Designer Ellen Sarafian: President of Dezins Unlimited in Wilmington, Answers the Call of the Wilde
Ellen Sarafian delights in the art of period restoration—even Oscar Wilde’s digs.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
So you find yourself having acquired a Colonial home in New Castle—or Gothic Revival farmhouse outside Viola, or a big Victorian in Lewes. Its original features are in disrepair, missing or hidden by renovations. You want to restore it in a manner faithful to its time and place, but you don’t know where to start.
First, contact the Delaware Historic Preservation Office and its Historic Preservation Research Center. Then consider calling a designer like Ellen Sarafian.
“That’s my forte,” says Sarafian, president of Dezins Unlimited in Wilmington. “We do all kinds of design, but there are very few who specialize in period restoration to original integrity.”
An art and design major at the College of Boca Raton, Sarafian learned period restoration by doing. During eight years in Dublin, she worked with other designers, antiquities dealers and the Irish Georgian Society—including the society president and founder himself, Desmond Guinness of the famous brewing family—on the restoration of Oscar Wilde’s Georgian-style childhood home in 1994. Once condemned, the building now hosts students from The American College, displays shows of work by artists esteemed enough to be included in the National Gallery, and is occasionally the site of embassy functions.
“We researched every molding, every floorboard,” Sarafian says. “I am relentless about research. I am always learning.”
Her restorations have gone so far as moving entire homes, including one of her own. She bought what is known as the Stephenson Farmhouse from the owners for a dollar, then moved it from its original site on U.S. 9 between Lewes and Georgetown to Shipcarpenter Square in Lewes. It is believed that the last two slaves in Delaware once lived in the attic of the farmhouse, which is the kind of history that elevates the idea of a restoration from an aesthetic decision or lifestyle choice to something of an obligation.
“You see these properties around here all the time,” Sarafian says. “Some are on the National Register of Historic Places, so they can’t be destroyed.”
So back to the beginning: Where do you begin with a restoration? You will need the kind of knowledge only a pro will have, so you may not want to attempt a total DIY job. “Things can go horribly wrong,” Sarafian says. But with some basic knowledge you can plan to re-create the architectural elements, colors and furnishings.
Colonial homes, Sarafian says, featured simple woodwork and paneling. Muted reds, greens, slate blues and beiges were the prevalent wall colors. Chair rails and shutters were functional, not merely decorative. Floors were of random-width boards that were pegged, not nailed. Furniture was large and durable, made of oak, ash, mahogany, teak or cherry. Many were storage pieces, such as cupboards for dishes, linens and clothes. Wealthier owners hung tabbed curtains or drapes of silk or brocades.
Federal style houses are symmetrical, organized around a center hall and stairs, with rooms to the sides. Windows are arranged in straight lines. Doors are often capped with a fan window, flanked by flat columns and shaded by a decorative architrave. Floorboards are, again, of various widths.
Wealthier owners often covered their windows with silk or damask drapes, swags and garlands. Straight lines define the furniture. Hepplewhite and Sheraton were the dominant styles. Wooden inlays were common. Interior doorways were often arched. Handwoven Oriental and Aubusson carpets were common. Wall colors were richer than early Colonial hues: golds, deep creams and slate blues. Blue especially was a status symbol. Some walls were covered with flocked paper.
An Eastern Shore farm home like Sarafian’s would likely have had wide, random-width flooring that was pegged, not nailed. Exposed beams would have been true supports, not a decorative conceit. The palette would have been earthy, with occasional shots of something special like Wedgewood blue. Furnishings such as Queen Anne chairs and Porringer tables were still common. “There was lots of wood, not much upholstery,” Sarafian says. “Furniture back then was a real art. There was lots of attention paid to details.”
As for those Victorians, “They were very, very expressive—ornate furniture, ornate architecture,” Sarafian says. Exteriors featured interesting pediments and gables and, sometimes, the hallmark gingerbread. Exterior colors were bright. Furnishings ran the gamut from Colonial pieces handed down—or collected as antiques, a new pursuit in that era—to mass-produced “revivals” of famous styles to more exotic styles that became accessible though foreign trade, including “Oriental” pieces. Fabrics for upholstery and window treatments tended toward thick, heavy wovens and velvet. “Everything was over the top,” Sarafian says.
Owners of historic homes—and those who want to create the feeling of history in a newer home—can find faithful reproductions of just about anything. Makers such as Brunshwig & Fils and Scalamandre specialize in vintage wallpaper patterns. Companies such as Farrow & Ball re-create traditional paint colors, and even though you can find approximations or entire lines of classic colors at the local Sherwin-Williams, “‘There’s a certain hue to a true period paint,” Sarafian says.
Fine furniture makers such as Kindle assemble pieces that are virtually indistinguishable from their forebears.
“It’s expensive, but it’s absolutely magnificent furniture,” says Sarafian. “Even Desmond Guinness used it.”
As for true originals, “You won’t find them at some roadside antiques mall,” she says. She’ll occasionally drive to randomly picked small towns in the region to scout, just out of curiosity, but she sources the best pieces from reputable dealers, often overseas.
A designer can also help balance the owner’s desire to maintain fidelity to the styles and trends of the period to modern lifestyles.
“No one wants to be cooking soup over an open fire,” Sarafian says. “You need appliances, so there has to be a balance. Of course, it depends on the client and how deep they want to get into it.”
And for those who want to go deep, there’s no telling what rewards await.
“At the Wilde house, we found some of Sir William Wilde’s surgical instruments,” Sarafian says. “That was amazing.”