Personal Best

October 15, 2013

Susanna Salk’s own Lake Waramaug home stands as the perfect illustration of the breezy, eclectic approach this style maven has long espoused.

Text by Dan Shaw    Photography by Michael Partenio     Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent

Susanna Salk practices what she preaches. The author of several style books, including Be Your Own Decorator (Rizzoli, 2012), approaches interior design with a refreshing, down-to-earth attitude based on expert knowledge gleaned from working with scores of world-class designers during her years as an editor at Elle Decor and House & Garden. An enlightened amateur, she doesn’t view decorating as an art form per se but rather as a means to an end: the creation of a cheerful backdrop for meaningful moments with family and friends.

Salk and her husband, Eric, an emergency-room physician, moved to the bucolic northwest corner of Connecticut some fifteen years ago after stints in Los Angeles and Manhattan. Like so many of the urban “expatriates” in this quiet part of the state, the couple wanted to raise their children in a wholesome environment while maintaining access to the cultural life of New York City, less than two hours away.

They bought a 200-year-old house in rural Roxbury, which they furnished primarily with local and period antiques. Like most serial decorators, the Salks are always on the prowl for new projects, and once they finished their house they discussed buying a fixer-upper and flipping it. A savvy real-estate agent told them about a small, woebegone summer cottage on Lake Waramaug, just fifteen minutes away. “It was one of the rare properties on the lake with a flat lawn and its own dock,” says Salk, who imagined using it as the world’s most convenient vacation house as well as a rental property that would pay for itself.

The Salks undertook an initial renovation and moved in, but by the end of their first summer of lakefront living, they didn’t want to leave. They sold the house in Roxbury and began planning to revamp their lake house to make it suitable for a family of four year-round.

Working with local architect Harold Tittmann, they attached a new building to the old one, adding a master bedroom, office, playroom, mudroom, and kitchen. In the process, the old kitchen became a dining room that bridges the two structures.

Salk’s urbane approach to country style is evident the moment she opens the front door. “I like to have sophisticated elements in a casual setting—I like the dichotomy,” she says. She finds inspiration in the idiosyncratic elegance of Old Money decor, which she has chronicled in two books, A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style (Assouline, 2006) and C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon (Rizzoli, 2013). “I got the leopard-print pillows for the sofa in the entry when I was working on the C.Z. book,” she says. “She always had leopard prints in her country house and I thought, ‘That is exactly what I am going to do, too.’ It just worked with the striped sofa we’d had for ten years. When you mix things you love, they just naturally go together.”

The entry leads to the new dining room, where an enormous handcrafted table takes center stage. The piece was created by the Salks’ friend and neighbor Stephen Piscuskas, the founder of York Street Studio, an artisanal home furnishings company in nearby Woodbury. “We’ve always had a sentimental attachment to the table because it was a gift from Stephen, and he came to our house to assemble it,” says Salk. Sadly, Piscuskas died suddenly last summer at age fifty-five. “Now we treasure it even more,” Salk says.

Still, she doesn’t treat the table as precious; she has surrounded it with “pleather” chairs—two in white and four in a bittersweet hue—that she found on eBay, and has illuminated it with a pair of hanging drum-shade fixtures from West Elm. Layering in an abstract painting that once belonged to Eric’s father and crewel draperies from Anthropologie, Salk has created a room that is eclectic without being eccentric.

Another handcrafted table dominates the new cathedral-ceilinged kitchen, this one an eight-foot-long island made from antique rough-sawn oak by a local woodworker. Weathered beams that span the room provide a subtle country touch. Two antique French armchairs that belonged to Eric’s father, sporting a pretty Barclay Butera fabric depicting white flowers and birds on a paprika background, sit near the fireplace, giving the new room a sense of family history.

The fireplace in the living room is another memento from an earlier chapter in the Salks’ lives. “That mantel was in the basement of our house in Roxbury and we brought it with us here,” Salk explains. So are the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams settees that she re-covered in an exuberant ikat fabric from Ballard Designs. The fireplace screen came from Pergola, a garden-antiques store in the nearby village of New Preston. “The owners brought it over to let us see how it looked before making the commitment to buy it,” Salk says. “A great fireplace screen is like a great piece of jewelry for a room.”

The judicious use of unexpected, quirky, even flamboyant elements—such as the living room’s red chinoiserie bar she discovered at a consignment shop—are the linchpin of Salk’s style. “The bar is like a piece of sculpture, and it has so much personality,” she says.

Salk takes fierce pride in finding bargains from sources such as Anthropologie, Ballard Designs, and West Elm. “You are going to laugh when I tell you that the living room rug with the big flower pattern came from Pier 1,” she says. “I drove over there and brought it home myself! The room would be so much less exciting if I had put down sisal or an oriental rug.”

Back when the couple first moved to Connecticut, Salk says, the country look was popular in decorating. Now, she says, “people are much braver. It’s rare to go into a house and see just one kind of style. That’s kind of dated. People aren’t so one-note anymore. They want to mix it up.”

Salk believes we should all live in houses that excite us and reflect our own sense of style, and she will keep producing books, blog posts, and segments for the Today show to get her message across. “I want to encourage people,” she says. “It is easier and cheaper than you think to have a house with personality.”  •

Architecture: Harold Tittmann, Tittman Design + Consulting

Interior decorating: Susanna Salk

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