Rob Nicholson started with the details.
When he first launched what has become a local sales empire, he was selling used appliances, and before he put them on the floor, he made sure the old screws on the appliances’ faces had been swapped out for shiny new ones.
Shoppers would prefer his appliances, even if they didn’t know why, he says. “It was because of the stuff you don’t see – you don’t really notice.”
Now, standing in the living room of his beachfront home, he’s as proud of the parts that stand out – a stunning wooden Christ figure, a wall of glass looking out on the surf – as the ones that hide in plain sight, like the trimless walls and vanishing doors.
The clean, cool lines and colors of the International style house in Virginia Beach surround a mix of midcentury Modern furniture and organic, surprising pieces of art, from an African snake sculpture the size of a man to a raw-edged, life-size model of a dog that was carved on the Eastern Shore. “I wanted something that’s startling,” Nicholson says, nodding at the light-flooded living room. “It’s spectacular. It’s grand in its way.”
Nicholson, who turns 50 this month, began building East Coast Appliances and Electronics a year after he left the Navy in 1988. His love of architecture, furniture and design grew in tandem with his business, which has expanded to include a trio of superstores and a boutique. “I started out building my stores,” he says, and then began renovating houses, too, to reflect the art and architecture he discovered during work and travel. “It kind of got out of control.”
It hasn’t been a solo journey, though. His latest endeavor – the Oceanfront condo where he lives in the bottom unit, with a friend in the top unit – was, like several other of his houses, shaped in partnership with Charles Powell and Brent Buehler of Details Interior Design, in Virginia Beach. There was – and still is – a lot of give-and-take. Powell and Nicholson, sitting together at a dining table made from luminous slabs of reclaimed chestnut and now topped with a sculpture of a cheerful pig, offer an overlapping series of taunts and compliments trying to describe how they began working together.
They met years ago for a business dinner – “at a restaurant I hated, by the way,” Powell interjects – to discuss working on Nicholson’s house.
“Much to my chagrin, I realized they were interviewing me,” Nicholson says.
“I got up to leave –” Powell says.
Nicholson gives him a look. Powell rolls his eyes and says this is why he needed to be here, to fill in the gaps of Nicholson’s story.
“Let me tell you how it really happened,” Powell says.
Nicholson capitulates with a sigh. “Well, I don’t remember the details …”
Whatever they dished out at that first discussion, something stuck. As often as he teases his client – Powell frequently howls “Nicholson!” in mock horror and refers, with raised eyebrows, to his “eccentricities” – Powell also describes him as generous, gracious and an eager student. “He was a rare client that really wanted to learn about design.”
What they learned together, through two previous homes at the Beach and one in Florida, was that Nicholson wanted to start over with a home that reflected his interest in modern and industrial spaces. His first plan was to build something resembling a factory loft, but he ended up with a concrete-and-glass house, designed by Beach architect Wayne Anderson, perched on a rare empty beachside lot Nicholson had found. And he wanted to fill it with the treasures he found as a self-taught design student – Modern furniture, pleasantly battered antiques, and oddments from his travels – and that Powell and Buehler found for him. Construction of the house was finished a little over two years ago, but decorating it began earlier and never truly ended.
One by one, as he saw designs he liked, Nicholson would email photos of his furniture discoveries to Powell and Buehler (who themselves are now planning a boutique).
“Some people watch the news,” Nicholson says. “I’m on eBay. I shop constantly. I don’t buy – I shop.”
“He drove us crazy,” Powell says.
“I still do that,” Nicholson says.
“He’s a man with a passion, my dear,” Powell says. “And Brent and I are designers of passion.”
Nicholson’s passion for furniture and art has led to some challenges, he admits.
“I love midcentury Modern,” he says. “My problem is, I love it all.” And even in a big house, there’s only so much room to work with.
Consider his collection of chairs and stools, which fill the house, not just as furniture, but as display objects, including a 2-foot-tall sale sample of a stool that he bought without realizing how shrimpy it was. At one point, his fiancee, Meredith Balak, counted his chairs; there were 35. “I could not believe it,” she says, groaning.
Finding things he likes isn’t hard, he says. “The trick that I can’t master is what they do,” he says, gesturing at Powell.
“To put it all together,” Powell says.
One of the spots where it all comes together is the living room. It feels relaxed, but it’s a carefully curated collection of pieces – a pair of white Barcelona chairs at one side, a couch at the other. The sleek Modern coffee table crouches between them, and one corner is filled by a handsome Papa Bear chair, still clothed in its original lavender fabric. On the wall is a shiny chrome skull and antlers, a bit of sculpture that Nicholson plucked out of a jewelry display.
Nearly hidden in a cubby is the one part of the house that gets messy, a desk where Nicholson piles his work. The desk was Powell’s find, a piece with great lines but missing its original top, reworked with a new (but not quite authentic) slab of wood that Nicholson found. It’s not the only thing he’s tinkered with.
Just as he is a hands-on businessman who’s done his own TV ads and weighed in on store design, he’s a hands-on designer willing to take apart a handsome couch he’s just bought, then reglue it and clamp it together in the middle of the room. “He’ll try to fix anything,” Balak says.
Of course, putting things together tends to be more fun than keeping them going, he admits. He likes new projects, but “I’m not good with maintaining.” (To that end, this house is for sale, although he says he isn’t pushing hard to sell it.)
The kitchen, which flows into the living and dining space, is unobtrusively handsome, low-maintenance, unfussy. Wooden cabinetry with a cerused finish – white highlighting the grain of the wood – lines the walls, and the upper cabinets have fold-up doors of stainless steel and ribbed glass that lend an industrial touch. Down the hall, a powder room mixes subtly elegant touches with an attention-getting floor covered in pennies – a look Nicholson says he saw on his travels and decided was worth stealing.
Next to an upstairs sitting area, an open-tread staircase Nicholson insisted on – “Charles and Brent hate my staircase” – leads down to a suite he calls “the cave.” Here, in a guest bedroom, he points out subtleties – exposed beams, glass doors to maximize the light, a shower with an unusual backward arrangement of faucet and showerhead that began as a mistake and became a point of pride. At the downstairs entry, visitors are greeted by a round table topped with a 19th-century Brazilian water jar – like the Christ figure, a bit of contrast to the house’s sharp edges.
Powell pauses to admire pieces here and there with marks of age, a bit of tarnish, worn paint. It prompts a discussion of the right way to pronounce “patina” and then a detour into Nicholson and Powell’s favorite horror story about, as Powell puts it, “that damn lamp.”
It was Nicholson’s find to begin with – a metal lamp shaped like a ram’s horn, nothing particularly distinguished, except that it was so beautifully weathered. As he puts it: “I had a lamp that looked like it was on Ernest Hemingway’s desk.”
It was in poor shape, though, and needed a new shade and a bit of repair. Powell handed it off to a repair shop. They repaired it a bit too much. “I go to pick it up – they’d polished and lacquered it,” Powell says.
“The damn thing looks like I bought it at Kmart,” Nicholson sighs. But he couldn’t get rid of it, because now it had a different sort of patina. “Now it’s a story.”
Powell describes the whole episode as an example of who Nicholson is. “If he was an asshole, if he cared more about things than relationships –.” He shrugs.
Nicholson brushes off the compliment.
“Now I like it better because it was a screw-up,” he says.
As Nicholson walks through the house, he catalogs what he likes, what went wrong, what he might do differently. In the backyard, he loves the hand-shaped towel knobs, but wonders if he should have made the pool smaller. The shape of the pillars on the deck was his idea; the yard’s design came from Norfolk landscape architect Doug Aurand.
Although the yard isn’t large, the ocean beyond gives it a vast feel. A series of concrete tiers step down to the beach, so close that the East Coast storm Sandy covered the lower tier with a bank of sand. Stripes of tile and unobtrusive ground cover plantings fill the gaps. Nicholson pauses to admire the view, then slides open the door for Traveller, a muscular blue heeler-Australian shepherd mix who leaps from level to level, toy in mouth, hopping over a trio of concrete garden spheres that are already collecting a beachside patina.
This windswept beach is a far piece from where he grew up. Nicholson likes to joke that he’s “from L.A. – Lower Alabama,” and Powell likes to tease him about it, too: “You can take the boy out of the country,” he says more than once.
Nicholson is unbothered by the country-boy jokes. In plenty of ways, he’s the same person he’s always been, he says. “The things you like – they don’t change, but you appreciate them more.”
In the master suite at the back of the house, as everywhere else, “the envelope is clean, clean, clean,” as Powell says, but what fills it shows an endearing mix of influences.
There’s a black bearskin on the floor from a bear Nicholson shot himself. In the bedroom, a tall cactus sculpture rises along one wall. One of his treasures crouches against another wall – a Nakashima chest with its undulating top and precise, asymmetrical dovetailing. And, of course, the infamous horn lamp sits on a dresser.
The master bath includes a massive freestanding tub where Nicholson likes to soak and read, and walls that curve out to hide a shower and toilet. “The undulating walls and how they fold in – it’s very sensuous,” Powell says. A tall sculpture – a Rhodesian rainbird – stands sentry. “It also makes a good towel-holder,” he jokes.
The room is another example of the group’s careful attention to vanishing detail: Towels hang on discreet knobs, not bars, and the medicine cabinet is painted to blend almost seamlessly into the wall.
But the spot where Nicholson’s laid-back charisma and Powell’s high-drama exuberance come together best is in a corner of the living room where the 16th-century wooden Christ figure hangs on the wall. It’s a striking piece, chosen for its individual beauty and for its burnished wood, curving lines and emotional jolt. Though it was originally polychromed, most of the color is worn off, except for a spot on the forehead where a crown of thorns would have rested. At the shoulders and knees – one of Nicholson’s favorite details – the wood is sliced to show the agony of bone protruding from flesh.
The piece was Powell’s find at an estate sale, and Powell’s partner, Buehler, hated it on sight.
“He said, ‘You’re not buying that. It’s gruesome.’ I said, ‘Oh my God. I like drama.’ All night, my heart burned.”
Powell returned the next day and bought it.
“I bought that for me,” Powell says.
“And I bugged the shit out of him,” Nicholson says.
This time, Powell surrendered, and the piece found its niche in Nicholson’s living room – for now, at least. After all, it’s a continuing partnership, and the house, like everything else, is changing, and changing the people who’ve worked on it.
Powell looks lovingly at the sculpture one more time, then moves on to the next piece he wants to discuss. “Whatever commission you’re working on,” he says, “it never leaves you where you started.”