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Design Ideas Abound At NSO Showhouse

Decorator take on rooms in D.C. home.

Dining rooms are like theaters, Michael Roberson said, and the table is the stage.

"It’s where you bring your friends and entertain them," said Roberson, head of Arlington-based Michael Roberson Interior Design. With that philosophy in mind, she set out to re-master the dining room of this year’s NSO Decorators’ Showhouse.

What resulted is a kind of theater-in-the-round, with modern and traditional rubbing shoulders, centered on a large table in the middle of a large room. "It’s great fun to have a dining room that size to play in," said Roberson. "Wouldn’t it be great if we all had that?"

It is just one of many transformations at the 30th Anniversary National Symphony Orchestra Decorators’ Showhouse 2002, now under way at Houghton Mansion, located at 3003 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C.

Twenty of the region's best-known designers have redecorated the 46-room house, which includes a ballroom, terraced gardens and a swimming pool. Owned by the State Department, Houghton Mansion is located on Embassy Row. Once the residence of the Iranian ambassador, it has been vacant for more than a year.

The showhouse got its start in 1972, when Blanch Bedwell, a member of the National Symphony Orchestra's Women's Committee, brought the concept to the Washington area after seeing a designer showhouse on a trip abroad.

Walls have been stripped and repainted; offices have turned into tea rooms; imaginative wall hangings appear in every room; and everywhere visitors go, they see design ideas they might never have considered for their own homes.

The size and scale of some rooms outpace most houses, Roberson admits. But that doesn’t mean that showhouse ideas won’t translate. The theory behind her dining room is not size-restricted. "It would work as well in a small room," she said, "the concept of table as a place where you can create. It works anywhere."

<b>WHEN ROBERSON BEGAN</b> working on the dining room, it was in decent, if boring, shape.

It was painted white, with a small crystal chandelier – "too small," Roberson said – hanging in the center of the room.

Much of the redesign meant changing the atmosphere of the room, with a new coat of paint. Roberson painted the walls a "café au lait" light brown, with a softened white trim. The change made the room warmer, she said, without loud, bright colors that would distract diners from their meals.

The table in the room was tailor-made for the showhouse, accented by twig-shaped flatware and mohair placemats. "I was thinking, the china’s shiny, the flatware’s shiny. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some texture," Roberson said.

She replaced the small crystal chandelier with three lamps on steel cables, covered with translucent white linen shades. The lamps almost seem to hover above the table, and the shades recall a living room more than a dining room, intentionally.

"For most of us, comforting lighting is not overhead, but from a lamp," Roberson said. "These send a pool of light down below, and then diffuse it out. It’s focused and warm, where a chandelier is kind of glare-y. These lamps make everybody look 10 years younger."

She didn’t want to overdo the walls, so she hung only two pictures: a small print of thistles, and a large oil landscape of a river valley painted by Wade Hoefer, provided by Georgetown gallery Hemphill Fine Arts.

The idea could easily translate to other rooms, said Roberson. Augmenting dining rooms with a large picture, a focus away from the table, doesn’t have to distract diners from the creativity on their plates.

"It’s like if you were going to have a picnic outside and have a great view," Roberson said. "You would be able to see your friends, and the great view."