In a Modern Loft, the Touch of History

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The open-air living area of this Newport, RI home features heirloom furnishings, an 18th-century fireplace surround, and artwork by resident Isabelle Lirakis.

Sometimes the best things come in the most unexpected packages. Take, for example, the family residence of Isabelle Lirakis, two lofty floors adorning the top of what used to be her father’s marine safety-harness factory.

Hidden in a mixed-use neighborhood in the north end of Newport, R.I., the unique space – which her father originally purchased in the 1980s for his business – was built atop the existing one-story commercial building in the early 2000s. With its two new floors, the 5,000-square-foot dwelling has all the airy brightness and functionality of a modern loft with the undeniable charm of an historic building.

Chalk that up to Isabelle’s antiques-dealing mother, whose eye for detail and penchant for patina meant installing details such as antique gilt doors and reclaimed wood panels mixed with family heirlooms alongside her daughter’s artwork. The result is a home that feels contemporary but warm, as if it had come together organically over generations, not just a few years.

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The 18th-century boiserie in the dining area fit “magically” into the space – no trimming required.

On the top floor, an open-air kitchen-living-dining area features gorgeous breezes and spectacular views of the Newport Bridge. The custom, professional-grade stove offers two burners and a grill, plus space for a built-in wok; behind it, the backsplash is outfitted with 17th-century Italian ceramic tiles that came from the home of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Countertops of untreated slate add depth to the color palette, and are virtually indestructible.

These details aren’t just for show; they also serve a practical purpose for Isabelle, who splits her professional time between cooking and painting. Lucky for her friends, then, that entertaining is not only a career and a favorite pastime, but also a way of life.

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The entry door and trellises were reclaimed from a house in Newton, Massachusetts.

Philosophically, nourishing the body is equally important as tending the soul, explains Isabelle, who describes this approach to balance as the “art of life.” Whether setting a table, painting a mural, or restoring furniture, says the caterer-artist, who grew up in Newport and France, mindfully creating your environment and your work helps define who you are.

The kitchen opens to the dining area, with its 18th-century wood boiserie, imported from a small chateau in southeast France and rendered onto the wall. As if by magic, the measurements were perfect – no cutting was necessary to make it fit. With its flourishes and carvings, the paneling provides an unusual backdrop that lends intimacy and structure to the space. Though the cabinet doors would hide a television perfectly, the family decided to go screen-free in the common area. “Why would you have a TV in here,” ponders Isabelle, “when you have the sunset every night?”

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Isabelle, a caterer and artist, at work in the kitchen. Above the professional-grade stove, a backsplash of 17th-century Italian tile was installed. It once graced the home of Isabella Stewart Gardner.

The oak dining table – an antique vestige of the defunct Narragansett Park horse-racing track in Pawtucket, RI – is often speckled with wax from candles that burned long into the night. Behind it, the west wall is covered with broad windows that let in gorgeous light and summer breezes. These provide views to fantastic sunsets and extend into the living area, where an 18th-century marble fireplace surround is flanked by artwork by Isabelle. Much of the furniture here has been in the family for years, perhaps reupholstered or repurposed as each new owner makes it her own. “The decor here is about mixing modern and old,” says Isabelle, “which is very French in style. You take family pieces and each generation adds its own twist.”

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A recent painting by Isabelle adds a pop of color to a bedroom.

Down a flight of stairs, a landing area doubles as a small salon, where the vibe changes to cozy and private. Here, four bedrooms and an artist’s studio provide respite and calm. Less ornate, but no less charming, antiques and furnishings designed for the space live in harmony. In Isabelle’s bedroom, a heavy wooden bureau that’s been in the family for years sits under a beautiful, oversized Venetian glass mirror. In her dressing area, her mother designed a ribbon-like framed mirror to match an antique 1920s vanity.

Throughout this floor, doors with gold trim – reclaimed from a 1930s-era apartment in Paris on Avenue Foch – dress up hallways and passages, creating a private space that touts a more subtle sense of flair. Here again, Isabelle’s colorful paintings add a punch of color to the subdued palettes of the rooms.

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Downstairs, 1930s-era gilt doors were installed; they were reclaimed from a Parisian apartment.

Everywhere in the house, creativity is put on a pedestal. From meals cooked and shared to lively artwork and artifacts steeped in history, this is a place where the pursuit of passion is a primary purpose. Whether on the stovetop or in an antique objet or a piece of found driftwood, each detail has a story to tell. Above all, the creative spirit is clearly bred and nurtured here – you might even say that it was built right into the walls. 

All photos by Jonathan Clancy. Click any image below to open the gallery.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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