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Put It in Neutral

This article was written by Kathryn O’Shea-Evans and was featured in our May issue of Home By Design magazine. Photography by Dasha Armstrong. To visit the original Home By Design article, click here.


Sometimes, it’s the quiet colors—inky blacks as dark as the midnight sky; soft tans that look like rolling desert sand dunes—that speak the loudest. And that is the case in this penthouse within a seventeen-story glass-walled tower in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. “We designed the interiors of two towers, and the developer ended up keeping the penthouse [for himself] and wanted a bold, jaw-dropping design—something completely different from the rest of the building,” says Maria Alvarez, senior designer at Jenny Martin Design. The home is both serene and graphically stunning . . . a difficult tone to create.

Alvarez and the Jenny Martin Design team achieved it in an unlikely way: by sticking to tried-and-true neutrals, with plenty of jet-black moments. Because this client was a bachelor at the time, they used the lifestyle of frequent, glamorous nights out—à la James Bond on the town— as inspiration for the two-level, 1,400-square-foot space complete with a 760-square-foot balcony with a jacuzzi and postcard-worthy views. “Even smoke was one of our prompts!” says Alvarez. “When we’re coming up with design palettes like this, we take photos of all the finishes together and use prompts to make the actual scheme come to life. Here, one of them was ‘scotch on the rocks’; another was a black candle we lit and blew out, so you could see smoke. That was the beginning of this scheme.”

The mix of rich charcoal tones and grays has mystery to it, by design. “He was a young guy and wanted something ‘not his mother’s kitchen!’” she says. The abundant natural daylight flowing through the floor-to-ceiling windows allowed them to go as dark as they wanted in tone.

“In a space like this one, it was a bit easier, because we took advantage of the natural light,” she says. “We were able to go all-in with the black. Don’t be afraid—there’s nothing more classic than a tone-on-tone design!”

Despite the hue’s reputation for being cold, black is extremely versatile, notes Alvarez. “You can create a bold dramatic effect [and yet it] acts as a neutral,” she says. “I like to say black was our white canvas. I took black as our starting point and balance was key. In this case, white walls throughout and double-height, floor-to-ceiling windows brought out the best of monochrome.”

One of the biggest wow moments in the space for Alvarez is the intricately veined marble they found for the kitchen and bathroom’s countertop, backsplash, and a show-stopping fireplace mantel that puts the focus on the flames. “It was locally sourced and we immediately fell in love and wanted it to be a focal point,” she says.

Still, like all projects, this one wasn’t without its challenges. In this case, creating the floating wood staircase was nothing less than a feat of engineering. “It opens up the space beautifully and was structurally challenging, but worth it,” says Alvarez. “The engineers were able to make it work. And we worked hard to come up with a handrail that also felt like it was floating in space.”

One of the most difficult things about neutrals is making sure they all coordinate. Not all shades of black match, as anyone who has tried to pair a black sweater and slacks will attest. The trick, Alvarez notes, is to hold swatches and samples in person to see if they play well together. “Pay attention to the undertones and make sure monotone palettes complement each other, not the other way around, for an effortless, sophisticated vibe,” she says. You’ll want to look at the samples in different tones of light, too . . . from daylight to bright LEDs. “Even a white or black can look green in the wrong light,” she says. “Look at paints, furniture, and accessories . . . the more you can sample the better to make sure they work together.” The more options you can play with, the better your results. The end goal? A mix as timelessly enticing—and delectable—as salt and pepper.

The black-and-white color palette is as classic as a tuxedo . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull off. Here, tips from designer Maria Alvarez with Jenny Martin Design on how to use it like a pro.

Get Textural. When you’re designing with black and white as your primary color palette, a room can easily look cold. The solution: “Don’t forget textures and raw materials like wood, which add visual warmth to the overall design,” she says.

Add a Sense of Life. Throughout this project, greenery like potted olive trees supplies a lush garden-like feel at a glance. That appeals to the primal human need for verdant beauty . . . even in a sleek penthouse.

Let There Be Light. The designer and her team used a variety of lighting fixtures at various levels throughout the space for a cozy, warm effect, especially after nightfall. “Using warm, diffused, integrated lighting creates a comfortable ambience,” says Alvarez, which is especially important in a space that leans visually cold. When selecting light bulbs, opt for warmer options (such as 2700 Kelvin) for a homier atmosphere.