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Photography by Alise O’Brien
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Visiting the Desai house is like staying with your favorite aunt, the one who packs a picnic and takes you blackberry picking—then changes into a strapless gown and serenely greets 100 guests—then, just as you’re falling asleep, runs lightly up the stairs with a big wedge of cake and giggles with you about all the fun you had that afternoon.
Maggie and Jason Desai wanted no sharp divisions between formal and informal. Their house is perfect for a grown-up party, yet every inch of it is easygoing, ready for fun. There are wide halls to accommodate three running children and the goldendoodle who comes skidding after them. There’s a separate Dutch door for the kids’ friends to use; a dog shower in the garage for Mack’s muddy paws; and a set of strategically placed outlets so it’s easy to string holiday lights.
“A lot of this house is a reaction to places we have lived,” says Jason, describing narrow Victorian houses in Chicago and Boston and a dark Spanish-style house in Ladue.
“We love the charm of an older home,” Maggie inserts.
“But as we had more kids, it was getting to be a problem,” Jason says. “Unless you totally rehab them, you are trying to put your 2012 lifestyle into a house that was built in the early 1900s. And there was always maintenance…”
They decided to build fresh, near their then-current house in Ladue.They knew they wanted a New England house, with shingles and a gambrel roof—the kind you usually see with an ocean behind it. The Desais needed a builder who could pull off an unfamiliar style, stick-building the intricate curves of the roof. They interviewed a dozen builders and chose Jim Minton of Minton Homes; they interviewed architects and chose Mitchell Wall Architecture & Design. For interior design, they found Fifi Lugo, who warned, “I don’t want to be coming back every five years to redecorate. In 20 years, I want you to be happy with everything in this house.”
What you notice first is the house’s easy flow. For parties, you come into the big open hall, with a sightline straight through the house to the back garden. If you turn right (the American preference), you walk through the square dining room to the living room, which opens onto a huge trellised terrace. “The openings into the formal rooms are generous, with pocket doors, and there’s also a separate hallway for circulation,” says architect Susan Bower. “Then in back, the spaces flow into each other.”
The hearth room is framed by columns, giving it just enough definition. The huge, airy kitchen’s open to the central hall. “I was worried that it was going to be too big and feel really empty and hollow,” Maggie says, “but with the kids and the dog…” Not a chance.
Her new favorite time of day is breakfast, with sun pouring into the kitchen and the kids perching at the island to watch and chatter while she cooks. After school, Maggie pulls into the garage, and the kids tear through “the dog trot” (an old term for the area connecting the garage to the house), stopping at the mudroom to dump outdoor clothes or sports gear, then reaching the ingenious split staircase that functions as both back and front stairs at once. “Everybody’s most important sequence is from the car into the house,” Bower says, “because that’s the way people live.”
People also tend to live in a sea of stuff, but Maggie’s a Mary Poppins sort of mother: Everything has its place and practically dances into it. Low, open shelves were built into one side of that columned room divider, so toys can be tucked neatly out of view from the hall, yet stay right within reach for family time. Jason’s home office is a gracious room with a massive desk and no clutter; an alcove hidden by a sliding door lets him pile papers and do computer research in peace. The TV’s artfully hidden behind a flat white cabinet.
In the kitchen, shallow drawers hold place mats, and china’s on display in a robin’s-egg blue cabinet that was built to look free-standing, like an old-fashioned kitchen hutch. Oliver-Savage, which did all the cabinetry, took advantage of trapped space in the dining room to make a secret closet behind the paneling, perfect storage for tablecloths. In the laundry room, Lugo asked them to insert radiator grilling to ventilate the hamper drawers, then hung tiny chalkboards for labels: “Delicates,” “Jeans,” “Darks”…
She worked with Maggie’s favorite soft colors: white, cream, and blue in the TV room, corn-silk in the living room, a mossy green in the dining room and butler’s pantry. Lugo suggested sunny yellow for the upstairs laundry room—“I don’t want you to be sad while you’re doing laundry!”—and Maggie added a bit of whimsy: a lavender mudroom.
“You do not need an imported, blah blah blah table for the living room,” Lugo assured her when they started furniture shopping. “You need one that if the dog goes running through and knocks it down, you’re not going to have a nervous breakdown.” Lugo found indoor-outdoor upholstery fabrics that would repel jam, crayons, and melted chocolate. She balanced the cost of Maggie’s exquisite, hand-wired bathroom chandelier and Jason’s Waterworks fixtures, curved tub wall, and overhead shower—a cascade the kids love to play in, giving Maggie flashes of angst over the water bill—by using stock tile in the kids’ bathrooms (she made playful new patterns with it) and scavenging stonemasons’ boneyards for remnant granite for their sinks.
“None of the materials in the house are pretentious; there are no imported exotic woods,” she notes. “We used ebony-stained white oak for the stairs—I always have the stains mixed on-site, because it’s like baking a cake: a little more of this, a little more of that… The paneling was the indulgence; it looks like it’s been there 50 years.”
The day of the first walk-through, the temperature dropped to 10 degrees. Minton thought the Desais would want to reschedule, but they showed up and stayed four hours, listening and asking questions, stomping their feet to keep them from going numb.
Their house was finished under budget and ahead of schedule. Their son Finley painted a picture, tricky gambrel roof and all, and gave it to Minton as a present.