When in Los Angeles, interior designer James Swan lives full-throttle. He dashes between one client's Holmby Hills mansion and the Hollywood Hills ranch of another, where he's re-creating the Brady Bunch house, right down to its grass-cloth walls.
At Swan's second home in Boston, there's a different agenda in place: his own. The soft-spoken designer has cultivated a hushed, serene existence in the South End on a narrow street of brick townhouses that once served as servants' residences.
The two-story, 850-square-foot apartment is everything Swan needs, without a drop of excess. The ground level hosts a master bedroom, study, and bath. Below, at garden level, is a living room flanked by a small kitchen and a swatch of patio. That's it.
Swan, who left his heart in Boston after an idyllic summer on the Cape in 1997, spends half his time here. “I fell in love, absolutely in love, and when I got my first commission here, I carved out two weeks and did all the touristy things,” he says. “The Duck Tour, the museums, the State House — you name it. I thought, 'Oh yeah, I could live here.'”
It was unclear, at first, whether Boston would love him back. Plans for his first job, a mammoth 32,000-square-foot residence in Newton that took 10 months of planning, were scuttled just before the foundation was dug. But Swan recovered, and his practice has grown steadily ever since. Recent projects have ranged from suburban estates in Wellesley, to a 9,500-square-foot Nantucket compound, to a luxury condo in the Atelier 505 building, a stone's throw from his own home. (Not all of Swan's clients are fans. One in Chestnut Hill has sued him in a financial dispute.)
While he's aware that many designers get commissions by selling a signature “look,” Swan has a more holistic approach. He thinks a space should be a reflection of its occupants and that form should never take precedence over function. For example, while he likes the sexy, clean lines of modern chairs, he says, he doesn't love sitting on their notoriously thin cushions. “The allure of midcentury goes right down the drain for me,” he says. “I've never been one who could disengage the way things look from the way things feel.”
Swan's rule is that sanity and serenity should prevail at home, if nowhere else. To that end, his own apartment acts as a palate cleanser — a serving of sorbet after the rich, visual meal that is his daily work. It's a place where he can retreat, reconnect with friends, and curl up with a good book.
This is not to say that Swan shuts off the outside world. In his home, and in the homes of his clients, he carefully chooses decorative pieces and art to complement his personal environment. In Boston, that means embracing local culture. A dramatic abstract oil painting done by friend and local architect Andrew Guidry hangs in Swan's living room. A photo of his heroine, Edith Wharton, at her Lenox estate, graces his bedside table.
He's taken his color scheme from the city as well. You can't help but think of the watery, delicate quality of a Boston spring when engulfed in the silver-taupe walls with tints of green, birch, and sable. In the living room, the cusp-of-spring mood is reinforced by pussy-willow branches arranged in a galvanized beaker.
The tranquil hues unify the apartment's separate spaces and allow Swan's art collection to make the most important statement. Among the pieces: a pair of small paintings propped on a 17th-century carved walnut console table. Another, of a dragonfly just lifting out of a fresh, green puddle of paint, is by another friend, Ernest Plowman, who is a painter and the director of student affairs at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. A sepia watercolor is the work of Boston native Wendy Arkin.
Swan's talent for making a place feel cozy but elegant is evident in the way he combines the antiques he loves with contemporary settings, and vice versa. In his living room, for example, he has a 19th-century Portuguese stone column near a sleek leather banquette. “I'm not edgy,” Swan says. “I respect the classic vocabulary of architecture and design.”
He compensates for his apartment's lack of architectural character (the building boasts nary a molding or a fireplace) with drapery, mirrors, and bold accessories such as an enormous Middle Eastern pierced-iron lantern that lolls under the console table in the living room. The room's longest wall gets depth with a heavy, striped cotton-twill curtain that serves as a frame for the Guidry canvas.
Seating, scattered across low-key sisal floors, is truly eclectic. For those gravitating toward comfort and stability, there's the leather banquette. Visitors with a more refined eye might perch on the pair of 18th-century Italian Piedmontese armchairs with original milk-white and lichen-green paint. They look impossibly delicate, but Swan insists they're comfortable. Then there's a throne-like white wooden armchair (decorated with trompe l'oeil “carvings” created by Swan himself with a black Sharpie) pulled up to a classic Saarinen tulip table. The “Sharpie” design, a brainstorm Swan debuted at Boston's Junior League Show House in Charlestown last year, proved such a hit that Swan now has a deal with a manufacturer to produce a suite of “Sharpie” furniture. The run will include a chest, bedside table, console, and chair.
The witty collection is proving popular on both coasts, although Swan says that his Northeast and West Coast clients have vastly different styles. In L.A., grandiose foyers are a must. In Boston, the endgame is to make friends want to prop up their feet and relax. Here, Swan does plenty of listening and hand-holding. “I run into more micromanagement, not just in the major decisions, but in the minutia,” he says. “Maybe it's the Puritanical work ethic, but there's more of a need to be on top of everything.”
Stay on top of everything he does. As part of his services, Swan offers an “aftercare” package, which includes training a client's staff about the daily care of a home, plus scheduled maintenance visits to touch up paint, change air filters, clean rugs, and the like. “We've put $6 million or $7 million worth of antiques into homes and then you walk in and there's the housekeeping staff using Pledge on everything,” he says with a laugh. “And it's like, 'Oh no, no, no.'”
The small garden off Swan's living room comes in handy when he needs to escape such perils and take a deep breath. The ground is covered with white-pea gravel, which he loves for its gentle, scrunching sound underfoot. His teacup Yorkies, Maximillian and Michaelangelo, also get a kick out of it, racing madly between the garden and living room.
On the other side of the room, there's a shoebox kitchen. It looks appropriate for two things: splashing milk into cereal in the morning and mixing vermouth and gin in the evening. Since the apartment is a rental, Swan had to work around the nondescript white laminate cabinetry and black linoleum floors. He added subtle glamour with subcabinet lighting, open shelving, and a mirrored backsplash over the sink. “So much easier than tile,” he says. “Just spritz it with Windex.”
Despite the kitchen's close quarters, Swan claims he often pulls off dinner parties by serving guests in the garden on a round patio table that has the circumference of a large pizza. “Mostly grilled foods,” he concedes, but with so many restaurants nearby (B & G Oysters and Union are Swan's favorites), his entertaining typically revolves around pre- and post-meal cocktails.
One flight up is Swan's bedroom, bathroom, and a no-frills study. Café-au-lait colored walls and schoolhouse-glass light fixtures add warmth to the upstairs, which lacks much natural illumination. In the bedroom, a quartet of five-foot windows looking out onto the street is swaddled in floor-length brown ticking fabric curtains. Tortoise-shell bamboo blinds add another layer of texture. “Friends thought I was crazy to cover up the windows, but I wanted an enclosed, wrapped, sensual feel,” Swan says.
For a bed, Swan chose a rectilinear iron canopy that frames his favorite piece of art. He found the 1820s English printer's woodblock, made of carved oak and iron, in an antiques store in Essex. It's a heavy piece with an extraordinary texture derived from gouged wood and century-old dye stains. “I love that it has such an honest surface,” Swan says, running his fingers over the scars and grooves. The block portrays a huge, waving cluster of irises, too large for a hand to hold, but a dramatic motif for fabrics or wallpaper. At the far end of the room, Swan shoehorned a 21-inch television into a black, lacquered Korean wedding chest.
On his bedside table is the black-and-white photograph of Wharton wearing a huge floral hat and standing in her garden with her dogs. Swan also owns a number of Wharton first editions, though not all of his loves are quite as literary. “Okay, I like Garfield. Fine. The whole world can know.” He throws up his hands and gestures toward a miniature cat figurine on his nightstand.
Swan placed a bathtub-sized basket of camp blankets at the foot of his bed. The woven bedspreads, collected on day trips to Maine, come in various checks and plaids. “We have such great antique resources here,” he says, taking one out and admiring its colors. “People ask me why I'm not in New York. To me, Boston is a much happier place.”