Designs for Living: Fabiola Martens Shares Her Secrets


Fabiola Martens does not do trends. That doesn’t mean she’s stuck in one look or period, but as with fashion, she believes “you have to integrate them thoughtfully.” This year’s hot colors (per Pantone anyway) or patterned wallpaper can bring light and life to a room, but they can also make it look dated a year from now. Her advice? Curate carefully.

Martens, who started out as a trial lawyer in Belgium, (“I loved the theatre of it!”) takes a lawyerly, methodical approach to her design work. Developing a relationship with clients–“getting into their skin”– is key to gaining a better understanding of their lifestyles, preferences, expectations and understanding of the design process. “I ask them to share photos of things they like. It doesn’t even have to be interiors, but it helps us get on the same aesthetic wavelength. It builds trust. And that makes decision making easier.”

Designer Fabiola Martens.

At the end of the day, she’s looking to create an environment where the homeowner feels comfortable, where they “look like they belong.” If it’s not authentic, it’s just a “decorated” stage set where they don’t feel welcome or able to take advantage of the space. Her guiding principle is always “make it livable and make it yours.”

The silent partner in this conversation is the house itself–its architecture, the lighting and overall setting. “Location really is everything. For example, people are in love with Tuscany, but it just doesn’t translate to DC. The lighting is all wrong. So we would look for a way to create the Tuscan feel but not necessarily with the exact Tuscan hues.”

There is one trend, however, that Martens thinks is here to stay: Work From Home. More and more of her clients (well, all of us) are looking for solutions that expand space without knocking down walls or doing extensive renovations. They need offices and places where kids can do their homework that are both private but still connected to the rest of the household.

A cool color palette and spare furnishings lend a zen-like vibe to this
Georgetown pied-a-terre. Courtesy Fabiola Martens Interior Design.

Many home furnishing options can be reconfigured to serve as a desk or workstation. Table- or counter-height console tables with attractive baskets or rolling carts are excellent choices and fit in anywhere. The point is, think creatively.

And rooms that might have been used only occasionally (e.g. the traditional formal den) can be smartly reincarnated as a school room or family room with furniture that does double duty for work and play

If you’re going the built-in route and are willing to take it on as a DIY project, Martens suggests speaking with a kitchen company (vs a closet company), which offers a broad variety of storage and cabinetry options that keep their looks over the long haul.

Finally, Martens tells clients to keep a sense of humor about the house and expect delays. Ultimately, it’s all about “the person with the hammer and the nail:” the furniture makers, millwork fabricators and all the other artisans involved in the creation of a home that is in the process of becoming uniquely yours.

Fabiola Martens Interior Design, 4910 Massachusetts Ave NW, (202) 450-4042,

A cool color palette and spare furnishings lend a zen-like vibe to this
Georgetown pied-a-terre. Courtesy Fabiola Martens Interior Design.



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