For artist and collector Sherry Wolf, the question wasn't an easy one: How do you create a house that will work as a gallery for a museum-quality collection of art furniture and as a home for two little girls, two poodles and three Siamese cats?
If you have a table in your foyer by metalsmith Albert Paley ("Large Demilune, 1992") that New York's Museum of Modern Art wanted to exhibit, do you let your kids dump their schoolbooks on it?
The solution to the family's unique needs was found by trial and error. Ms. Wolf and her husband (the couple has since separated) built their Owings Mills house in 1989. "I loved homes on the beach, and I was watching 'Miami Vice' at the time," she says. "That was the inspiration. It seemed like a great backdrop for art."
But she was unhappy with the look of the finished house, which was starker, more linear and boxier than she had expected -- "I wanted something more sculptural," she says -- so she hired the architectural firm of Luxenburg & Ryan Inc. to reinvent the exterior. Six months later she also completely redid the kitchen.
The result is a striking contemporary structure in cedar, glass block and plate glass, with curved walls and piercing angles. It's a bright house but designed with few windows facing south so it gets very little direct sunlight. The expanses of glass face onto the woods; no window treatments are needed for privacy.
On the first floor, one room flows into another. All have white
walls and bare oak floors. These are the "gallery" rooms -- most strikingly, a sunken living room with two pieces by furniture sculptor Wendell Castle.
His fantastical works have names like "Neglected Affirmation" and "Curious Awakenings" and are made of mahogany, East Indian ebony, satinwood and gold leaf. They also function as living room chairs, and are surprisingly comfortable.
But how do you complete a furniture grouping that begins with a piece of art? Although Ms. Wolf worked with interior designer Stuart Michael of Creative Interiors Ltd. elsewhere in the house, she designed these downstairs rooms herself.
"I tried to put a table between the two [Wendell Castle] chairs," says Ms. Wolf, "but it didn't work. I have to keep it minimal."
An Albert Paley coffee table in glass and tortured wrought iron sits in front of a large, creamy white sofa that Ms. Wolf bought as a backdrop -- but a backdrop with style. To one side is the older daughter's white piano.
"The hardest thing is to accessorize a house like this," says Ms. Wolf with a laugh. Mostly she makes do with large plants on the floor.
The walls are hung with Ms. Wolf's own satirical paintings, super-realist works of art that take her a year to complete. (Her work can be found in various private collections and galleries, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Boston.)
Her luxurious studio is on the first floor next to the library. It has a motorized easel for her huge canvases and a sofa and television because she likes to have company when she paints. Her studio is one of the attractions, along with the art furniture and the architecture of the house itself, that puts the Wolf home on a Smithsonian tour twice a year.
On a level above the living room is the dining room table and chairs "set" -- a wild and whimsical creation with colorful inlays and fiber-optic lights commissioned from Boston artist Jay Stanger. Guests seated here might feel a little like Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party.
But things will get curiouser and curiouser if they visit the powder room, which is made completely of mirrors: walls, ceilings and floors. "I knew it wasn't durable," admits Ms. Wolf, "but I wanted the effect. I have to replace the floor every few years because of the scratches."
It's hard to imagine Chelsea and Jenna, two girls aged 7 and 9, using these rooms; and for the most part they don't. They don't need to: The basement is one huge playroom, with a home theater addition in the planning stages. There's also a weight room, and the pool is just outside. The girls also use the comfortable family room/sun room. Just off the state-of-the-art kitchen, it has an entertainment center and soft black-and-white striped furniture.
But it's the upstairs that's really been designed to be a home, not a gallery. Each child has her own cozy bedroom and full bath. The rooms have a traditional feeling, with canopied beds, flowered wallpaper, topiaries and delicate print fabrics. The colors are lavenders, pinks and teals.
Ms. Wolf's bedroom, in stark contrast to the downstairs, is ornately neoclassic, decorated with columns, mirrors, pillows upon pillows and lush fabrics in golds and rich purples. There's also a working fireplace, one of several in the house.
Just off the bedroom is the spectacular master bath -- all marble and mirrors, with a large whirlpool bath; two separate rooms with toilets, sink and bidet; a sauna; and a cozy separate room with a huge shower. The walk-in closets are separate rooms.
Go a little farther down the hall and you come to a skywalk with a magnificent view of the sunken living room, a painting that can't be seen except from this vantage point and the woods stretching out in the distance.
Here Ms. Wolf stops and takes a long look. "Sometimes," she says, "I just walk around my house and think how fortunate I am."