Someplace Dark & Cozy

Interview with Adam Mahr for
The Washington Post's At Home magazine
By Stephanie Cavanaugh

One could get at once green with envy and enervated just listening to Adam Mahr’s annual globe trotting schedule. He spends summer and fall weekends in the Hamptons or the New York apartment he shares with his partner; winter weekends on his 100 foot yacht moored at a club in Naples, Florida; takes four buying trips each year to Paris, the south of France, and Italy; plus here a jaunt to the England, there a fling with the Far East.

A lot of pleasure, a lot of business. Mahr, owner of A Mano, the design shop with the fluttery black and white awnings in upper Georgetown (and a second branch in Naples), is constantly searching out new vendors, poking about the flea markets and antique shops of the world, checking out gift shows, and visiting factories in Italy and France that produce his gloriously colored china, “the largest selection of French and Italian pottery on the East Coast,” he says.

His home couldn’t be less like his jewel box of a shop where fragile is a byword and the colors fairly vibrate: shocking pink, chartreuse, lemon yellow, bitter orange. “All of the stuff we do is bright, fun,” says Mahr. “It conveys the passion we have for the business.” The shop’s style is posh preppy, but with a keen sense of humor, and an exotic tang; just over the top enough to leave you grinning. Like Oscar Wilde equipping himself for winter in Palm Beach.

When Mahr kicks back in Washington it’s to a surprisingly cozy, flop-anywhere-and-put- your-feet-up1920’s brick house in Wesley Heights, about a ten minute drive from Georgetown. An artful mix of the haute and not that he shares with a jealous little mutt named Millie who resembles a cocker spaniel crossed with a dust mop.

Ask him what attracted him to the place when he bought it five years ago and he says, without hesitation, “curb appeal.” Now, even if you were standing on your head with your eyes crossed you’d be hard pressed to describe the house as more than pleasant and unassuming, not unlike so many other modest brick houses in the neighborhood. Its most mouthwatering aspect is its proximity to Balducci’s market a few blocks away, which might be the appealing curb he’s referring to.

“This is the antithesis of where I grew up,” he says, by way of explanation. His parents’ home in the suburbs of Baltimore was glacially modern; “all glass and wood, and furnished that way too. Fortunately we lived in the woods so there wasn’t anyone peering in on us,” he recalls with a laugh. “I couldn’t wait to get out of that house and go into something old and something dark and something cozy. This is more the way my grandparents lived.”

Echoes of his grandparents are liberally sprinkled about the rooms along with finds from his travels and trash day treasures. Mahr doesn’t hesitate to combine fine antiques and furnishings with the frankly cheap or found object—a pair of whimsical chairs in the living room were rescued from an alley off Massachusetts Avenue and re-covered, “They’re the thing in my house everybody loves,” laughs Mahr.

“It’s kind of a hodge podge…like Out of Africa meets China,” he says of his living room. The squooshy sofa and chair were picked up at August George and custom upholstered, the handsome secretary in the corner was his grandfather’s, twin coffee tables balanced on faux elephant tusks are from New York, a pair of silvery Balinese dancers, found on a recent trip to Bankok, sit on a chest from a flea market in the South of France, the chrome yellow vases on the mantel are from Crate and Barrel, a magnificent Chinese ancestral portrait was bought in Macao, and the zebra rug sprawled across the sea grass carpet…did he shoot it himself? “Yes,” he says, perfectly deadpan. “On Wisconsin Avenue.”

When he bought the place five years ago it was “White, white, white. It didn’t have any warmth. As you can see I lake dark colors,” he says, hand tripping around the living room at the chocolate brown walls and ripe persimmon drapes.

All of the paint throughout the house has a satin finish for a very low luster. “It cleans up easily if you spill something,” says Mahr. “Flat just shows every mark. And I move furniture around a lot. If I see something in the store I like I bring it home and live with it for a while.”

Mahr’s art collection dictated the colors throughout the house. Against the living room walls is a moody abstract painting of a forest and purple mountains by Wolf Kahn. “The walls have enough purple in them that they almost get a little eggplant,” he says. “It is chocolate but sometimes…it’s not.”

Like most of his art, the painting is spotted with a museum light, “Especially since all my walls are dark, when lights are on it makes all the difference,” he says. “It sets the mood.”

And like all of his art, it is beautifully framed. “Even when I don’t pay a lot for artwork, I spend on framing,” he says. “The Chinese ancestor in the living room? I paid nothing for it, but a fortune for the framing. It’s kind of like shoes. You can tell the difference between cheap shoes and cheap frames. And also if you have good art you want to make sure it’s treated properly.”

Library patterned paper revs the walls of the dining room, which is centered on an old ship’s hatch that belonged to a great aunt and serves as his dining table. He can entertain twelve with the addition of a second top stored behind the massive bibliotech he hauled back from the Paris Flea Market, along with the gigantic mirror that seemingly doubles the size of the room.

The library patterned paper continues along one wall of the butler’s pantry that leads to the kitchen and serves as his bar. The opposite wall, with its glass fronted cabinets and small sink , was original to the house, though the shabby cabinets were spruced up with a kicky shot of red paint and new catches and latches from Restoration Hardware. Glittering crystal is displayed on glass shelves.

Hidden between the book spines on the opposite wall is the powder room door. “I love secret spaces,” says Mahr. “This had been a bathroom. All I did was get rid of the molding and wallpaper it.”

For a man who exclaims, “I love, love, love to cook! That’s my hobby!” the kitchen is, shall we say, tight. Two chefs would butt butts in the neatly equipped galley, with its honed soapstone counters and four-burner Viking range. “I’m more comfortable with a small kitchen. Everything is easy,” he says.

Though the cabinets look vintage 1920’s, only one original door remains, the rest were custom built. The ceiling-height glass-fronted upper cabinets match those in the bar and display his collection of dishes. “Obviously, I have a few sets,” he says with an immodest grin. Menus from favorite restaurants from around the world deck the walls.

Mediterranean-style cooking is, he says, his specialty, “Things that don’t require a precise recipe—I cook by taste: cioppino, pasta, sauces from scratch. I do an incredible lobster bake with clams, corn, shrimp….” When it’s suggested that a lobster bake sounds awfully Maine, he shrugs, “Add a little Pernod and it becomes Mediterranean.”

His entertaining style is casual, usually a buffet, with a gleeful mix of plate patterns, linens and glassware. “It’s nice to give everyone a different glass,” he says. “You can tell which drink is which.” In fair weather he might set three or four round tables on the terrace that runs along the back of the house. The portico and the view out over neighboring gardens provide “a little touch of the south of France.”

Upstairs, dark tropical furnishings meet vividly tropical colors. Three bedrooms painted pistachio, plum, and tomato red. What could be a titanic color clash (unless you’re a parrot) achieves harmony by incorporating each of the shades in each of the rooms “so it flows,” he says.

The brilliantly red master bedroom, (“There’s something very romantic and passionate about red,” he says) combines green and purple in the paisley bedspread. Purple and red dominate the oriental rug on the floor of the green guest room. Paintings in the purple office jolt with red and green.

As with downstairs, the furniture is a mix of the new and the old, the costly and the downright cheap. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money,” he insists. The bedroom lamps are from Crate and Barrel, nothing you’d shudder over if the dog got a little rambunctious. And the fabrics used to re-cover so many of his finds come from G Street Remnants. “I used to buy fabric for $70, $80, $100 a yard,” he says. “You can go to G Street and get the same thing. Maybe it’s a season old but…” he shrugs, implying, who cares?

Mahr will be off again shortly, visiting with craftsmen in Italy and France, scavenging the Paris flea, taking in the gift shows, preparing for the holiday season. In January he’ll head for Florida to live aboard his yacht while spending some quality time at his second A Mano in Naples’ elegant Olde Towne.

He’s put together a nice life for himself, yes?

“Not bad,” he says with a grin. “Not bad at all.”

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