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A Romantic Composition

European Antiques Find Harmony in a Designer's Tropical Residence in West Palm Beach





Posted October 31, 2006·Magazine​

Diane Burn's house in West Palm Beach, Florida, looks settled and serene, as though it's been there for decades, if not centuries. In a way, it has. Although the New York designer just bought the vintage three-bedroom Spanish colonial cottage last year, she has been collecting French antiques since college, and when she moved in, they moved in too, coming from storage, her pied-à-terre in New York and her former house in Rome. "They arrived in one big, big truck," she says. "I brought a lot of pieces I've never used."

Even if the antiques are now under the same roof for the first time, they fit together seamlessly because they have occupied the same imaginary salon in her mind for years, where they all agreed. As she collected, Burn edited for tone, so nothing inconsistent breaks the spell that accumulates piece by piece into an ethereal whole.

The residence came with its own tropical jungle in what ecologists call a climax state.

Besides being a dedicated collector of primarily 18th-century antiques, Burns is a serial house collector and her own best client, having decorated houses for herself in San Francisco, Paris, Rome, Porto Ercole and New York. Her rooms fuse intimacy with stature. The stuccoed, tile-roofed Palm Beach cottage, built circa 1925, may be just 1,850 square feet, with nine-foot ceilings, but Burn understands scale in the way the French have always understood grandeur: It is not necessary to be big to be grand. A modest 1,850 square feet on a suburban lot does just fine. It's the quality of the furniture and the atmosphere binding it all together that count.

Previously owned by landscape architect Todd MacLean, the house came with its own tropical jungle in what ecologists call a climax state. Guests approach the front door, with its wrought iron gate, through an allée of Alexander palms in a roomlike yard bounded by a mature, dense ficus hedge. Burn underplanted the canopy of fronds with birds-of-paradise, gardenias, bromeliads and other tropical plants that give the garden detail and a more intimate scale. Guests who venture through this thicket have every right to expect a world of rattan furniture inside, so the bergères and fauteuils are both a surprise and a delight. The garden is enchanting, and the interior introduces visitors to a second kind of reverie.

Da vinci used sfumato to blur the edges and soften the surfaces of his canvases. Burn applies the same painterly approach to space, and even before she brings in the first fauteuil, she mists the walls so that they seem to fade back into the haze of time. Technically, she just prepares the walls with a texture and then dips the tips of wide brushes in tints mixed with white acrylic to create a faux finish. The technique, which she invented and calls pouncing, dissolves the walls visually so that they appear to have neither mass nor edge. In Palm Beach, painter Robert Hadsock "pounced" on the surfaces before another artist, Karin Linder, painted delicate frescoes.

Burn orchestrated an atmosphere that permeates all seven rooms, giving her furniture a setting varied in tone but consistent in value. "Even as a child, I was fascinated by walls whose sense of age made them look translucent," she recalls. "I didn't want to re-create 1925 but return to an 18th-century feeling."

Burn understands scale in the way the French have always understood grandeur: It is not necessary to be big to be grand.

The time travel to the 18th century starts in the living room, where Burn gathers a suite of antique chairs into a conversational grouping around an Italian mantelpiece, which she fitted over the original fireplace. As in all the rooms, each chair and table has a distinct personality and provenance, and Burn, who credits her mentor, collector Lillian Williams, for teaching her about antiques, remembers just when and where she acquired it. "They're all my best friends," she says. "The columns in the library have been with me everywhere." She bought the charming hand-painted country ceramics depicting the four seasons, now ensconced on the overmantel, in Italy: "They set the tone for the room; they're very allegro."

Each room has its own coloration and mood, but the sfumato blends them so that one flows into another in gentle atmospheric transitions. Burn brings each room to its full height with draperies reaching to the ceiling; in bedrooms, canopies swoop over the beds. The furniture defines the function, as in the dining room, which is centered on a Florentine-style inlaid-marble table under a hand-carved late-19th-century chandelier. Near the table, Linder, with whom Burn has worked on many projects, extended garlands from an existing painted panel onto the walls, blurring the painting into the room in an especially inspired moment. "I think decorating is always creating an illusion, to make things look loftier, more elegant, as though you're stepping into another era, away from harsh everyday realities," the designer observes.

Burn, who specializes in creating environmental dream states, usually designs nuanced interiors within a narrow range of pale colors. In Palm Beach, however, she permitted herself red: "There's a lot more color here because I'm in Florida," she explains. "In my whole life I've never used red, but in the guest room, I started with a bergère still in its original red toile, and I grew the color out of the chair." She takes the red up to the ceiling with a dramatic sweep of toile over the bed.

"A lot of people ask me if I can do anything else," Burn remarks. "I can, but I'm very comfortable doing what I do. It holds up. I try for the classic, the traditional and the timeless."

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