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Over the Welcome Mat

A sneak preview of Historic Garden Week in Virginia.


Being asked to open your house for Historic Garden Week in Virginia might be a lovely compliment, but it's also an invitation to terror and panic, Patti Ryan says, "because you immediately wonder why you said yes."

She's become acutely aware that the tour and its keen-eyed visitors can be a daunting prospect. The bar keeps rising on these amazing houses, a noted decorator says of the tour's high standards -- so when Ryan agreed to join this year's tour, she immediately launched into a 14-month job. The mission: lift her Westhampton four-square from frowsy to finished, hoping mostly to instill the warmth and happiness she wanted in a home regardless of who came to see it.

"I had just moved into this house. I had to map it out," she says. "I'm an organized thinker and knew what had to be done right away. Do I need a renovated bathroom because this one is condemned? Yes! And window treatments. The backyard was atrocious. I made lists of everything -- and slowly pulled it all together, working from the outside in."

She drew a garden plan that steps down from the house into a series of rooms for dining and lounging, screened by tall pots of inkberry hollies and flowering plants in purples and greens -- chives, lavender, chartreuse creeping Jenny.

Once that was planted, she painted the wraparound porch in shades of green with orange and cranberry accents that would be counterintuitive in a plainer world than hers -- but there are no neutrals here. "I like color because it gives me energy and makes me feel good," she says. "Nothing in this house matches, but the tones work together and it has just evolved."

It helps that Ryan is a decorative painter with a sophisticated eye and a fashionable aesthetic. Her prevailing tenderness also finds its way onto the surfaces that she paints; her touch has been called magical, her colors ethereal but not shy. Of all houses, hers could not be a passive place, or predictable -- the palette would be unorthodox, the patterns Morocco-meets-Matisse, and the plan decisive.

She painted all six first-floor rooms, and a few upstairs, on rainy weekends and stolen evenings for a year.

Ryan doesn't dwell much on the achy neck that comes from doing ceilings or the nagging ladder-knee from going up and down. She's more transfixed by the end result -- the lush layering of paints and stencils, the pulled-paper frottage, the Venetian plaster and other surface techniques that show the hand of the artist and change with the light of day.

"I'm always in awe of what paint can become -- something unusual and wonderful," she says. "People usually gasp when they see the house because they're not expecting it to look the way it does."

Part of the surprise comes from the massed appeal of Ryan's collections -- goblets and seltzer bottles, watering cans and pepper mills, and particularly the painted antiques, like the folk-art sideboard in the family room, a three-panel screen with a golden landscape, and a collection of floral still lifes marching up the stairway, primitive but exploding with color. Stripes and zebra prints, rugs and pillows all seem to laugh out loud.

Ryan's children, Ashley and Matthew, are as much an inspiration for the dramatic schemes as the artist's imaginative impulse. Color begins at the front door with a vivid pear green, and continues through a spectrum of greens, plums, golds and, in a small hallway, a brilliant orange lavished with gold stenciling.

While she was finessing her own house, Ryan also worked on the homes of her creative-minded clients, who enlisted her to paint rooms and then asked her to stay and rearrange them, hanging paintings and placing objects and furnishings in new configurations that "have a way of making you feel you've moved to another world," Dick Fowlkes says of her influence.

"I'm looking at my things in a new light," says landscape painter Karen Blair, whose house got an update alongside Ryan's. "She has a wonderful sense of balance, color and scale," she says -- factors that allow extra confidence in the face of risk and a willingness to go beyond tradition toward a look that's complex and uncharted.

As the flurry of tour-timetable projects began to tick down, Ryan found that her creativity-on-demand was not exhausting, but unexpectedly transforming. She discovered a passion for gardening, and her professional interests also flourished.

Besides decorative painting, she's officially adding the title micro-designer to her repertoire, meaning "someone who, instead of shopping in a store, shops in your home to find things that can be used and arranged in a different way," she explains. "Seeing your things with a fresh perspective."

She's motivated by a desire to make houses say something interesting about the people who live in them, in whatever style they prefer. Already a good number of her projects are sought-after for coverage in decorating magazines and for house tours -- a prospect for which she has particular sympathy, and no shortage of ideas to meet even the most daunting deadlines. S


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