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'All American House' at Carroll Mansion showcases U.S.-made furnishings, student interior design

For The Baltimore Sun
With the help of student designers, Carroll Mansion show home highlights American-made furnishings.

A home where the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence once lived will be the venue for a project that aims to teach aspiring interior designers that whether they want trendy or traditional home furnishings, they will find plenty of choices right here in America.

The "All American House" exhibit, which opens Sunday at the Carroll Mansion on Lombard Street, features interior designs by area students who furnished three rooms and the mansion's entrance hall entirely with American-made items.

"It's awesome," Chelsea Jamerson, a Stevenson University student, said as she stood in the family room she and her classmates created. "I'm so excited."

Jamerson, a senior majoring in visual communications design, said she was particularly proud of the wallpaper she designed, made by Baltimore-based fabric manufacturer Rockland Industries. The pattern resembles white birds flying against a burnt-orange sky. "I just wanted a bold pattern," Jamerson said.

Before she started the project last fall, Jamerson said, she had no idea how many companies are making home furnishings in the United States. More than a dozen American manufacturers, including eight companies based in Maryland, loaned items for the show.

Generating excitement about American-made goods is one of the primary goals of the project, said James DeLorbe, chief executive officer of MADE: In America, a nonprofit organization that promotes American commerce and is collaborating with Carroll Museums on the exhibit.

"Students need to learn better how to connect with the home furnishings industry in the United States," he said.

At the Carroll Mansion, the goal was not to replicate the home as it would have looked when Charles Carroll of Carrollton lived there in the early 1800s, but to give the students inspiration in creating an American aesthetic, DeLorbe explained. "We challenge them to come up with a new look of American design within the context of an iconic American home," he said.

The result is not a show house, but a kind of laboratory in which the students applied what they learned about American design, he said.

The students started the project last fall by studying the history of the house, which was built in the early 1800s and was used for a variety of purposes after it passed out of the Carroll family. Over the years, the three-story house was a saloon, tenement house, vocational school and recreation center.

Despite changes over the years, the mansion remains one of the best examples of Federal architecture in Baltimore, allowing the students to understand the importance of scale and proportion, DeLorbe said. "It's something that's essential to good design," he said.

Students from the Community College of Baltimore County, Stevenson University, Morgan State University and the George Washington University contributed to the project. Besides studying the history of the house and life in early Baltimore, the students also visited showrooms and met with representatives from local companies to learn what American manufacturers have to offer.

"Doing programs like this helps to increase this awareness," said Justin Binnix, president of Niermann Weeks, a Millersville-based company that provided chairs, lamps, a mirror and a fire screen for the project. "It does push people to be conscious about where things are made."

The Carroll Mansion show is the second home design project MADE: In America has produced. The first, in 2013 at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, Va., was meant to boost American industries suffering from the recession.

"When we started the project, it was very difficult times for all industries in the United States, but especially the home furnishings industry," DeLorbe said.

When organizers started to plan the second site, they were looking to go beyond the Baltimore-Washington area, DeLorbe said.

But Paula Hankin, executive director of the Carroll Museums, put together a persuasive proposal, DeLorbe said. Not only were the mansion's rooms largely empty, but the house's urban location presented a contrast to the rural Woodlawn Plantation.

Hankin said she is excited by the opportunity to attract new visitors to the Carroll Mansion, which has struggled to redefine itself since the closing of the City Life Museums, of which the mansion was a part, in 1997. Aside from the student designers, students at the Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School have been devising business plans for the museum and some of the craftsmen who contributed items to the project.

After deciding upon the Carroll Mansion, DeLorbe invited local colleges with design programs to participate.

Students at the George Washington University in D.C. took on the challenge of the mansion's striking entry hall, which features a curving staircase and unusually shaped windows.

Nancy T. Evans, an assistant professor of interior architecture and design at George Washington, said the hallway was difficult because of its limitations. The students were not allowed to paint the dark wood railings or cover the marble floor. Their solution was to apply a faux finish to the walls below the chair rail, use mirrors to bring in more light, and place a mixture of contemporary and traditional art and furnishings in the room.

"We wanted to turn it in to a functioning museum that isn't old and stuffy," Evans said.

Margeaux Nanfeldt, a George Washington University junior studying interior architecture and design, said the small floor space of the hall entrance and landings was challenging, but she was pleased with the result. "I think it turned out really great," she said. "I'm most excited by the painting technique we used."

Students at Stevenson University approached the project as though they were designing the home for a modern Baltimore family, said their adviser, Lori Rubeling, a professor of art and visual communication design. "Our narrative was how the building represents the aspirations of a new country," she said.

The students furnished the family room with a leather-backed sofa, a wing-back chair, glass and metal tables, an antique reproduction desk and several paintings by local artists.

Students from CCBC designed the mansion's living room, which features large windows, a marble fireplace mantel and a crystal chandelier.

Laura Kimball, head of the interior design school at CCBC, said students started by trying to come up with a definition of what it means to be American. Drawing inspiration from quotes by a British philosopher and Marilyn Monroe, the team set out to capture a design that incorporated themes of contradiction, boldness and frivolity, she said.

They painted the walls of the room light gray and added dark gray trim. They selected furnishings that included white high-backed chairs, a glass-and-metal coffee table, gold embossed lamps and abstract art from local artist Kelly L. Walker.

The challenge of the assignment wasn't finding American-made products, but products that the students could borrow for a couple months, Kimball said. Many of the manufacturers make only custom items, so browsing through a catalog and ordering a particular piece wasn't always possible. "It became a negotiation of give and take … and not without surprises — lots of surprises," she said.

One of those surprises was the room's matching sofas. The students originally planned on cream-colored sofas to match the theme of grays and whites in the room. They settled for a light gray because it was what the manufacturer had. But when the sofas arrived, they were slate blue.

"We'll balance the color and we'll make it work," Kimball said. "That's part of the design challenge."

One of her students, Katie Gomprecht of Owings Mills, said the best part of the project was working with her classmates and top Maryland designers, who advised the students. "It's been a great collaborative opportunity," Gomprecht said.

Gomprecht said her personal design tastes tend more toward mid-20th century, but she was pleased to work on a project in a 19th-century home. "This is the chance to bring in things that are classic, but still of the moment," she said.

Another CCBC student, Laura Fitzpatrick of Catonsville, said she learned not only about American design, but the flexibility required to be a designer. "Plans change," she said. "You start with a plan and it evolves … just being able to shift gears and still make the design have integrity that's a valuable experience."

She said she also appreciated learning about the history of the Carroll family and what their life might have been like in the house. "We hope that we have translated that into the design and that it speaks to people when they're here, that they can feel the history but also the nod to the future," she said.

If you go

The "All American House" exhibit will be on display until July 10 at Carroll Mansion, 800 E. Lombard St. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10-$20.

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Maryland companies featured in "All American House"

Under the rules of the “All-American House,” all the furnishings must be made in the United States, but as it turned out, many of the items in the Carroll Mansion design project are made in Maryland.

James DeLorbe, chief executive officer of MADE: In America, which is collaborating with the Carroll Mansion on the exhibit, said he was surprised to learn how many Maryland companies and craftsmen were making home furnishings. With help from officials at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Carroll Mansion, he started to compile a list of Maryland sculptors, metal workers and furniture makers and invited them to join the project.

Justin Binnix, president of Millersville-based Niermann Weeks, said he hoped the project would raise awareness of American furniture manufacturing. “The greatest resources are closer than you think,” he said.

Maryland companies featured in the “All-American House” are:

  • C.W. Robertson Traditional Cabinetmakers. Parkton craftsman Chris Robertson specializes in built-in cabinets and American reproduction furniture.
  • Emmanuel Nicolaidis. The Baltimore furniture and cabinet maker creates custom-designed furnishings ranging from doors and shelves to dining room tables and bed frames.
  • McLain Wiesand. The artists and craftsmen at the Baltimore company work with a variety of materials to create mirrors, tables, beds, cabinets, light fixtures and murals.
  • Niermann Weeks. The Annapolis-based company makes a variety of home furnishings, including light fixtures, tables, cabinets and mirrors.
  • Rockland Industries. Founded in 1832, the Baltimore company secured its place in furnishing history by developing a fabric that blocks out light. Although the company still sells blackout draperies to major hotel chains, it also makes fabrics used for bedding, crafts and sewing.
  • Salvations Architectural Furnishings. Based in Silver Spring, the company creates iron furnishings and accessories, including tables, drapery hardware and fire screens.
  • Vicco Von Voss. The Chestertown woodworker makes tables, chairs, cabinets and public art as well as timber framing.
  • Beachley Furniture Co. Begun in Hagerstown in 1887, the company makes chairs, tables and benches for home and commercial use.
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