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A Mother's Touch



Brittney Van Deusen grew up in a house so filled with fabrics and colors and collections that she inherited more than just the family furniture: She got an eyeful of decorating confidence from a fearless mother, Marla Wheat, whose unconventional houses were always open to tours and parties and the ogling of others. "I grew up surrounded by an aesthetically exciting environment," Van Deusen says, "and I've learned that feathering the nest is supposed to be fun, the greatest pleasure."

So it wasn't daunting when Britt and her husband, attorney Mark Van Deusen, agreed to open their Seminary Avenue house for this month's Historic Garden Week in Virginia tour -- her family home in Gloucester had been on the tour twice, and she understood the drill. All the polishing and fluffing is a bit like getting ready for a party, and the event was impetus to complete some of the details that lingered in her idea file.

She got to work painting a scrolling, paisley-patterned border along the front hall's wainscoting, sewing umpteen yards of fabric into draperies and tweaking every room of the spacious 1915 Federal-style house. "I can't help but create," she says, surrounded by quilts and paintings in a project-filled studio bursting with visual inspiration points.

The house she has decorated is a casual, contemporary take on the family trademarks — bold color, big patterns and an eclectic mix of old with new. "I enjoy the struggle between classic and modern. When you have tension, you have interest," she says, sounding like the art teacher and William and Mary-trained painter that she is. That academic background and her mother's example helped her zero in on palettes to inspire decorative schemes — she's used van Gogh and Cassatt paintings as starting points for two rooms. "If it goes together well in a painting, it goes well in your home," she says of color combinations she has adopted.

The pow factor of her house begins just past the wide front porch. "I wanted something shocking when you first walk in,"  she says. "It's such a large space, I wanted to have something to focus on. This is not the typical front hall. I'm totally inspired by Dorothy Draper with the glossy white molding, the large scale and the bright colors." Her painted wall design runs past a piano and a prized Eames screen, a wavy wooden original that Van Deusen discovered at a church bazaar as a child. And while her mother admits to being horrified by that first purchase, she's now an admirer of the piece — and aware that daughters can teach mothers a few tricks too.

Because Van Deusen enjoys immortalizing her friends on canvas, vivid portraits of eight women are clustered on one wall in the red dining room. "In 2005, I painted most of my really close girlfriends — they would each come over, we'd drink wine. It fed my soul and got me back in touch with the artist in me," she says. Those friends are frequent dinner guests in "their" room, where Van Deusen sets the inherited table with mismatched-by-choice china patterns. Her close friend Elizabeth Cram, who runs a new floral business called Eliza's Garden, sometimes provides flowers, choosing dramatic colors and shapes to complement the room's gregarious personality.

Not surprisingly, guests also flock to the kitchen, a stunning renovation completed by previous owners and newly decorated in striped French Souleiado fabric, still-life paintings and unexpected accents. Van Deusen gave a decorative paint finish to the walls,  seven coats of an orangey harlequin design that continues the flow of saturated color and youthful energy from room to room.

In the living room/library, she raised the stature of built-in bookcases by painting the insides black and adding sweeping drapery panels to soften the lines and partially obscure the books and treasures within.  A television hides behind a folding screen. The room's Old World Venetian-gold paint finish came naturally: "I was trying to figure out ways to make the room cozy because we're avid readers and spend a lot of time in here," she says. An extra-long sofa anchors the space, emphasizing the generous proportions of the room and the couple's overriding desire for comfort and livability.

Across the hall, Mark Van Deusen's study is painted blackish green to impart a traditionally masculine tone ("I asked him to trust me on the color," Britt says); the room's strong presence is accentuated by a Lee Baskerville painting of boats that hangs above the fireplace.

Though tour-goers won't see the upstairs, each bedroom is attentively decorated with textiles, paintings and an assortment of old and new furnishings that give a sense of history without stuffiness. Contrasts are key.   "I love the red draperies in the guest room juxtaposed against the pale blue walls," Van Deusen says, "because you'd expect to see something pale in here, but the red velvet is luxurious and warm."

It's no secret that her mother's favorite color is red and that all three women in the family (including older sister Courtney) have homes with red dining rooms and sprinklings of red accents. "Red is joy personified," Marla Wheat says, "and always a favorite because it's got a lot of life in it."

Red is Van Deusen's favorite color too, along with pinks,  golds and

oranges. But she scaled back the pigment in one particularly important room, the nursery.  The Van Deusens' toddler daughter, Marla — named after her decorating-savvy grandmother — gets a customized dose of girlishness in a bedroom lavished with fabric and antiques and sentimental flourishes. French lace tablecloths hang as panels at the windows, and a green sofa from Van Deusen's childhood anchors the room.

"Growing up as my mother's daugh-ter,"   Van Deusen says, "my goal is to be constantly engaged in the act of creation around my own daughter. That was a huge influence on me.  I don't remember a day when my mother wasn't working on some creative pursuit, whether it be decorating her house, sewing her own clothes and mine, or creating beautiful, one-of-a-kind, ribbon-covered frames to sell through Neiman-Marcus — her side gig when she was a stay-at-home mom.

"My mother never demanded that I join her in these pursuits, but the fact that she was always doing something creative really seeped into my view of my own life. Hopefully, my daughter will watch me and be influenced in the same way."


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