Rooms with a view

Designer Darryl Savage pays respect to his river setting, but he doesn't let it do all the talking


Some interior designers think of neutrals as comfortable, safe and soothing. Darryl Savage uses them for drop-dead dramatic effect.

"I get tired of color," he says. "I love white. It's very crisp. You can always change things up by adding flowers or pillows. Or add a little bit of black for punch."

A decade ago, Savage's parents bought a small 1950s rancher on the Severn River to use as a weekend house. They couldn't have dreamed that when they sold it to their son after his divorce, he would transform the simple structure into a combination art gallery, stage set and rustic lake getaway.

Two years ago, the getaway became the year-round home for Savage and his two children, 11-year-old David and 20-year-old Julie. A collector and antiques dealer as well as an interior designer, he could surround himself with antiques in a setting that would show them off to greatest advantage. But the rancher would be more than just a show house.

"I had the luxury of living here first and then figuring out the approach," he says.

When you step inside the foyer, a huge abstract black-and-white oil painting covering one wall is your introduction to the Savage home. Then you are almost immediately in the great room, with its skylights and floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the river.

First you notice the water view, and then you notice the room itself, which is as it should be.

The great room exemplifies the distinctive style that brought Savage national attention. (He's won House Beautiful's "America's Ten Best Showhouse Rooms" award, and his designs have been featured in magazines such as Architectural Digest, Interior Design, Southern Accents and Town & Country.)

The great room is a dreamscape, a contemporary setting for carefully selected antiques, architectural pieces and garden ornamentation, where nature is as much at home as civilization.

It started, he says, with a can of white paint.

"The first thing I wanted to do was brighten the room up," Savage says. For him that meant painting almost everything white, beginning with the hardwood floors. He added a black Greek key design for contrast.

The designer wanted the great room to feel like a gallery of white objets d'art - the French marble statues that line the windows, giant shells, a pair of lidded urns from 18th-century Russia that he found in Palm Beach. An alabaster sculpture by his sister sits on a column pedestal.

The fin-de-siecle Venetian crystal chandelier that lights the room is a glittering counterpoint to the spareness of the clean-lined contemporary furniture in white leather, the glass coffee table and the delicate black-and-white neoclassical couch.

The same eclectic aesthetic is repeated elsewhere in the house, like the tiny powder room - minimalist, contemporary and all-white - where a 16th-century Italian portrait of a woman is the only decoration.

Filled with light

The open floor plan of the small rancher is light-filled and airy, and suggests that there is more room than there actually is, but there are disadvantages. For one thing, it means that the combination kitchen-dining room, only a few steps up from the great room, is completely visible.

"I haven't gotten around to the kitchen yet, but it works because it's white. I'm fortunate," Savage says with a laugh.

With the arrival of good weather, the designer has been concentrating instead on the small, screened porch off the main room where the family often eats. Last month he had the floor tiled in white, gray and black marble triangles. The porch overlooks the water and leads out to the deck.

If the great room is the home's art gallery, the 100-foot-wide deck - the rancher's second most spectacular "room" - is its playground. Running the length of the house, it's so large it couldn't be built under today's zoning restrictions, as Savage points out. The deck is a woodsy retreat, with a couple of large old trees growing up through the weathered boards.

The deck furniture includes 12 elaborately carved Renaissance-style stone chairs paired with contemporary white, French resin lounge chairs. Stone urns are filled with flowering begonias. A long flight of stairs, with a charming gazebo halfway along, leads down through the steep wooded hill to the dock. Savage, who has a bad knee, had a tram that seats four built next to the stairs to make the 80-foot descent (and ascent) easier.

Because the neighborhood is so wooded, privacy isn't much of an issue. The master bedroom with connecting bathroom, directly off the great room, has a similar wall of glass overlooking the river, and Savage took the draperies down because he likes the openness and light.

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