The exterior of the brick building probably looks like it did when it had another life more than 100 years ago. Then it was part of a pickle factory complex here on the Elizabeth River, one of several hard-churning cogs in the up-and-coming town of Berkley.
Its current interior, however, is definitely 21st century.
The building now houses the corporate office of Norfolk Tug Company and U.S. Waterway Transportation, and it is industrial minimalism at its beautiful best. It is open and breezy, like the deck of a boat, but chic, like a restored New York loft. Pine planks from the old factory were reclaimed for the flooring, and touches of rusted steel throughout blend the feel of marine work with history.
The owner, Edward Whitmore, asked his wife, interior designer Allison Whitmore, to revamp the space; he needed something more suitable for business meetings than his old trailer.
It took about six months, and not only is Allison Whitmore proud of how her vision came together, but she also likes that almost everything in the office, from the seating, to the tables, to the kitchen cabinetry, was made in the area, particularly in Norfolk.
Using local businesses and artisans to build and breathe life into the ideas of Space Design Group’s partners – Whitmore, Leslie Drinkwalter and Valentina Passerini – is becoming the hallmark of the firm.
“Our use of custom pieces sometimes comes out of necessity because we can’t find exactly the right piece to fit a space,” Whitmore says.
“Mainly, though, we feel that an old or artisan-made piece of furniture adds substance and soul to a room like nothing else can. I cannot think of any room that we’ve done that does not include something that was made by a local artisan. We have amazing talent in this area and it is so fulfilling to hand-select a piece of wood or metal and see it being made into something that we’ve designed.”
Keeping the business at home has other benefits, she and Drinkwalter say: The designers help feed the local economy. Clients save money on shipping costs, which can be hefty. The designers and their customers can see their pieces being born – the metal and fabric before they are cut, the pieces forming wholes, testing the firmness of a padded chair, for example – before the process is completed. Handmade furniture is an art that takes time, Whitmore says. And she says her sources, for the most part, prefer to deal with designers for this type of commissioned work.
She and her partners joined forces about a year and a half ago, though the three had met through working with a popular local interior designer and antiques dealer, Anne Spencer.
The three women are transplants to the area; Whitmore began her designing career about 13 years ago in New York. Drinkwalter, who grew up in Georgia and watched her mom work as a designer, started her own path about 11 years ago. Passerini, who was born and raised in Italy, received her master’s from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009, driving to Richmond from Virginia Beach almost every day to do so.
“We all share a passion for design and for beautiful things,” Whitmore says, “and we all bring something different to the table. The interiors that we do are unique and as much a reflection of our clients’ taste as of ours.”
“We hope that no one ever walks into a room that we’ve done and knows
that we were the designers – then we’ve done our job well. It is never about filling a room with furniture. It’s a collecting process that involves using existing family furniture and finding exactly the right mix of new, old and custom pieces to complete the room. It does not happen quickly and it involves a lot of collaboration to get it right.”
The partners do their fair share of ordering ready-made pieces like other interior designers, Whitmore says, but they are relying more and more on the work of local businesses. A tour of some Norfolk homes and offices – including their own – shows how much they use home-grown work.
Lynn Neumann has worked with Drinkwalter since 2003 and has had her design a couple of pieces, such as a sofa, to fit into the oblong and tight spaces of her West Ghent home. Recently, she needed a desk that would work into a narrow sunroom. She had photos of desks that she liked but were too big, and a local artisan crafted a desk of wood and metal to fit the space perfectly, she says.
“He did it in his own little way and I love it.”
In the firm’s office on Botetourt Street in Norfolk’s Freemason area, Whitmore and Drinkwalter point out the artwork on the walls. Every piece was created by a Virginia artist. They then touch two sleek tables, one a square box of punctured metal, the other a wide, elegant conference table – both were made in Norfolk.
The idea of the smaller piece popped into Whitmore’s mind as she was walking through the shop of her metal fabricator and saw a sheet of round, punctured metal. She’d seen it many times before and wanted to use it to create something. The table is it. The funky design can blend well with a variety of décor and can be painted or left natural. The beauty of its being made in town is that it can be ordered in any size. Because it is metal, it can withstand the elements of the outdoors or the wreckage of the indoor activity of a bustling family.
The conference-table top is glass, which contrasts with a metal base that was treated with a dark, natural finish. Welded studs hold the pieces together and offer yet another detail, another texture. For one client, Whitmore had local artisans reproduce vintage dining room chairs with frames of walnut and buttery soft leather seating. Its nail-head trim offers a catchy contrast.
Metal is a favorite in the arsenal of the Space Design Group. It can be finished in a variety of ways to make it sparkle like something fresh off an assembly line or manipulated to look a hundred years old. Factors including the humidity in the air when a finish is applied will also alter its final look.
“You can do so many things with it,” Drinkwalter says. “It’s so versatile.”
Whitmore says it is one more tool for the interior designers. “We like to layer a room with various elements and textures. Metal is another element, like glass or wood or a beautiful textile. It helps ground a room and gives it character. ”
A perfect example of the melding of elements, she says, is the recently completed office of the Norfolk Tug Company. When her husband and his partners found the abandoned complex of three buildings a few years ago, the structure that would become the main office looked stuck in the 1970s.
A dropped ceiling masked beautiful wooden beams; rotting linoleum covered a wooden floor begging to be restored. Wood paneling hid an arched entrance and some of the original wood double-hung windows – windows that now allow in streams of sunlight and views of the water.
Whitmore recycled as much material as she could from one of the outlying buildings on the property. The old-growth heart pine, which was commonly used around the turn of the 20th century, is rare now, usually found only in old buildings, she says. The pickle factory yielded tons of hearty flooring and beams, some up to 20 inches thick; bricks were used to repair any gaps in the masonry and to create a stoop at the back, which faces the water.
The metal and glass doors and partitions were made locally and given an aged finish reminiscent of the rust patina that is formed when steel and saltwater come together – a reflection of the companies’ work in the tug and barge business. The desks and conference table have metal bases with oak-veneer plywood tops, the wood darkened with an ebonized finish.
Whitmore also had to design the sectional in her husband’s office, an example of how the firm resorts to custom-made pieces out of necessity. One end of the sofa has no arm – she wanted people to be able to walk into the space without bumping into it.
“I did not want anything hugging the door frame and impeding the sense of openness you have when you walk in the room.”
She carried the same attention to detail, even more so, into her home near downtown. She prefers to think of her family as the current keepers of the home, rather than its owners, since previous occupants lived there for decades. It’s more than 100 years old.
Whitmore was drawn to the house’s classical, old-world architecture that includes strong influences from Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean Revival styles. She’s included more contemporary touches in her interior design.
She prefers clean-lined, simple furnishings grounded with select antiques and artisan-made pieces, and this aesthetic is distributed throughout. Her coffee table, for example, is a former gas-station window of leaded glass; its web of small, intricate frames contains what look like frozen teardrops, some in splashes of lavender. The base is a darkened, natural metal, similar to the table bottoms in her office studio.
A lamp on her writing desk is made from a heavy iron ship chain, an idea she came up with and asked Anne and Tom Spencer to execute, she says. The alternating circular and rectangular loops form a sturdy yet elegant base. Her powder room features a sleek cantilevered, silver travertine slab in a metal frame, with a polished nickel sink. The mirror stretches from the back of the sink, with the faucet and handles projecting from the middle of the glass; this not only saves space but also gives the room a modern feel.
As a designer, Whitmore said she often belabors the details almost to a fault, and her own dwelling is no exception.
“Any time I renovate a space in my house, I try to be very sensitive to what this house is and to not corrupt that,” she says.
When she renovated the kitchen, she added floor-to-ceiling subway tile, painted cabinets, rustic wood floors, open shelving and vintage-inspired pendant lights.
“That is what you might’ve seen in a kitchen at the turn of the century. I love to cook and it absolutely needed to be modern and function, but it had to fit the spirit of the house and I think it does that.”
Whitmore and Drinkwalter say they have similar tastes when it comes to preferring simple lines, and it shows in Drinkwalter’s home, in Norfolk’s Larchmont.
With an architect, she and her husband designed and had the house built about six years ago. The inspiration came in large part from her travels. She has always loved European architecture and how it is interpreted in the United States, such as in New Orleans, Charleston and California.
Even though the home is modern, she wanted it to fit into an established neighborhood so she added wood-molded brick and thick mortar.
As with her work creations, her indoor and outdoor spaces include locally crafted pieces. For one of her designs, a drink table, she happened to have a small slab of creamy Carerra marble from a local stone yard. She envisioned its use as a table and had a local artisan add the iron base, with a rusty finish.
Another of her ideas is an outdoor patio table with a concrete top and a teak base. The wood will gray over time and add to the Virginia coastal feel she wanted for the house.
Drinkwalter, like Whitmore, loves a neutral base, which gives them the flexibility to add pops of color through art and accessories. Grays and browns are interwoven in a corner-hugging banquette of her kitchen, another example of how an oddly shaped space required the designers to tap a local business for the job.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to come up with just the right pieces for the space,” Drinkwalter says, “but seeing the end product is so exciting and gratifying.”