Artist and muralist Pat O'Brien confronts a bare room as she would an engineering project. She takes measurements, makes scale drawings, and plans precisely the colors, fabrics and furnishings she will employ.
It all makes perfect sense for the former electrical engineer who used to design systems for military aircraft when she worked at AAI Corp. in Cockeysville.
O'Brien's artistic talent will be on display at the Baltimore Symphony Associates decorators' show house, which opens Sunday, April 29.
Hers will be the first interior space visitors encounter as they tour the Eck House in Baltimore County's Cromwell Valley Park. O'Brien has transformed the entry and upstairs hallway with soothing beige walls accented by hand-painted paisley designs and bright acrylic paintings of Baltimore street scenes.
While some designers change paint colors and swap furniture at will, O'Brien says she must plot each detail before she dabs on the first drop of paint. Standing in the nearly finished hallway, she has trouble remembering even one detail that departed from her original concept.
O'Brien is participating in the BSO show house for the ninth time. "She is a great person to fill in on stairways and hallways and places where she can display a lot of artwork," says Libby Younglove, co-chairwoman of this year's event.
This year's show house is a typical 1970s Colonial that county officials plan to use as a meeting space in the future. While it's not as large or as grand as houses in past years, organizers hope visitors find the home more approachable.
"People say they feel as though this is something they can identify with," Younglove says. "It's a home you could live in and would want to live in."
The house includes 18 design spaces indoors and out, in styles ranging from contemporary to classic.
The kitchen has been outfitted for catering and incorporates reclaimed wood in the backsplash and center work island. The dining room features rustic wood planks as paneling, providing stark contrast to pink frills that accentuate the room. The upstairs master bedroom has a sea motif and a palette of blues. Another room features a humorous take on the famous picture of dogs playing poker.
For her design in the foyer and hallway, O'Brien says she drew inspiration from the woods and fields that surround the house. She mixes elegant and rough elements, such a crystal lamp juxtaposed with a metal sculpture and dark wooden floors offset by crisp, white moldings.
"There is a lot of me in this house," she says. "I'm more of a country girl."
O'Brien studied engineering at Pennsylvania State University and worked at AAI until leaving to raise her four sons. O'Brien says she always liked drawing and painting, and found being an artist gave her greater flexibility to take care of her family.
The Cockesyville resident especially likes to work with hallways, which tend to be bare spaces where she can display her art. She works in various media — acrylics, oil, mosaics, metal — and she displays some of each in this year's show house in a space she calls "Shades of Latte."
She points to a coffee cup on a table and says jokingly, "It could be from hanging around Starbucks too much."
O'Brien says she sometimes misses being an engineer, but she is happy with her new career path. And she notes it is not so great a leap to move from engineering to art.
"You're just using a paintbrush instead of a calculator," she says.
If you go
The Symphony Decorators' Show House runs through May 20 at the Eck House at Cromwell Valley Park, 1996 Cromwell Bridge Road. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Go to bsomusic.org.