Boston Home: Urban Renewal

How do you convert a tiny 600-square- foot South End condominium into an airy pied-à-terre? First, you hire a very good interior designer. Then, you give him free rein. Kyle Kuvalanka, an associate director at a biotechnology company in Cambridge, and his partner, Jeff Sobell, a Chestnut Hill dermatologist, bought a one-bedroom apartment on Clarendon Street (they also own a house in Gloucester) and placed their trust in designer Charles Spada, whose clean, unfettered architectural style had earned him a spot on House Beautiful's annual list of favorite designers for three years in a row. “The first time Charles came into the apartment, within 20 minutes he drew out a scheme for how the place would look,” says Kuvalanka. “It was amazing.”

Spada was equally impressed with his clients. “Kyle and Jeff had an instant grasp of the scope of the work,” Spada says. “As a designer, you can become a psychiatrist, a handholder. It's very refreshing when you have clients you're not playing tug of war with. It's not that I mind listening to people's problems, but that's not what I'm there for. I'm there to make their homes beautiful.”

The end result is a thing of beauty. The low banquette-style sofa was made to measure for the living room's east wall (in fact, much of the apartment's furniture was custom-designed to fit the space). A large Regency-style mirror hanging opposite the south-facing windows reflects light and adds a sense of depth to the space. Twin circular convex mirrors on the east and west walls provide fish-eye panoramas of the entire room.

In the southeast corner behind the sofa, Spada constructed a three-panel screen of loosely woven burlap to hide the air-conditioning wall unit. “The burlap fabric conceals but also lets air through,” Spada says. The natural color and texture of the fabric complements the clam-colored palette of the living room furniture and rustic garden urn. Two small 18th-century French chairs with antique leather upholstery contrast with the silk damask pillows on the lush ecru chenille banquette.

To delineate the dining from the living area, Spada crafted a pair of floor-to-ceiling Tuscan columns. The towering twosome works well within the confines of the room: The bases of the dining and side tables repeat the fluted detail of the columns, while the early 19th-century French lighting and accessories help accentuate the Empire theme.

Being able to visualize a room beyond its 12-by-14 borders is Spada's specialty. “At first, this was a nothing apartment,” he says. “It had Home Depot-quality trim and moldings. We stripped the cheap trim, ripped up the floor, gutted the bathroom — nothing was left untouched.” In its place, Spada created a world of elegant possibilities. “We made the floors very dark so everything else seems to float. The walls and the ceiling were painted in the same shade of white to create an illusion of space.”

Spada also removed the moldings around the ceiling. “If you look up the wall to a ceiling with clean unbroken lines, all in the same finish, it's almost as if the wall disappears. Your eye just continues to move up so you don't feel like you're in an enclosed area.” Deconstruction is an art this designer mastered at an early age. Sitting in his loft near Boston's Fort Point Channel — a sunny slice of serenity despite its proximity to the Big Dig — he recalls his earliest attempts to transform his childhood home.

“My mother had wallpapered the kitchen with typical kitchen wallpaper,” Spada recalls — bright yellow background festooned with floating teapots, 1960s kitsch. “I remember sitting in school one day thinking, The kitchen would look so much better without the wallpaper. So I went home and completely stripped the walls. When my mother saw it, she said, 'My God, what did you do?'” Spada was only 13.

After an unfortunate incident involving a china cabinet (“I decided it was passé, so I hauled that thing on my back down the cellar stairs. My mother was appalled.”), the lady of the house finally laid down the law. “My mother said, 'When you get your own home, you do what you want, but this is my house.' I guess I always had an urge to follow my creative instincts,” Spada says — “regardless of whether the house belonged to me.”

Spada never lost his desire to redo, remodel, and rearrange. In the bedroom, he fit the large windows with plantation shutters instead of typical venetian blinds, and he bathed the headboard in a beige silk-linen fabric. A white early 19th-century Swedish chest was selected blend into the background, and the bedside tables were mounted onto the wall. In the bathroom, Spada designed column stands to serve as a medicine cabinet, hiding toothbrushes and other toiletries from view. “When I first saw Charles's work in New York, I was blown away,” says Kuvalanka. “He knew exactly how to accentuate the impressiveness of a space. Everything was so dramatic but at the same time clean and soothing.”

Kuvalanka was also inspired by Spada's affinity for the neoclassic. “I was traveling a lot during the project so I started to search flea markets for interesting pieces. With Charles's coaching, I was fortunate enough to pick up a lot of Greek and Roman statue drawings.” These drawings are now scattered throughout the rooms.

But the apartment's best asset is its terrace, a 20-by-5-foot jewel tucked away from the bustle of the street. There, Spada placed an 18th-century French wrought-iron campaign chair neatly in the corner. “These types of chairs were developed for officers during the Napoleonic Wars,” says Kuvalanka. “They were chairs and beds and recliners all in one.” On warm summer nights, the couple enjoys sitting outside with a bottle of wine, a loaf of crusty French bread, and a round of cheese. “It's so nice to be in the city and outside but also sort of hidden. You really feel like you're in the country.”

When the New England weather inevitably chases them indoors, the dining room becomes their refuge. The two often host dinner parties around the Missouri limestone round table (hand-edged by an Italian craftsman on the North Shore). And the best seats in the house are the mahogany chairs signed by hand and dated by an American master cabinetmaker from the early 1800s.

After enduring more than a year of construction, the cookie-cutter condominium's transformation to elegant pied-à-terre (literally, “foot to the ground”) was complete. “It was a long process. But now that everything is so customized, we really can't imagine not living here,” says Kuvalanka. And that is exactly the point, says Spada. Designing a house,” he says, “is like creating a picture. The process is very personal.” So personal, in fact, that the designer himself has become attached to the place. “This is one of the few apartments that I would love to have as my own.”