By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photography by Trent Bell
An architect and his partner infuse their historic home with moody hues and a strong point of view.
David Morris hears voices. In walls, in roofs, in old wood. As a residential architect for Caleb Johnson Studios in Portland, Morris’s domestic clairvoyance has helped him design dozens of homes down to the tile and textiles, if the client so wishes. “Buildings have things to say and it’s my job to listen to them, and to listen to my clients and how they want to live, and to try to find some common ground between them,” he says.
Three years ago, Morris found a house that spoke specifically to him: a three-bedroom, Shingle-style place built between 1912 and 1922 (town records are unclear) on a tree-lined Cape Elizabeth street. It’s a winter house if ever there was one — a brooding old beauty with rich oak trim, an ornate tiled fireplace, and stained-glass windows filtering sleepy half-light. “The house feels cozy,” says Morris, who lives with his partner, marketing professional Justin Burkhardt. “It feels like it wants to hold and protect you. So I thought, let’s go dark. Let’s make this thing feel really encapsulating.”
FROM LEFT To unify the porch palette, the couple mixed a bit of the shingle color (Sherwin-Williams’s Colonnade Gray) in with the ceiling paint. A burgundy ILVE range punctuates the kitchen and its brass knobs pick up the copper of the custom island top. Portugese water dogs Sylvester and Melvin, shown with Burkhardt, blend with the predominantly black-and-white palette. The glass tile backsplash is from Portland’s Old Port Specialty Tile Co.; Biddeford’s Devoe Color & Design Center provided the linoleum flooring.
For the walls, the couple chose shades inspired by Maine’s chilliest months: a deep plum in the guest room, including on the ceiling and trim, that makes you feel as though you are enveloped in shadow, and an iron gray the color of an ominous storm cloud in the master bedroom. In the living room, the luminous blue-green walls were meant to mimic the icy ocean at Fort Williams Park. Outside, they tamed an exterior busy with gambrels, dormers, and a screened porch by painting it all midnight blue except for a shock of orange on the door that feels as welcoming as a candle in the darkness. The house now announces itself, Morris hopes, as a place with “intention and an opinion” on a block where tan and cream residences are the norm. “In my home, I want to be bold,” Morris says. “I don’t want an accent wall. I want an accent room.”
TOP A guest room features the complementary kapow of teal walls, custom-mixed by Fine Paints of Europe, and butter-yellow bedding. The rug is from West Elm. LEFT In the living room, a colorful mixed-media work the couple created by hanging paint swatches from hooks on a plywood panel crowns a leather sofa. Morris designed the glass-and-steel coffee table and Portland’s Tunnelwerks International fabricated it. RIGHT An antique French wall sconce seems to emerge from the intricate shapes in the dining room’s Cole & Son Malachite wallpaper. BOTTOM In the powder room, Cole & Son’s Nautilus wallpaper and Benjamin Moore’s River Blue on the ceiling and trim effect a subaquatic world.
Take the dining room, where Morris selected mod black-and-white wallpaper that appears to spring toward the viewer, while the oak wainscoting beneath recedes; a vibrant royal-purple rug anchors the scheme. The room’s push-and-pull dynamic echoes that of the homeowners. Whereas Morris is comfortable languishing in indecision for a while — spending weeks, for example, mulling a dozen wallpaper swatches for this room — Burkhardt likes to commit and move on. “I’ll make a stand, like, ‘We need to purchase X,’” Burkhardt says, laughing. “‘So we’re going to do that right now because we’ve been waiting too long.’”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP In the upstairs hallway, a cut-glass mirror sets off a teak sideboard topped with a framed photo of fashion icon Iris Apfel. Sherwin-Williams’s Peppercorn shade envelops the master bedroom, which is furnished with a brass bed, wool pillows, and an early-20th-century architectural rendering of the home obtained from the Maine Historical Society. Custom velvet headboards add dimension to a guest room in which nearly every inch is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Brinjal.
Arresting patterns — teal botanical wallpaper punctuated with orange anglerfish in the powder room, floral pop-art fabric on the master bedroom’s wingback chair — and plush textures — peacock-blue velvet headboards in a guest room, sheepskin throws on the living room’s leather sofas — inject levity and warmth. “There are things David would recommend that I’d never seen, but I trust his opinion,” Burkhardt says.
One of the couple’s favorite elements is a mid-century sideboard in the upstairs hallway that functions as a shrine, of sorts, to bold, creative women. A marble lamp sits atop a stack of books by renowned interior designers Abigail Ahern, Mary McDonald, and Kelly Wearstler, and a framed photograph of New York fashion icon Iris Apfel leans against the wall. At 97, Apfel may well be a fitting avatar for the house itself — a sassy, category-defying rainbow of a person who knows her age and staying power give her the final word. “This house said to me, ‘I’m not a modern house,” Morris says. “‘I have an opinion about who I am. So have fun, but be respectful.’ And that’s what we have tried to do.”