He is the builder with the global vision. She is the finisher with an eye for exquisite detail. Talk about a marriage with a concrete foundation.
The fruit of their union—or unions, as it were—is a French country home that skillfully weds their professional talent and personal aspirations. Call it the ultimate expression of blended bliss.
The house the couple came to build is a fully customized, resort-worthy adult retreat. Every square inch of architect Fred Bissinger’s blueprint is purposefully executed to accommodate, celebrate and indulge their specific tastes, and the life style they share with their two superbly trained canine housemates.
For interior designer and close friend Michelle Wenitsky, the patter of those medium-size paws was a welcome change from that of little feet and the grimy little hands that can go with them. Unencumbered by the dictates of a young family, Wenitsky had carte blanche to create an upscale, chic, decidedly less kid-friendly environment in which to showcase the recently married pair’s vast collections of artwork and furnishings. “I think the goal for them was to incorporate all of the unique treasures they’ve collected in their travels,” she says. “He had some; she had some—so the house really is a blend of both of their tastes and personalities. Their large paintings and sculptures work really well with the scale of this house.”
Case in point: Three huge freestanding blown-glass pieces, called “cocoons,” make a stunning statement the moment you walk through the front door. The stemware, by local artist Steve Tobin, is designed to represent the human body. “They were made in Venice and are the largest blown-glass pieces in the world,” says the homeowner. “I went to his Bucks County studio and just fell in love with them.”
Tobin is one of an elite group of locally and internationally acclaimed artisans represented in a home that includes hand-carved mahogany doors by Scheel & Sharp, custom crafted fabrics and wall coverings—one actually studded with authentic Murano glass beads—and a variety of furniture designed and built by Argentinean craftsman.
Dynamic and sophisticated, Wenitsky’s colorful backdrop incorporates deep aubergine in the dining room with a red-and-gold entryway and an upstairs hallway of teal green. If those walls could talk, they’d be chatting enthusiastically about their evolution from boring to bold.
“Initially, we picked colors for the entire house that were very light and very soft and very safe,” recalls Wenitsky, who gently and subtly nudged her clients out of their color comfort zone. “Once they saw the drama unfolding, they began to embrace the concept of a stronger, less neutral palette. And now they love it. The walls are more than just background—they’re part of the story.”
And though the tone of that story is definitely Old World European, it’s far from a gothic novel. There’s nary a tapestry or gargoyle in sight, jokes Wenitsky, who opted instead for an ambiance of light and airy elegance, juxtaposing French and Italian antiques with the couple’s more modern artifacts. “Mixing styles keeps a room fresh. Everywhere you turn, there’s something interesting to look at,” says Wenitsky. “If you stay too strictly to one style, it becomes boring and expected.”
Like the life-size wood sculpture by Wolfgang Behl that anchors the party room, a huge space divided into several cozy furniture vignettes better facilitates intimate conversation—whether entertaining a crowd of five or 25. “Splitting the seating arrangements worked out really well,” explains Wenitsky. “If they have a few people over for cocktails, they have a reasonably sized sitting area. Nobody is shouting across the room.”
Her clients requested that the room be both elegant and inviting, which Wenitsky accomplished with a soft color palette of taupe and powder blue. To contrast the gleaming walnut floors, she chose a hand-knotted, tone-on-tone ivory wool area rug with a French acanthus leaf design. “The neutral rug allowed key pieces of furniture to stand out in the room,” she says.
Key pieces include the Behl sculpture; an ebony C. Bechstein small grand piano; a carved white marble, French-style fireplace; and an oil-on-canvas portrait of the lady of the house. The various windows and two sets of French doors in the room dictated 10 panels of fabric for window treatments. More than 95 yards of silk—spun specifically for this project—were custom-ordered for the stunning bronze-and-aqua silk damask waterfall drapery panels. A Waterford crystal chandelier shines brightly above the piano.
“There are so many elements in this room—many of which took a long time to arrive because they were custom made—and the overall look came together exactly how we wanted it to,” says Wenitsky. “All the waiting was well worth it in the end.”
When the party’s over, Wenitsky’s fitness-conscious clients don less formal attire and head down to their state-of-the-art exercise facility on the lower level, an area that boasts a professionally equipped gym, an indoor lap pool with retractable roof, a hot tub, and a dressing room with sauna. After a workout, the massage room awaits—essential oils included.
Also on the lower level: a private guest apartment for one owner’s adult children and their families, plus a wine cellar complete with a table fashioned from recycled ship timber and a chandelier reclaimed from a Main Line mansion. Apropos to the spirit of the spirits, crystals are in the shape of grapes. And what wine cellar would be complete without a freestanding mummy case? “My husband said, ‘I’m having the mummy delivered,’” recalls the owner. “I said, ‘You bought a what?’”
Chances are the African buffalo cocktail table elicited the same response. It’s the macho centerpiece of a third-floor men’s lounge the couple refers to as the Eagle’s Nest. “I think he chose it because it’s one of the big five very deadly animals,” the owner deadpans. “When one comes at you, there’s nowhere to hide.”
Teak paneling, an English-style pool table, two leather chairs, a mega-screen TV, and an antler light fixture make this a gentleman’s lair extraordinaire. Even the entryway is masculine, with its horse sculpture incorporated into the staircase newel. But perhaps nothing says “manly” like the urinal in the little boy’s room—a feature the owner discreetly tried to sidestep. “When I plumbed the house, I purposely left out the pipes for the urinal, but my husband caught me,” she says.
In keeping with the nature of a perfect partnership, the urinal is beside a more conventional commode.
When the owners want to relax, they spend time in the library. The rich walnut cabinetry gives the room a formal feel. Wenitsky placed both the John Widdicomb executive desk and the custom-made mohair-and-leather sofa on an angle facing the fireplace, which makes room for another seating area with two olive-green, leather English wing chairs and a tufted tapestry ottoman.
Argentinean furniture makers custom-made the walnut table and chairs in the formal dining room. Gold silk damask distinguishes the host and hostess chairs, while the rest are covered in a cinnamon velvet with hand-painted gold leaf stripes down the center. The room’s walls are the hue of rich red wine.
Situated between a nature preserve and the home of International Peace Mission Movement founders Mother and the late Father Divine, the homeowners like to say they live in a secluded place where serenity meets spirituality.
“Nobody is pulling down this driveway unless they’re coming to see us,” one owner says. “We travel a lot, and every time we come home, I open the door and think, ‘Wow, I really love it here.’”
Architecture: F.L. Bissinger, Inc., Fred Bissinger, 1502 Old Gulph Road, Villanova; (610) 525-6438, flbissinger.com
Interior Design: Michelle Wenitsky Interior Design, Villanova, (610) 567-1660, michellewinteriordesign.com