Boston Home: Country Style
It's often said that one of the best things about Boston is how easy it is to get out of. Usually, that's intended as an accolade. With the rest of New England as its backyard, the crowded city is only a short drive from the soothing ocean, the peaceful mountains, and the quiet countryside.
No one seems to appreciate this more than hairstylist — to — the — stars Mario Russo and his partner, Frank Gilligan. Russo — — who owns two of Boston's most — respected upscale salons, oversees a signature hair — care line, and is a huge supporter of the city's contemporary art scene — — has been making the two — and — a — half — hour trek to bucolic South Woodstock, Vermont, on winter weekends for the past two decades. There, he and Gilligan, a fundraising consultant, relax and ski at nearby Ascutney and Suicide Six. Gilligan also enjoys the horseback riding available at the nearby world — class Green Mountain Horse Association.
With its old — time general store, gentleman's farms, and quiet dirt roads, South Woodstock is an impeccable location for a second home. Dense green forests isolate this quiet enclave from the hustle and bustle of its neighbors. There's no honking, smog, or — — for better or worse — — cell phone service. “It's a great escape,” says Russo, who became a part — time South Woodstock resident in 1996, when he and Gilligan rented the Grange Hall as a weekend retreat. (Their primary residence is on Beacon Hill.) Two years ago, the pair purchased their dream vacation house, a 170 — year — old Colonial they'd admired since first visiting South Woodstock. “It's a refuge,” Gilligan says of the house, which, like several others in town, was constructed of locally made bricks. “[Frank] gets a grin on his face whenever he talks about it,” pipes in Russo.
While Gilligan and Russo at first agreed that the house suited them perfectly, they had different ideas about exactly why. Russo, an avid collector of modern art, liked the wall space for his growing collection of contemporary art, while Gilligan, who has more classical taste, saw the place as a repository for the antique wooden furniture that had filled his former house in Millbrook, New York. The couple's struggle to reconcile their tastes was compounded by their desire to incorporate a third element: a sense of place. “We were going to do all these Vermont landscapes,” Russo says, “but it's just not me.” Nor did hunt scenes seem to fit in, despite South Woodstock's horse — country heritage. (“Don't even look at those,” Russo says Gilligan warned him.)
In the end, with the help of Boston designer Kenneth Dietz, Russo and Gilligan combined their disparate styles into a pulled — together look that's all at once classic, contemporary, and comfortable — — and offers its fair share of surprises. “We actually did a toile bedroom,” Russo says, laughing as he describes the room that best illustrates the resulting marriage of tastes. It's an utter explosion of crimson, with red toile wallpaper, modern red — and — white — striped drapes, and red accents splashed throughout. Says Dietz, who has designed living spaces for Bob Vila (formerly of This Old House) and consulted for star architects Machado and Silvetti: “The house is a complete collaboration between Frank, Mario, and myself. We just sort of melded it together.” The result: herringbone Starck carpeting over antique hardwood floors; a bird's nest made of twigs sharing a shelf with a state — of — the — art stereo speaker; and a yellowed plastic 1970s telephone perched on a marble — topped Regency side table. “Does this really go with that?” Russo asks, acknowledging the disconnect of the furnishings. He answers his own question: “It does for me.”
“Doing a second home should be more fun. You can take more risks,” says Russo. And, since this is his second second home (his first is a cottage in Provincetown), there are risks galore. Some are simple concessions to his and Gilligan's varying tastes; others are primarily purposeful. Bright colors throughout the house provide visual warmth during Vermont's cold winters, especially in the living room, which is an amalgamation of vertical yellow stripes, brick — red chintz, blue leopard spots, and red, yellow, and green plaid. It's a comfortable spot, with down — stuffed cushions and plenty of places to stretch out.
It's also ideal for entertaining, with a broad Chinese lacquered — linen coffee table for spreading out drinks and hors d'oeuvres, and a small bar area for assembling cocktails. There's a TV, too, but with all the photographs and other artwork about — — not to mention the conversation — inducing layout of the furniture — — there doesn't seem much need for it. The capper is a 14 — by — 21 — foot pink and coral Aubusson — style Starck carpet, which was a bit of a stylistic splurge for Russo. “I'm not big on flowers,” he says. “Now I'm quite attached to it, actually. Up here in the winter, it's so gray. But this room just glows.”
There's more to the living room than coziness, though. While providing warmth, says Dietz, the flowered carpet also injects a little edge into the room, an effect enhanced by the vivid red of the chintz couch and electric blue of the ottoman's leopard spots. In a more serious environment, the individual pieces might seem a little too offbeat, like the interior of a Palm Beach mansion gone bad, but combined, they exude uniform whimsy and irreverence. “It's like, if we're going to go there, then we've got to go over the edge,” Russo says.
Upstairs, the custom Dek Tillett draperies that hang in the windows of the guest bedrooms are most certainly over the edge, their bold geometric patterns a stunning contrast to the classical wallpaper behind them. (Tillett's father, textile artist Leslie Tillett, burst onto the elite decorator scene in the late 1940s and later achieved widespread popularity when Jacqueline Kennedy swaddled the White House in his signature fabrics. Dek Tillett continues to handprint all of his father's original patterns, as well as his own, in his western Massachusetts factory.)
“To me, it's a play on all this stuff,” says Russo, gesturing toward a guest room with modern blue — diamond — print drapes and French — made wallpaper depicting Paris scenes including one of the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Gardens. Plaid bedding in blue and white and a pale — blue ceiling round out the tone of the room. There's storage space in an antique dresser, one of the few American pieces in Russo and Gilligan's collection, which is mostly European. They find these heirlooms at auction houses including Christie's, Sotheby's, and Skinner, on the principle that buying at auction can be cheaper than buying from dealers with high markups. “We love the whole process,” says Russo. “We learn a lot.”
Most important, the couple has learned how to acclimate to each other's style preferences. “Sometimes he just throws this curve at me,” Russo says of Gilligan and his affinity for antiques that often grate on Russo's modern sensibilities. Gilligan shares Russo's frustration: “The biggest thing was to try to get [Mario's] head around to my understanding of what the house should be,” he explains. But for the most part, cooperation prevailed, as with the wing chair in the master bedroom, which Gilligan discovered at a New Hampshire auction. “I said, 'Why are you buying this?'” Russo remembers. Gilligan won him over by pointing out the chair's beautiful lines, and, once restuffed and reupholstered with sumptuous taupe — and — white Pierre Frey fabric, it became the centerpiece of the room. It's complemented by two handpainted antique etchings, which, says Russo, are “a direct reference to country life. And they're Italian” — — an homage to Russo's ancestry.
Throughout the house, various pieces of artwork tie in elements of Gilligan's and Russo's lives. A photograph of a cow, taken at close range by Gilligan's daughter, Fernanda, and numerous informal portraits, convey closeness to friends and family. (“When we're here,” says Gilligan, “we always have a houseful.”) Russo is a big supporter of budding local artists, snapping up pieces of their work at such benefit events as ARTcetera and the Museum School's sale: An oil painting of Crane Wildlife Refuge hangs in the upstairs hallway; an oil depicting a deer surrounded by flowers, in the living room; and a watercolor of Snoopy balancing on his doghouse, above the living room fireplace. Most, Russo admits, are unusual purchases: At first glance, the deer painting, for example, seems to be from the paint — by — number school. But on closer inspection, the piece gains depth and sophistication, evidence of Russo's experience in ferreting out overlooked treasures.
Russo treats himself to pieces by proven talent, too. One of his favorites is an etched self — portrait by Tokyo artist Yukiko Nakamura, who illustrates the labels on Russo's eponymous line of hair — care products. As a rule, the stylist asserts, “I don't buy artwork that has anything to do with hair.” But for this piece, in which the artist is pictured pulling a mohair sweater over her head, he couldn't resist: “There's such detail,” he says, affectionately tracing the pattern of the wool through the glass.
Another favorite is in the dining room, a wax — and — oil painting of four different — colored horizontal stripes done by the late Rob Moore, a painting professor at MassArt and a close friend of Russo's. So important to them is the painting that Russo and Gilligan had the entire room decorated to match it, right down to the striped cushions on the antique oak chairs. Offsetting the parallel lines of the painting, the floor was stained in two different tones in a diagonal checkerboard pattern. The antique oval dining table, another auction find, stands at an angle, allowing for easy passage into the kitchen through two different doorways. (During the decorating process, the kitchen remained untouched.) A painted wrought — iron chandelier, bejeweled with multicolored Murano glass fruit, dangles over the table. “I had to sell [Frank] on the idea; he said it was a bit much,” Russo recalls. In position, though, the chandelier is another perfect play on the traditional, mixing nicely with the antique table and buffet as well as the plaid couch in the corner.
Perhaps the most sentimental pieces in Russo's collection are not on paper or canvas, but folded up on a shelf in the toile guest bedroom. Years ago, his grandmother crocheted blankets out of bits of different — colored yarn, including a shade of red that seems to have been chosen to match the room. When the blankets are spread over the down — topped mattress (each bed has one), it's hard to imagine anything more comfy. Which, amid their design quibbles, is one thing Russo and Gilligan mutually worked toward throughout the process. “I wanted everyone to be cozy here,” Russo says. Judging by frequent visits from family and friends that keep the house humming like a B&B, he and Gilligan have succeeded. “We have a good return rate,” Russo says.