By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted in the Philadelphia Style Magazine on September 17, 2012.
Designer Bruce Norman Long has always maintained that the things that touch our lives most are the clothes we wear and the rooms we live in. The self-proclaimed clotheshorse prefers classics in his closet (a navy Gucci suit, Ferragamo shoes, and London-made French-cuff shirts, khakis, and jeans), as well as in his home.
For his most ambitious renovation, he converted an old schoolhouse in Carversville, in Bucks County, with partner Mark Todaro, a commercial designer in Philadelphia, decorating it with leather Barcelona chairs, bold upholstered antiques from different eras, and a trove of art amassed over the years.
“My decorating evolves like my closet,” says the designer, who has just moved offices from Princeton, New Jersey, to Bryn Mawr. “I don’t invest too much in trends. It’s the ‘classic sofa, club chairs, and coffee table’ [method] of dressing—interesting pillows and lamps are the necktie and cuff links. Paint color is like choosing which shirt to wear.”
Deciding on the house was a leap of faith. The eventual winner was derelict and had not been touched since 1949; it was two years before they could move in. “Sometimes it was like peeling back layers of an onion. When we found plaster, we took that off and found stone, which we sandblasted. Architecturally, it is textured with personality. The house holds its own even when it is empty—the wood beams, the stone, the 14-foot-high windows.”
The kitchen, living, and dining areas were kept open with floating walls and partitions for displaying art. But because of the volume of the main room, with its 20-foot ceilings, normal furniture was swallowed up. “Scale played into the design. Bigger pieces were better,” says Long. “The sofa is 10 feet long, the lamps are huge, the coffee table is big, and so is the artwork. To match the size of the room, we had to have an 11-foot kitchen island.” The living room furniture includes a theatrical, neoclassical lemon-yellow cut-velvet récamier, a long, claret-red sofa paired with carnation-pink pillows, his nod to designer David Hicks, and a pair of black leather Barcelona chairs. “This is me at my truest voice,” explains Long. “A mix is where my heart is.” In the dining room, he used blue upholstered chairs around the table. Bought at Ann-Morris Antiques, the chairs were credited to Billy Baldwin. “There is nothing like having your own upholstered chair.”
The brightly colored pieces play off the art. “Every painting is based on primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—and my fabrics are those colors.” For simplicity’s sake, the walls are all white, “otherwise it would be too much going on. Besides, stone has a strong personality.” On the walls, Long hung an impressive collection of regional art, from Impressionists to Modernists.
Long’s love of design and art began well before he settled on a career. He was raised in Pittsburgh, where his family collected art and antiques. “Antiques were part of our education as kids,” he says. “My mother made it clear we were the most important people in our home, not guests. So the house of three boys was ‘lived in.’ My best friend lived in a house that was done by a big decorator in Pittsburgh. There were rooms he wasn’t allowed in. It was odd to me then, and it is odd to me now.”
After studying architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, Long worked for designer Mark Hampton on everything from a private office in the White House for the elder President Bush to the biggest and most expensive house in Palm Beach. After five years at the firm, he went looking for a new challenge; following a brief stint in home furnishings retail, he opened his own design firm in 1993, focusing on homes in New York and Princeton. His client list now spans from London to Loveladies, from the Main Line to Switzerland.
For himself and Todaro, Long will begin decorating a new home near his Bryn Mawr office. “Every home I have has a distinctive voice,” he says. “Each is different from the other, each a creative exploration and testing ground.”