The physical structure of the Washington Design Center demands attention and respect in the Capitol Hill landscape the same way a bright red couch would demand it in the middle of a neutral-toned living room. Large and imposing, the massive building hosts 50 showrooms of interior design overload. Make no mistake; this isn’t a visit to IKEA. No particleboard bookshelves loaded with 200 copies of the same cookbook can be found in these walls. The rooms are designed by the best interior decorators in the D.C. area with only the best resources.
Started nearly 30 years ago and formerly a piece of the Kennedy family’s property portfolio, the center is meant to encapsulate everything Washington designers and design-o-philes need for inspiration. Visitors can tour the rooms and choose items smorgasbord-style, or they can pinpoint their ideal aesthetic and corresponding dream designer in the center’s massive rolodex.
In 2002, the center established the designer “Hall of Fame” as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. The center’s committee chooses professionals who have made a significant impact on D.C. design to be immortalized in the growing list of names. Membership in the “Hall” comes with priceless perks such as collaboration with other designers on center projects, participation in outreach programs for the community and the chance to design the center’s ever-changing entrance lobby.
Every nine months or so, the center chooses a name from the “Hall” to bring a fresh face to the building’s entrance. Much like the front window displays at Barney’s New York, the finished product is a signature for the chosen designer, a hallmark of their creative vision, condensed into a single square space. Both an honor and a challenge, the task is not one to be taken lightly.
Currently showing off their signatures to entering visitors are Jose Solis Betancourt and Paul Morgan Sherrill of Solis Betancourt & Sherrill. Betancourt is the founder of Solis Betancourt, Inc. and Sherrill, his partner, joined the company in 1992. With a portfolio boasting such names as Architectural Digest, House & Garden, House Beautiful, Southern Accents, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine and HGTV, the pair has plenty of experience and skill to pull off a perfectly designed room. The challenge was combining both of their visions—modern yet accessible—into a welcoming and current presentation.
“Lobbies can be so cold sometimes,” remarked Betancourt. “We really wanted to make this warm and inviting.”
“The lighting can get harsh in building lobbies,” agreed Sherrill. “With all the people coming through, it was important that we created a relatable environment.”
The two men might share a basic direction in design, but their beginnings are quite different. Betancourt grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, immediately latching onto art and spending his childhood days drawing and painting. His professional life pulled him between New York and D.C. several times before finally landing him here for good. Starting at the architecture program at Cornell University, he left New York in 1990 to work at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in D.C., but later returned to New York for a position at The Saladino Group. “I still go back and forth quite a lot,” he says. “There are many more resources, design-wise, in New York. But I’m learning how to find my way around the D.C. design community a lot better, especially in Georgetown.”
Merrill, a product of the South, grew up with artistic grandparents, who he says served as his inspiration to study art. He joined the design program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and graduated with a degree in art before moving to D.C. in 1992 to work with Betancourt. Also familiar with the resources in other cities like New York, Merrill is able to see the developing trends in Washington when compared to surrounding communities. “It’s becoming a lot more contemporary in D.C. lately,” he says. “And this is just compared to 20 years ago.”
Merrill and Betancourt applied that taste for modern furnishings when beginning their lobby project. The first thing Merrill says he noticed was the shape of the room, which apparently lent itself to a very structured design. “They’ve been doing this Hall of Fame designer showcase in the lobby for a few years now, I guess. And I always noticed that a number of the designers did a rigid design, focused mostly on architecture. I don’t necessarily agree with that.”
They decided to give the room a hint of drama, with loud, dynamic textures, sweeping, swagging draperies and a sensual color palette that felt very “now.”
“When you first enter the space, there is this existing niche in the wall,” says Merrill. “We painted that a rich mahogany color to give it that strong, important axis.”
Next, they focused on the somewhat intimidating height of the room. “It’s two stories high,” he says. “We did some really elegant draping to add drama and placed some lighter elements in front of it so you can see the silhouettes.”
“What we really wanted was a strong focal point,” says Betancourt. “And we created that by being very purposeful with our colors.”
Specifically, they utilized rich, saturated earth tones. The camels mixed with the dark wood shades simultaneously convey strength and elegance, giving the room a double dynamic: passionate yet logical, irresistible and smart, warm and powerful. The chosen chandelier is also a perfect example of this dual accomplishment, being both sculptural and classic.
Also arranged with precision and purpose is the furniture. “We wanted to express symmetry and balance, so we put the sofa at a diagonal angle,” says Betancourt. “It’s almost a circular arrangement so that breaks up the rigid feel of the room.”
“The rugs are important to that feel, too,” says Merrill. “We layered some of them on top of each other and it looks really interesting.”
As they finished up their project, Merrill and Betancourt were able to enjoy a practice reaction from the design center employees before the room was presented to the public. “I think they all really enjoyed it,” says Betancourt. “They all said that they found the drama of the draperies and color palette very pleasing to the eye. But what was most satisfying to hear was that they felt they could relate to the room and the pieces in it.”
“That’s what we were going for,” says Merrill. “Something graphic but sophisticated, something that straddled the line between modern and elegant. That balance is so important to respect, especially when dealing with public spaces.”