Anna D’Onofrio did not arrive at the comfortable confluence of a thriving interior design business, fulfilling marriage, beautiful home, and a life brimming with friends, parties, and world travel by some happy accident of birth. The graceful spirit that illuminates her work and personality was born in a place of grief, and her design evolved through nothing less than a strenuous liberation of self.
“Growing up, I always thought we were rich,” Anna says, unlocking the door to her Westport home. With her three sisters, she was raised in a beautiful old landmark house on Wooster Square in New Haven — a city yet to be ravaged by the construction of two interstate highways. But, once inside, any adult would discern the reality behind the magnificent façade — Anna’s childhood was conducted in subdued voices on the second floor, above the main rooms, which were used for the family’s business, a funeral parlor.
“When I tell people this, they always ask, ‘Was it like Six Feet Under?’ ” Anna pauses for a moment. “That program was benign.”
As she recalls her early years, she reveals a sad and very dark picture: an alternately authoritarian and extremely sensitive Italian father; a mother, ill when her daughters were small and then passing away after living painfully for years with multiple sclerosis. Instead of lullabies, Anna and her siblings fell asleep to the sounds of weeping and the recitation of rosaries. When she was four years old, to spend time with her father, she learned to dust the chairs in the mourning rooms.
One wonders at the woman she has become.
Anna’s family grew when her father remarried, and she inhertited a stepmother and two stepsisters. Of her blooming identity, Anna says, “I always wanted to be surrounded by beauty.” She once sewed her own clothes (her old friends still remind her of the purple felt jumper, hand-painted with flowers). She also lined the walls of her bedroom with fabric, an idea she borrowed from the homes of wealthy local doctors and lawyers. Her natural flair for creating beautiful things helped when she took up cooking — she did well enough to sell her own brand of pesto and cold pasta to local specialty shops. Her dramatic and creative food presentations caught the attention of Cesar Pelli, then the dean at Yale’s School of Architecture. She started catering his weekly lunches, and the work rolled in.
As her food business ramped up, she began to feel its toll. By then, she had met and married New Haven architect Kenneth Kraus, and, together, they began to explore other avenues for her talents. “I remember his words exactly,” says Anna. “He suggested, ‘Why don’t you do whatever you like?’ ” He gave her an ad: “Interior Designer — Will Train.” She answered it and spent six months with a home-textile franchise, selling to customers in their homes; not surprisingly, she became a top salesperson. “That experience gave me the sales tools and the confidence to continue in design,” she says. She took classes at New York’s School of Interior Design and has never looked back.
Anna’s past has allowed for a resolute perspective on today’s home design. Built to perfection and dressed to the nines, many of the newest, largest, and most impressive homes are perfectly suited to the pages of trendy shelter magazines. But she sees the fault line. “I’ve been in a lot of uncomfortable houses,” she says. “They’re often quite beautiful, and quite large, but, somehow, no one seems able to relax and enjoy them. The dining room is elegantly appointed, but no one dines there. The living room is expensively furnished with lovely things, but to call it a ‘living room’ is an oxymoron. No one lives there.”
She recounts a recent experience at Manhattan’s to-the-trade-only design mecca, the D&D building, which annually hosts an event to showcase new trends, products, and the pronouncements of top-tier designers. “For the first time, to my memory, renowned designers were talking about the disconnect between people and their homes. One well-known designer owned up to not using his own living room and resolved to go home and change that pattern. And a notable European designer talked about clients who wanted to work with her, but explained that they had children and wondered if she would still like to take them on. Of course she did. But it was astonishing to hear these admissions from some of the profession’s most famous names. It’s something I’ve been talking about for a long time.”
Anna D’Onofrio talks a lot about life-enhancing, liberating design. She sounds off in a syndicated column, “Inside Style & Design,” that runs in many Connecticut newspapers, and her work has been featured in magazines and on Chris Madden’s HGTV program Interiors by Design. And she’s writing a book, The Conversation House, to illustrate her ideas about creating homes that are happily lived in. Her design philosophy permeates her own home, a thoroughly modern, totally embracing house.
BRINGING IT HOME
Anna and Ken’s home is decidedly not like its neighbors. The D’Onofrio/Kraus residence is a startling, twenty-first-century face among shingles and gables and columned porches — a standout among a pastiche of old summer cottages, elaborately enlarged homes and spanking new mega-manses designed to maximize the panoramic prospect of Westport’s shoreline. It took some real effort and real guts to plant a statement so new in a tradition-bound neighborhood.
The couple arrived in Westport in the mid-1990s. “We wanted a place with a strong arts community,” recalls Ken, “and proximity to the water was a draw.” They came across a stretch of Westport shoreline that had not yet been developed, and a small, mostly level lot with a century-old gabled house smack in the middle of it.
“When we bought here, it had the flavor of a summer community,” says Ken. “Many of our neighbors’ homes were still used only in warm weather by families who had kept their shore places for generations. We were pioneers of sorts.”
Pioneers with an iconoclastic bent. Long before the teardown became a weekly Westport phenomenon, Anna and Ken chose a more creative solution for the original house that was positioned poorly for Ken’s modern, highly individualistic plans. Instead of razing the old place, however, the couple had it picked up and hauled down to the front of the property.
“Watching it proceed by inches to the corner of the lot was a bit like watching paint dry,” says Ken with a laugh. “But we didn’t want to destroy a perfectly good house, and we renovated and lived in it until this place was built.” He smiles and adds, “Then we sold it.”
Ken and Anna prepared for arched eyebrows and the chatter of the neighbors by politely landscaping their property with tall, elegant arborvitae. They also got involved in local causes.
“People who don’t know Westport always ask us how we found a lot that so perfectly fits the house,” says Anna. “But, the fact is, Ken made it perfect.” He graded the land, adding to the base and creating the slope that would cradle his modern house.
Strong environmental consciousness influenced his choices. “We are concerned about caring for the earth, and it’s nice to see the idea starting to catch on around town. We built exactly what we wanted, in just the amount of space that was needed. This is a small lot — just 7,000 square feet. The house has no overhangs, its footprint is a bit less than a thousand square feet, and our living space is that footprint times three. We built modern, and the house works modern as well. Insulation, windows, everything is engineered for efficiency. We can heat it for less than $1,000 a year.”
The terraced site embraces the distinctive, tri-level house with a groomed yet natural landscape of evergreens and rock gardens. » The structure’s austere geometric lines, softened by ochre-tinted stucco walls and punctuated with a startling, cobalt-blue door — colors redolent of the Tuscan countryside — suggest a cultured marriage of modern form and Mediterranean beauty.
The house, simple and unadorned on the exterior, becomes, inside, a canvas that details the couple’s life together: art and color, travel and discovery, and many stories. The paintings and sculptures were acquired not with some quest to fill the walls with stuff that goes with the furniture, but, rather, through personal connections: artists the couple met on trains, planes, beaches and boulevards throughout the world, and their stories are firmly attached to the works throughout the home. There is also work by family — Ken’s grandmother was an award-winning sculptor; his mother captured laurels in painting and printmaking. And Ken, while pursuing his degree in architecture at Pratt Institute, learned welding and began to sculpt in metal, and was taught painting as a teenager. He maintains a studio on the first floor of the house.
Throughout the house are masks, acquired over many years of serendipitous encounters in all corners of the world. They form an almost anthropological study of this age-old technique of disguise and metamorphosis.
And then there are the shoes. Some homeowners today install magnificent closets, each outfitted with seemingly endless mahogany shelves and drawers and racks. Such high-end storage spaces form a compendium of sartorial consumer exuberance. But none compare to Anna’s dressing room.It is perfectly lit and mirrored and painted in the most skin-flattering and healthy hue of rose-raspberry. Anna smiles just to see the room’s elevated wraparound shelves that display a parade of gorgeous designer shoes. It’s a couture footwear exhibit — Anna’s history, from her teenage years to sometime within the last hour. No matter what her circumstances, this woman has always had fabulous shoes. “I think it’s fun,” she says.
And it is.
Back in the living area, Anna and Ken ease into their vast and comfortable white sofa. In this second-floor space, designed for relaxation and refreshment, are floor-to-ceiling views of wetlands and Long Island Sound, framed in diaphanous silk curtains the color of a pale morning sky. The couple, now so used to this luxury, talk about design, shape, and color, and in doing so reveal their partnership. The house, the views, the collections — they are all a creative collaboration of complementary gifts: his spatial acuity and talent for sculpture, and her intuitive feel for color, light, and texture.
ONE FOR ALL AND ALL FOR MODERN
“Oh, no, not at all,” says Anna about modern design for her clients. “I want my clients to put their own signatures on their houses. The style and size of a home are not what matter. What’s important is that the people who live in it have a space they can fully use and enjoy. It’s what we’ve done for ourselves, and what we want to help others do.”
Just ask Anna’s clients Keith and Brett Stein. This young Westport couple has spent fourteen years in fifteen apartments, following the high-power trajectory of Keith’s career, back and forth between East and West coasts. Five years ago, with three children under age four and the opportunity to settle in, they finally landed in town and settled into a Georgian Colonial. They loved the house but wanted a more modern and urban aesthetic. Anna suggested replacing the traditional pinks and mauves with a fresh and balanced palette of colors and found lovely patterned rugs that were indestructible and an L-shaped couch for the family room that would endure the energetic use of small children and still look beautiful. Then the formal living room became a billiard room that family and friends enjoy, and an empty study now showcases a piano, on which the children take lessons.
While the Steins share Anna’s modern aesthetic, Hedda Kopf had what she calls “a Bloomsbury house” in mind when she met the designer. Hedda and her husband, Gary, wanted help with the details of the home that they could visualize, but not describe. Anna suggested a consultation with Ken. “He started to tell me about scale,” says Hedda. “He explained that even though I didn’t have the vocabulary, I could feel what was right or wrong about a space.”
“Design offers a world of possibility,” says Anna. “It’s a fact that excites me. Years ago, when I was taking classes in New York, one of my assignments was to design a studio apartment. Now, you’d think that given a class of twenty students and a very small, boxy space, there would be some repetition in the solutions that we came up with. But, in fact, there was no duplication; every student proposed a different option. That experience completely opened my mind to what I could do for any client, with any space.”
She smiles. “But don’t start by worrying what to put in your living room, or what you want in your dining room. Start with designing your life — everything flows from that.”