It's a funny thing about good design: The better it gets, the more it seems almost to disappear.
And so it is with this house in northern Baltimore County. As you approach it you don't wonder who the architect was. You don't ask who designed the landscaping. Inside you don't even notice the mark of an interior designer.
You just think how lovely and calm and peaceful it all seems on this beautiful May afternoon -- calm, that is, until the dogs start wrestling with each other and a disembodied voice begins calling, "Bubba . . . Bubba . . . Bubba."
"This is Bubba," the owner says, walking into the kitchen past a large green parrot in a cage. "Bubba just entered the picture. I think when my children went away to college and left home I added Bubba for confusion. For the constant noise."
The owners do not wish to be identified either by name or by description. It is enough to say they are a married couple with four children, two Labrador retrievers, two West Highland terriers and of course, Bubba, the parrot.
And because the lady of the house is our guide this afternoon, it is her perspective, that of an avid gardener and the designer of most of the landscaping, that we hear.
They have lived here for five years, a fact that is remarkable only when you hear the list of things they have added: brick terraces and walkways that wrap around three sides of the house, the pool, the trellises, the entrance yard, a building that is garage plus garden shed plus guest house, the curving driveway, and most of the landscaping, including a perennial garden, a woodland shade garden, boxwood hedges and the vegetable garden.
And yet it all fits together so seamlessly, you are unaware of any recent change, much less of designers wanting to leave their mark. It seems more like one of those English houses that have been in the same family for many years, the project of generation after generation with an innate sense of style and a deep love of gardening.
"We moved here from the city five years ago. And I like to garden. It's as simple as that," she says, looking slightly uncomfortable about having to define their very private lives.
"The gardens around the house are an extension of the living area," she continues. "I grew up in Southern California where all your gardens were a part of your living area. Houses are built around patios, or lanais, they call them. So that you open onto a garden no matter what room you're in. Maybe that is one reason why we have so many gardens."
Each part of the house, in fact, opens onto a different brick terrace with outdoor furniture -- some iron, some carved redwood stained gray. These terraces, she explains, help to make the house seem larger.
"With four children, it's just nice to have an extended house during the spring, summer and fall."
The house is Dutch colonial in style, painted by the former owners a soft sage green with white shutters and black trim. When the present owners moved in they hired an architect, Arthur D. Valk, to make some minor changes.
Because Dutch colonial houses can look boxy, he extended the look of the house by adding a white fence with an archway to one side of the house and by adding an overhead trellis extending out from the kitchen door.
The kitchen itself was completely redesigned, also by Mr. Valk, and a small addition -- just 4 1/2 feet across the end of the room -- enabled him to add a skylight, storage and a small area for a table and chairs.
"The big difference is the light," she says. "The skylight has just changed it immensely. The room has a northern exposure and it was very dark, but now the skylight makes it a very cheerful room."
They then turned to the basement as a way to expand their living space. They turned it into a small office area and larger family room with a pool table and wet bar at one end and a seating area around the television at the other.
Family photographs line the walls of the stairs, continue around the walls of the office and into the large family room beyond.
The furnishings in the house are traditional, leaning toward the English country style with flowered chintzes and plaids and warm polished wood. Some of the furniture was inherited, other pieces were obtained from cousins who have an antiques business in Kennett Square, Pa.
Kathryn Rienhoff of Kathryn Rienhoff Interiors Ltd. in Ruxton picked out the printed chintzes for the upholstered pieces plus curtains and wallpaper.
There are touches of whimsy throughout. In the den a family of iron pigs sits under an antique library table. "I started collecting these pigs 18 years ago with one of the little ones. They're from England. I got them in Charleston, South Carolina. Then over a period of 15 to 18 years we got one every time we went down to Charleston. And then Papa Pig I got here in Baltimore. They put wax paste on these.
"They are heavy," she says hefting up one of the small ones. "You can't move Papa."