The clues are almost everywhere you look: exquisite architectural detailing, a grand piano in the foyer, books arranged artfully on side tables and antique tapestries gracing the walls. All speak to the poetry of classic and exceptional interior design.
“The fine arts, architecture, music, art, literature and poetry are all influences in our design aesthetic,” says Sally Wilson, co-founder of Wilson Kelsey Design, based in historic Salem, Mass., and one of Ocean Home’s Top 50 Coastal Designers of 2017.
Her husband and co-principal, John Kelsey, says their emotional connection to the arts is both abstract and literal. “They all revolve around composition and organizing ideas,” he says.
“A symphony, for example, has movements and themes expressed and interpreted in different ways throughout the piece, so there’s a rhythm, pattern and texture to the music,” he adds. “A beautiful space is like music or art or poetry in the way it speaks to us, so we find a lot of continuity between the different art forms and what we do.”
What Wilson and Kelsey did with this gracious home is little short of miraculous given it was once a humble stable and carriage house of a former grand New England coastal estate, just north of Boston.
Built in 1907, the carriage house had fallen into disrepair. Worse still, it had been converted in the 1980s into three drab, featureless and uninspiring condominiums.
Wilson and Kelsey’s clients owned the central unit, measuring 5,500 square feet, and commissioned a total transformation. “The husband couldn’t understand why his wife liked the place so much,” says Kelsey, “but it was a blank canvas. She could see its potential and loved the peace and quiet of the estate.”
As with all projects, Wilson and Kelsey spent considerable time talking with their client, listening carefully and drawing out her intentions. “Her vision for the house was a little unclear,” says Wilson, “but in looking at some of the things she had bought, I could see that a European aesthetic should be the future path.”
Intriguingly, the commission spanned five years,?largely because the clients were living in the home as work proceeded and the designers had to work on one room at a time. “The client also wanted everything to be different; we couldn’t repeat a molding or detail,” says Kelsey.
“Usually you map out a vision of the whole project, but that never really happened here,” he adds. “So we had?a notion of where it was all going to end up, and we made smart enough decisions that were timeless and classic and of the right quality that we could build on from room to room.”
The result is a stunning interpretation of neoclassical architecture, design and styling infused with elegant European influences.
“It’s opulent without being over the top, and very warm, friendly and livable,” says Kelsey. “It’s a difficult line to walk, but it’s in our soul and we just know how to do it.”
Even more intriguingly, and without either designer’s prior knowledge, the new home displays similar design sensibilities to the mansion that once held court over the oceanfront estate – especially the black-and-white checkered floor and wrought-iron staircase in the foyer.
The imposing stone fireplace mantel in the?living room, custom millwork and cabinetry, crystal chandeliers, antique tapestries, original artworks and plush furnishings and fabrics also recall the golden age of Boston’s coveted Gold Coast.
“To some degree, it’s a case of déjà vu,” says Kelsey, looking at historical books featuring the original mansion found by the designers after the project was completed. “You could say it was a happy accident,” adds Wilson. “We really echoed some of the elements of the mansion that’s sadly no longer here.”
Boston’s North Shore has been a prized destination since the mid- to late-1800s when wealthy Bostonians, lured by the region’s cool ocean breezes and bucolic landscapes, sought respite from the crowds, heat and pollution of the city during summer.
They settled along the rocky coastline, in beachside hamlets such as Nahant, Marblehead, Prides Crossing, Beverly, Manchester, Magnolia and Eastern Point, building grand mansions for summer entertaining – much like their New York City counterparts did in Newport, Rhode Island.
The Ayer Estate in Prides Crossing, home to Wilson and Kelsey’s carriage house clients, was a jewel in the Gold Coast’s crown. Beatrice Ayer, whose father owned the American Woolen Company, spent all her summers here and, in 1910, married General George Patton at a church in nearby Beverly Farms.
The original mansion has since been demolished, replaced by a very contemporary coastal home, but the carriage house survived.
“The home we created conveys the same notion of gracious living that the Boston industrialists came to the Gold Coast in summer to enjoy,” says Kelsey. “There’s a depth, richness and character that perhaps a contemporary design aesthetic doesn’t have.”
With a combined 50 years of experience – 20 of which have been at the helm of Wilson Kelsey Design – the husband-and-wife designers took different journeys on the road to meeting each other.
Wilson majored in English literature and art history at Northwestern University, with the notion of owning an art gallery. A change of mind took her back to school at the University of Florida, this time to study architecture with a second degree in interior design.
Design wasn’t in her DNA. “I came from a family?of engineers,” she says, “but that’s great because that’s where the numbers speak to me and helps in handling the business side of the company.”
“I’m one of those designers who works on both sides of the brain,” she adds. “I can be very logical and do the spreadsheets, but I’m also very artistic when it comes to interior design.”
Kelsey grew up in Upstate New York, graduating from Cornell University with a psychology degree. But that wasn’t for him either. “As a kid in junior high school, I loved to draw and weld things into sculptures,” he says.
“Then at college,” he adds, “I’d go to my girlfriend’s dorm – she was an interior design major – and I’d start making design suggestions and she got really angry with me one night and said, ‘Okay, smarty pants, if you think you’re so good, take a class.’ ”
Kelsey did just that and earned an A, while his girlfriend scored an A minus. “We broke up shortly thereafter, but the die was cast,” he says with a smile.
The fledgling designer took courses at Boston Architectural College while working for interior design companies in the city, and – in a case of serendipity?– found himself at an architectural firm and at a desk next to Wilson.
“We realized we had similar backgrounds and aesthetics,” says Wilson. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for John. He’s a really good thinker and you have to be a good thinker to be a good designer.
“Design is not about picking things,” she adds. “It’s about thinking through the process and the challenges and solving them. I think we always understood that we respect each other’s approach to design and we could see that each other was talented.”
Kelsey expounds further. “That process of thinking and problem solving needs to come first before you start looking at what you want to place in a space,” he says.
“You have to have a very clear vision in order to know what you are looking at as an option and whether it’s the right choice,” he notes. “Without that design framework, you just end up with a roomful of furniture.”
The design duo founded their own company in 1996 with each designer bringing different skills to the partnership.
Kelsey works on the architectural side, overseeing technical issues, making drawings, designing millwork and cabinetry, specifying and selecting crown moldings and handling construction and project management, among other duties.
Wilson is responsible for all of a project’s decorative elements, the firm’s overall design aesthetic, materials, lighting, furniture, fabrics, drapery, colors and finishes.
“The great thing about being able to collaborate on a project the way we do is that the left hand always knows what the right hand is doing,” says Kelsey. “Even over dinner.”
They also love the different aspects of their roles. “I think it’s very important that living with order and serenity and good design and beauty is very nurturing to people’s souls,” says Wilson.
“Good design goes underneath your skin and can positively affect the way you live, think and react to the world. It allows you to go out into the world each day and do your best work because it nurtures you.”
Kelsey loves working with a family’s life story. “I particularly enjoy working on older homes because the architecture has its own story to tell and I like working with families who appreciate their history,” he says.
“I love blending past, present and future and layering the various elements of a family’s life into a project,” he adds.
While some designers want to stamp their own identity on a home, Wilson and Kelsey take a different approach. “When we finish a project, our aim is not to leave any footprints,” says Kelsey.
“We don’t want someone to go into a house and say that’s a Wilson-Kelsey home,” he adds. “We want people to say to the owner, ‘It’s so beautiful and it’s so you.’ That it beautifully expresses your values and priorities, your hopes, your dreams and family. All of those things that speak to a home and shelter and security are the things that are very important to us.”
For more information, visit wilsonkelseydesign.com.
Image Credits: Photo by Laura Moss.