The Painter’s Palette
Artist Donna Moylan draws on Italian classicism and a creative way with color to enliven a 19th-century home in upstate New York
Imagine this: you’ve driven two dark hours through a spitting snowstorm to a rural town ringed with old homes and empty pastures. You are let into a towering, abandoned, Victorian-looking house and can’t locate the circuit breaker to turn on the lights—so you slowly tour the run-down rooms, with their peeling black wallpaper and shag carpeting, by the glow of a single flashlight. Such was the case for fine-artist Donna Moylan, who first laid eyes on her current home, a sprawling 1820s residence in Kinderhook, New York, on a foreboding winter’s evening in 2009. Despite the decidedly unfavorable circumstances, Moylan immediately felt a visceral connection to the space. The next morning, she returned to have breakfast at a café across the street and see the home in the light of day. “I stood back and thought, Look at that place, it really has something! I was intrigued.”
Originally from the East Coast, Moylan and her husband, Dr. Benjamin Chu, were living in California when they made the decision to seek a country retreat in upstate New York as a meeting point for friends and family. As she’d never spent time in the area, her search was somewhat random—and completely contingent upon the home itself. “I’d be on my computer in California looking at [listings], and I’d call up real estate agents, make an appointment, and fly over,” Moylan recalls. “They’d laugh and say, ‘Do you know how far this is from that?’ I had no idea.”
Assuming that the draw of the area was its wide-open spaces, eager agents showed Moylan a series of charming farmhouses on 40-plus acres—but she quickly realized that such properties lacked one important element. After having lived in Italy for 23 years, six of those in Tuscany, Moylan was hoping to find a version of the convivial country culture she’d enjoyed there—one in which dinner parties and art shows were commonplace. “In Kinderhook, as in Tuscany, you can walk to the end of your street and be in an orchard—but if you want company, it’s there,” she explains. Set off the town’s main street on a one-acre plot, with rolling hills as a backdrop and a Jack Shainman–sponsored art center mere blocks away, a more idyllic setup for Moylan seemed unimaginable. Finding the home was a triumph—but it was only after closing on it in 2010 that the real work began.
The first stage of the renovation was an entirely functional update: peeling off years of wallpaper, installing plumbing, and bringing the nonworking kitchen up to speed. Before jumping into an interiors overhaul, Moylan painted all walls a neutral white. “We put up a basic coat to see the shapes of the rooms—they had such volume and these great big walls,” she says, which was perfect for hanging her large-scale works. “You go into a little farmhouse and it looks adorable, but then you think, Where are you going to hang anything? Here, the walls are 12½ feet tall.” Moylan’s knack for interiors comes not from formal training, but rather an innate relationship with pattern and color and a keen eye for spatial relationships that is present in her art. Working as both architect and the designer, she viewed the home’s 4,000-plus square feet as her ultimate blank canvas.
This is the type of home in which rooms have names (“The Matisse Room,” “The Owl Room,” “The Monochrome Room”) and more than enough character to justify such lively depiction. In the sunny yellow drawing room that fronts the house, Pop Art–like Liberty of London drapery hangs behind a curvaceous purple-velvet love seat and an Apoxie Sculpt coffee table by Brooklyn artist Daniel Wiener. Moylan based the room’s scheme off her initial reaction to its surroundings. “Outside the window was a tree with burgundy leaves, which told me that this room had to be yellow,” she says. If such color associations seem random, they’re actually steeped in a deep respect for design history. “I think about ancient structures, whether in Rome or Pompeii or Florence—villas, museums, palaces, artifacts,” she says. “I thought that if the room were yellow, adding purple would make a regal combination.”
That respect for the home’s past is apparent in its updated spaces. The house was augmented in the 1870s with what Moylan calls “the Victorian addition.” In search of its original curves, Moylan, aided by local contractor Larry Cavagnaro, knocked down a much newer wall upstairs to find the cornices and rounded walls she knew to be characteristic of that era. “I added Moroccan lamps there, because the hallway looks like it was inspired by Moroccan architecture, which the Victorians loved,” she says. When it came time to refinish the well-worn doors throughout, Moylan took a similar approach. “The doors were so battered, but they had this interesting faux-burl work in the center. So we just sanded them down and left the mottled effect. All over Italy, [they have] this way of finding what’s underneath and just adding a finish.”
The real charm of the home, however, comes from its current owner. At nearly every turn is a piece of art or furniture hand-painted by the artist—be it a pastoral mural wrapping a robin’s egg–blue powder room, a hand-marbleized console underneath the grand staircase, or the wood-grain-inspired motif on a wall of closets in the dressing room. “It’s one of those things you just dream up in a nanosecond—but 500 hours later, you’re still painting,” says Moylan of the labor of love. One guest room features a headboard that was once a piece of the set from a stage production; Moylan découpaged a dresser to fit the theatrical theme. In the modern kitchen, with its stainless steel hood and marble counters, she painted the inside of the glass backsplash in a fluid Expressionist-inspired style for the ultimate cook’s view.
Moylan’s sources for the home are as varied as the art she creates. There are multiple rugs from ABC Carpet & Home and a Fukurou pendant light by Issey Miyake in a downstairs sitting room, but also a multicolor chandelier from Urban Outfitters in the mudroom and a hand-me-down love seat from a friend (albeit reupholstered in Clarence House’s avian-print Polly fabric) in a guest bedroom. While the design process was painstaking—with Moylan flying in to stay in the house for brief stretches over the four-year renovation, sourcing all of the items herself from across the country, and completing innumerable accents by hand—the result feels not the least bit overwrought. Which is just as she and Chu hoped it would be. “We wanted a place where friends and family would come and stay, from Europe, from California,” she says. This past Christmas, that meant a series of parties leading up to the holiday—a dinner for 44 friends from the village one night, 18 art-world acquaintances the next, and a group of six for Christmas Eve. “I really think you contribute to the world if you can make a beautiful place,” says Moylan. With this lovingly restored home, she may have proven herself right.