In the middle of Darryl Carter’s comfortable family room sits a hornet’s nest displayed in a case like a priceless heirloom. While not quite what one might anticipate from one of the most successful designers of his generation, it is a classic Carter move. Known for interiors that unexpectedly juxtapose old and new, Carter never fails to add a dash of irreverence. “I am prone to one-off environments where steel meets gilt and burled veneer meets blackened iron,” Carter says. And, always, there is art, which “should inspire thought,” he
Nowhere is his signature style more dramatically showcased than in his own D.C. home, which features a life-size headless horse in the foyer (the “laughter” part of the equation). This Beaux Arts townhouse on Washington’s Embassy Row, which has served as his creative laboratory for 23 years, was first featured in Elle Decor in 2009—a year before Carter landed on the inaugural edition of the magazine’s A-List. Twelve years later, his place on the list holds firm—but the design of his townhouse, as the images on these pages make clear, is in continual flux.
When I visited Carter recently at home, I discovered that a Napoleonic daybed has replaced a stately grand piano; a repurposed revolving door is now the gateway to his top-floor gym; and in the primary suite, a simple metal poster bed stands in place of the antique doors from a Paris bordello that once functioned as his headboard. “My design ethos remains the same—modern balanced with antiquity,” he says. “But there is a greater confidence after so many years, and so the tension between these objects has amplified.”
Lois Romano: You were a lawyer before switching to design. When did you realize that the law wasn’t for you?
Darryl Carter: Oh, from the first day. I have always been creative. When I graduated [from Georgetown], I went to work for my father’s company. He recalls that I did nothing but come in late, read the paper, disappear for long lunches, and leave early to go to the gym.
LR: How did you find ways to express yourself during this period?
DC: I renovated and flipped real estate. That was how I fed my creative side. Most of the properties I flipped went for record prices. But it was when I renovated a co-op at the Altamont [in the Kalorama section of D.C.] that my career began. I connected four co-ops together into one and put them back into their historic footprint. The late Metropolitan Home magazine put it on the cover and set my career change in motion. I landed two blue-chip clients. Then Neiman Marcus reached out. It wasn’t overnight, but the initial reception was extraordinary in hindsight.
LR: How would you describe your style?
DC: I do high-modern. I can play in many vernaculars. It’s very crossover because I embrace antiquities. Even when I’m doing the most modern settings, I push to have a classical element. I just think it makes the house more approachable, more tactile. When I was starting out, who knew that ’60s furniture would become collectible? And that antiques would be reduced to “brown furniture”? I have always had an appreciation for both, and that is why I’m prone to marrying different styles. One absent the other can create a sterile environment, or an environment so lofty that you are fearful to sit down in it.
LR: Washington is not a particularly fashionable town. What does that mean for you?
DC: My clients are very self-selecting. So when you bring me on board, you kind of have to be on board, too. My first two clients were on polar sides of the aisle. They were two highly visible people. I think I transcend politics, thankfully. Most of my work is not even in Washington. Journeying to various homes requires fast adaptation and dexterity. For me, each one of my commissions is singular and is tailored accordingly. This is what I most enjoy about my work.
LR: How do you approach a new client?
DC: The psychology is most important. You have to be a good listener. These relationships are like a hybrid of speed dating and a long marriage when the partners have cultivated a sense of trust. The design community carries a tremendous weight, as we are entrusted to develop spaces in the context of the client’s intimate lifestyle.
LR: Where is design heading these days?
DC: It is cyclical in its nature. I fear that we are soon to all be living in the same Habitrail. The instant has been all-consuming, where things magically deliver in a day.
I worry the making of the home has become a chore; there is a tendency to default to an “add water” approach.
LR: How have you evolved as a designer?
DC: My work is still predominantly rooted in the mix of the modern and the antique, but the juxtaposition is bolder, the tension between the two more pronounced. Where
I would once second-guess myself, I have necessarily become far more decisive. What has grown exponentially is my capacity to find humor in just about anything. Boy, did I used to wear myself out with unnecessary angst.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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