A highly personal narrative and plenty of hard work give this compelling Edgewood carriage house colorful new life.
Photography by Nat Rea
Graphic designers lisa and victor russo are a renaissance couple. Sewing, baking, guitar-playing, beer-brewing and tango? Just the beginning. They also tackle home projects with the same fervor they bring to their work. If anybody had the energy to transform a nineteenth-century building into an inviting home, it was these two. Fearless about juxtaposing mid-century finds, antiques, tag sale treasures and mementoes (grandfather’s fishing rod and beribboned four-leaf clovers have found a niche) — and certainly not color timid — they let it rip. The result is one fantastic nest we can all take lessons from.
Sans work crew, the talented duo even forged a sweet yard complete with picturesque recycled fence and walkway. Lipstick red doors replace yesterday’s garage models. Previous owners parked their cars inside, which is what drew the Russos. “We needed a spot for our 2,000-pound letterpresses,” Lisa says.
The second and third floors are the family’s quarters. Colors help delineate the rooms, making the old building pop. Straightforward furnishings take a backseat to provenance-filled keepsakes. Here in the airy living room, for example, there’s an heirloom teacart, a well-loved doll by Florence mask maker Agostino Dessi and mini metal hearts by local sculptor Becky Wagner. Unlikely partnerships — an antique camel saddle and a church pew — add to the personality-filled mix. The romantic iron staircase, in place when the Russos moved in, winds to the parents’ sanctuary.
The first floor, now the designers’ workspace, demanded a massive makeover. The Russos ripped out the walls (and stalls) and laid a new concrete floor with radiant heat beneath. Upstairs, cosmetics were the focus — stuccoed walls and shag carpets out! Luckily, the kitchen/dining area (facing page, bottom, and below) came endowed with a cool industrial range, a tile floor and abundant natural light. The Russos freshened the mood, dousing one wall with blackboard paint to concoct message central. A metal-legged baker’s table provides prep room. The 1950 dining table arrived via a neighbor. “I removed the dated bottom and had a friend devise a simple replacement. Tongue oil darkened the blond top,” Lisa says. Red paint unifies mismatched chairs gathered at flea markets and yard sales. Carved mahogany doors conceal built-in storage. The watercolor above is by Victor’s colleague Bill Lane. Lisa created the charming tomato-appliqued banquette pillow.
The handsome architecture might have been diminished but not with these respectful owners. They opted for happy robin’s-egg blue, a boon for the living room beams (above). Then, they covered the existing red brick hearth with white paint, creating an ideal stage for Victor’s quirky collection of Kirby tractor wrenches
— affectionately dubbed “wrench fire.” The nearby folding card table with Japanese-style painted top is one Lisa recalls from childhood. Its counterpoint, the female carving, is an Ivory Coast fertility figure nabbed on Broadway in New York City. “Victor brought it home on the subway as a present,” says Lisa. The pink armchair cushions that she recovered nod to the natty rug. A devotee of vintage and reclaimed fabric, Lisa often scores great remnants at Recycling for RI Education. Cranston’s Just Fabrics stocks her favorite European florals.
Lisa and Victor’s minimalist bedroom is as close to treehouse living as you get. The open space includes sleeping quarters and bath, all in one. The advantage to such transparency? Sunlight and a breeze whether you’re reading in bed or soaking in the tub. Standing open, French doors frame a petit balcony, green tree tops and distant water views. “This floor was probably added in the seventies. We left the walls pale because sometimes you have to stop with the color,” Lisa says with a laugh. The previous owners used reclaimed wood for closet doors to link the retreat to antique rooms below. Of course, Lisa crafted the vintage chair’s chic black and white covering. The pastel quilt is the handiwork of Pernilla Frazier from Providence’s Kreatelier.
The generous ground floor affords room for a bar — built by Victor with stall lumber — on one side and plenty of work space on the other. Victor (above) makes specialty wines, mead and beer. Typically, he brews five-gallon batches of Belgian-style beer (Cascade and Chinook hops ramble along the building). Some are bottled but most are served from taps. Jugs this week hold rhubarb wine and cyser (apple cider mead). A comfortable sitting area at the floor’s center includes a sofa Lisa discovered in a “scary” estate sale basement. “It was so gross the guy gave it to me,” she says. She reglorified it with plump foam pillows and orange wool. The chair is by Danish designer Ib Kofod-Larsen. Contemporary materials like the corrugated metal entry wall (left) lend texture and sharpen the building’s edge. Victor zips to work on the scooter, a cousin’s hand-me-down he beautifully restored.