Interior designer Alexander Baer weaves a thread through his new home in Guilford. And the thread is gold. Each room has just the right gold touch to add a subtle exclamation point to a classic design scheme. Rich in dark woods, elegant fabrics, antiques, contemporary art and gold highlights, the interior beautifully complements the gracious French-inspired town residence, which was designed by Laurence Hall Fowler in the 1920s.
"I really think if you went through my house you would find a little bit of gilding or gold leaf in every room, even the kitchen," says Mr. Baer. "I believe gilding punctuates rooms. And when pieces are highlighted with just a little bit of gilt, it really brings them out and gives them a bit of a sparkle. In a relatively dark room, gilt on chairs or tables gives relief to the woods and the fabrics."
The library, tucked behind the foyer, is an elegantly comfortable room, with a design plan keyed to deep colors and wood tones. It contains a Lawson traditional sofa covered in a rich paisley of gold and burgundy, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcases and 80-year-old draperies in gold and olive-gray silk. The walls are papered in a gold medallion print on an olive-green background.
Into this dramatic decor, Mr. Baer has introduced furniture that hints of former golden glory. Two 18th-century French fauteuil chairs, covered in a rep-weave stripe of rusty-beige, anchor a lacquered Chinese table. The delicate frames of the chairs were once gilded in heavy gold leaf, but now the wood has taken on a soft, whitish patina, worn away in some places to expose the red bole underneath.
On an opposite wall is a late 1800s demi-lune table, painted greenish-blue and decoratively gilded. The gold shows the effects of more than a century of service. But Mr. Baer makes no attempt to regild his antiques. Instead, he usually has the wood cleaned and occasionally the gold leaf touched up.
"Gilding probably gets prettier as it gets older," says the designer. "As it oxidizes, through waxing, with people touching it, it just creates a wonderful luster. I don't like newly gilded things that are real shiny and intense. I love the look of worn gold."
"Gilded objects are like jewelry," he continues. "When you buy gold jewelry or even silver for the table, it is very shiny and unscratched. Over the years, as it gets more and more scratches, it develops a wonderful patina. The same is true with gilding."
To find gilded antiques, Mr. Baer often shops private estate auctions. If he were going out locally to buy a gilded piece, he says he would start with Howard Street antique shops like Amos Judd and Son, Cross Keys Antiques or the French Connection. "E. J. Grants at Savage Mills has some marvelous things," he adds. "They buy with a wonderful eye and they not only have old things, they have some wonderful new things that are made today from old woods."
Most of the gilded objects in Mr. Baer's home are antiques; and the living room, which reflects what he calls a fabric color base of "bronzy-gold," displays much of his collection. A set of four early 19th century Italian side chairs with cane seats and backs arranged around an English tilt-top breakfast table are the central focal point of the room. The chairs were once heavily gilded, but now much of the gold has slipped away. Yet, when light hits their frames, a distinct golden luster warms the wood.
The burnished pieces with the most shine in the living room are two new neoclassical chairs styled with an Egyptian motif, an appropriate choice since Egyptian artisans embellished furniture and mummy cases with gold leaf thousands of years ago. Mr. Baer believes the more visible areas of the arms and legs, which resemble lion paws, are gilded with 24-karat gold while less prominently displayed spaces are covered in a less precious gold.
Although the original seats probably had a boxed cushion of some sort, Mr. Baer uses overstuffed pillows in an Italian contemporary maroon cotton, silk-screened with a gold design, and decorated with Scalamandre custom-made tassel sets. The most unusual gilded pieces are two Regency console tables that flank a large window. Each of the half-round marble-topped tables is supported by just one leg, designed as a massive lion head.
Sometimes, a piece has gilding in less obvious places. Sitting in front of the black marble fireplace is a table made from coromandel, a rare Indian wood. Although the wood resembles rosewood, the table didn't quite satisfy Mr. Baer. "I decided it needed a little bit of definition," says the designer, "so that the wood would become important. What I did was to have a bank of gold leaf added." The thin strip of gilding goes completely around the circumference of the table, adding depth and distinction to the hardwood.