need a makeover, or items that have yet to be rotated into the design.

“There are always unfinished projects in our basement,” Steve says, joking that inventory control is a bit of an issue. “We’re blessed to have my father living across the street. So when our basement gets full, Claire takes things over to my dad’s house. We’re like the Smithsonian; we only have a fraction of our holdings on display at any given time.”

And yet this house hardly evokes the buttoned-up feeling of a museum. None of its rooms has ever been off limits to kids or pets, Claire stresses. Every space gets used. And guests are never asked to leave their shoes at the door.

“When you come to our house, you can take your shoes off or leave them on,” she says. “Just don’t forget them when you leave, or they could be lost forever—especially if you leave them in Lily’s room.”

Do Try This at Home

Want to find your own signature style? Interior designer and busy mom Claire Messinger offers these tips:

  • Consider trends cautiously. Trust your own instincts and be a little more adventurous. “It’s your house,” she says. “Outfit it so that it’s comfortable and feels right for you.”
  • Edit to stay fresh. Interiors can stagnate if they aren’t tweaked every so often. “Sometimes all you need to do is move things around and add or subtract select pieces to create a new energy,” she advises. Step one is to take stock of what you already own. Look in the basement, attic and garage before you venture out to buy new.
  • Mix things up. Don’t be afraid to blend furniture, fixtures and decorative elements from all price points—from wash-and-wear slipcovers to designer fabrics, and from IKEA furniture to mid-century antiques. “Expensive doesn’t always mean the best!”
  • Add personal touches. If painting a portrait or landscape isn’t in your skill set, try your hand at another creative endeavor. “I love painting a piece of furniture—a footstool or side table—to perk up a room,” Messinger says.
  • Don’t rush to the finish. Interiors that evolve slowly over time are more interesting, and the process should be fun. “Enjoy the journey and the hunt.”

Catherine Funkhouser is a freelance writer and 25-year Arlingtonian. She has three children and one fish.

Categories: Home & Design