The Domino Effect

Initially planned as a one-room makeover, a private home in Northfield rolled with changes.

After traveling the world for 30 years, the homeowners settled into this Cape Cod–style home.

In the living room, two Picasso earthenware clay plates flank a midcentury Miyoko Ito painting.

In the foyer, the homeowners display antique and modern housewares they collected in travels to the Far East.

The intentionally spare dining room lets in the outdoors.

In the great room, beams above add space and depth while window treatments were kept to a minimum to bring in the seasons.

The in-suite master bath features custom vanities framed in bull horn.

John Robert Wiltgen is used to managing major projects. As the owner of his eponymous full-service design firm established more than three decades ago, Wiltgen travels all over the world building from the ground up, often selecting a location, then dictating everything from the landscaping to water features—decisions well beyond the realm of what happens inside. A current project in Africa, for instance, measures 50,000 square feet.

So when Wiltgen was hired to rethink a single room in a private residence in Northfield, he admits it wasn’t initially seen as more than a blip on the radar. “We discussed immediate needs,” he recalls of the initial conversation with the husband-and-wife clients, who had become acquainted with John Robert Wiltgen Design via the firm’s rehab of their son’s 2,000-square-foot apartment in Trump Tower. He says, “When we were nearing completion of that job, his mother said, ‘Now you’re going to have to come and do our house.’”

The 5,000-square-foot home—a five-bedroom Cape Cod tucked away on a woodsy lot in Northfield—had been professionally decorated a handful of years prior, following a comprehensive rehab. But it lacked something. “The homeowner felt like the living room was not quite done, and needed to become a little more stylish and maybe a little bit lighter. It was a little flat,” says Wiltgen, citing the genesis of the domino effect that followed. “We were done with one room and thought, ‘Maybe we should be doing such-and-such to another room.’ Ultimately, we ended up really refurbishing everything but the kitchen.”

The finished home boasts a new dining room, reimagined family and living rooms, a brand-new master bedroom suite and fresh touches to all four guest rooms, incorporating several custom pieces of furniture and art—including a few mounted Picasso plates. “I don’t know that anybody thought that it was going to become as big a job as it turned out to be,” Wiltgen says, especially because the existing house was architecturally sound—and stunning.

Situated on a large, heavily wooded lot thick enough to shelter coyotes and other wildlife, the home and surroundings provided an inspirational aesthetic. “We really wanted the interior of this home to complement the exterior surroundings, to be totally integrated and not break between one or the other,” elaborates Wiltgen, who chose an earthy color palette with warm tones to showcase the surrounding yard’s seasonality and kept window treatments simple so as not to distract from their framed views. Inside, there was plenty to play around with.

The homeowners, a professional couple who raised their children in the midst of 30 years of world travel, had settled on the North Shore more than a decade prior. Along the way, they collected antiques, art and furniture representing their temporary home bases—Hawaii, China, Singapore, Hong Kong—lending the house its sense of style. Wiltgen’s challenge was to incorporate those existing pieces into his firm’s fresh design statement, providing a finished look that showcased the family’s worldly past in a coherent, comfortable aesthetic.

The homeowners’ immediate needs began in the living room, which Wiltgen admits was the toughest challenge. “Usually I can walk into a room and know immediately what it needs,” he says, “but that room was difficult to read. She had some really wonderful things, but they weren’t what the room needed.” As a result, it wound up being one of last rooms to be addressed, allowing the family’s possessions to dictate the look. In many rooms, Wiltgen says redecorating was almost like shopping from a specially curated collection—culled from the homeowners’ storage area. “Often if we needed a lamp or something, it was like, ‘Let’s go to the gift shop!’” Wiltgen laughs, referring to the family’s basement full of goodies. “There was a luxury in being able to run down there and find something that would work.”

The dining room, for instance, had a wonderful set of vintage chairs from the 1960s, which Wiltgen’s team completely took apart to refinish and reupholster. “They’re very simple and minimalist in their design, which really worked with an Asian aesthetic,” Wiltgen says. Several other custom projects—both repurposed “gift shop” items and custom furniture designed for the homeowners—are new hallmarks of the refreshed home. Touches of Chinese oxblood proved a unifying color thread, and a British colonial look incorporates the home’s existing Asian touches.

The only truly new construction was for the master suite, which was completely renovated. Lighting and storage were the biggest concerns, namely illuminating dim corners, spotlighting artwork and finding a solution for the homeowners’ cramped closet space. In the bath, only the tub, shower and wall tile stayed. In went stone door casings and trim around the windows, for practicality more than aesthetic. “That’s pretty indicative of most of the work we do,” Wiltgen says. “We like it to be beautiful, chic and stunning, but as maintenance-free as possible.” His team installed custom medicine cabinets with mirrors framed in bull horn—exquisite finishes that give the room its sense of style—and a large wood carving on a mirrored surface was installed above the soaking tub.

“We’re really proud of this house,” Wiltgen says. “In this case, the homeowners were very responsive to doing things that allowed us to end up where we did, and without that trust in us we would not have gotten here.”