New York Interior Designer Carolyn DiCarlo Creates Emotionally Sustainable Green Spaces

Architectural and interior designer Carolyn DiCarlo transforms ordinary houses into emotionally sustainable homes


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Photographs by Ken Gabrielsen

Architectural and interior designer Carolyn DiCarlo’s homes — like her interests, education, and experience — are eclectic. DiCarlo, who originally wanted to become a psychiatrist, majored in the philosophy of architecture at Oberlin College. After graduating, she studied at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, where she came into contact with some of the country’s architectural giants, including Peter Eiseman, Charles Gwathmey, and Michael Graves, and subsequently studied at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Today, the New York City-based DiCarlo creates “emotionally sustainable architecture,” a term she coined to describe designs that not only support the environment, but also nurture the inhabitants and occupants of the buildings and spaces she designs.

“Good architecture and design should be about more than how something looks, but how it affects you physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually,” says DiCarlo. “Renaissance architects and ancient builders understood the connection, but it’s often been forgotten in modern times. You walk into the cathedral at Chartres or a pyramid and immediately have a profound feeling. That doesn’t happen in many modern buildings; so much has been dumbed down.” DiCarlo incorporated her aesthetic philosophy into an 1824 Hudson Valley farmhouse on picturesque countryside in the hamlet of Wallkill, which she helped a couple, John Micale and Robert Raicht, now both retired, remodel. We talked with DiCarlo about her work.

carolyn dicarlo living room

Architectural and interior designer Carolyn DiCarlo (left) opened up the living room of the farmhouse. But the owners took charge of the redesign — retaining original beams, choosing paint colors, and finding collectibles on outings

You didn’t like the way architecture was taught in the past. Why?
How we experience our built environment was rarely addressed.

You worked for some impressive design professionals before you started your firm — Adam Tihany, Moshe Safdie, and Philip George. How did they influence your work?
I respected them tremendously. I didn’t imitate what they did, but learned from them and their business practices.

How do you get started with a client?
I start by closely listening to clients and being very open-minded since I want the solution to flow organically from what’s there — the house or a site — and from what I hear regarding their needs. I view a project as a possibility for transformation, a journey that I take with my clients. With the 1824 farmhouse, the owners, who had bought the house and grounds years before, came to me for another bathroom since their master bedroom didn’t have its own. I convinced them to put a bedroom suite in another part of the house where we could combine two small bedrooms to gain a large bedroom and new bathroom and more private suite.

You seem incredibly optimistic that you can always find a solution. True?
Well, I’ve found in at least 95 percent of the cases I’ve worked on that when something takes a turn, even when it seems it won’t work, that it will — and turns out better. Maybe I’m the way I am because of my own spiritual journey. I got through a divorce; it’s how I approach my work. It’s not just about architecture but going through a personal process, finding a way out of a stuck place and doing it well.

dining room kitchen

The homeowners selected a rich buttercup yellow paint for the dining room. In the kitchen (right), DiCarlo and the owners worked collaboratively. They had the dish storage unit built locally, and DiCarlo picked Kashmir granite for its durability and light color

You also work on commercial projects. How does a business influence a design?
Instead of the individual experience, I broaden what’s needed to reflect a group experience. I redesigned an advertising agency that had grown haphazardly. I realized it didn’t have a center. I redesigned the reception area to serve as an intimate welcoming area. In the work area beyond, you feel the sense of activity and everyone connected through linked work stations. It’s important to communicate and share in the advertising creative process; before, employees had individual pods with a separate, disconnected feeling. It goes back to my concept of making people feel better in their environment.

Why do you think this is important as a design philosophy today?
So many people’s lives have been driven by a need for money and accumulations, but usually it’s subtler things that make them happy. Google understands this and gets people to be their most creative by having a work environment that allows for more creativity by intertwining work and fun. We can take this further by using the proportions of the space; changing the flow; using color; framing views to affect mood, health, and spirit. These considerations make design that not only looks good, but feels right.

How have you used the sustainable component here in the Hudson Valley?
The Wallkill farmhouse had low-ceilinged bedrooms but wonderful views of surrounding hills and horse farms. When we moved the master bedroom’s location and turned it into a suite, the owners got not only their own bathroom and privacy, but also soaring ceilings. For a 1978 “vanilla” ranch house in the Catskills, we raised it up a floor for better views and added a fabulous front porch. The living room ceiling now climbs to 40 feet.

And for another home in Katonah, we took better advantage of the bucolic setting and drew its new colors from nature, which added character and meaning.

How does your own home nurture you?
My apartment reflects a clean, spare, textured environment with subtle colors. There’s not stuff all around — not much artwork. I wanted an interior that felt open and would be good for self-creativity. I considered, too, that I am living in a city brimful of visual stimuli. That affected how I designed my apartment.

bedroom bathroom

DiCarlo suggested combining two small bedrooms to create a large one; new beams replicate those used downstairs. In the new bathroom (right), DiCarlo used an elegant Carrara marble sink, a classic American country striped wallpaper, and brass sconces, instead of shiny chrome or nickel ones

How would you describe the state of design and architecture today?
We’re at the end of the “white box” era. People are clamoring for more meaning in their lives. They’re meditating to find inner calm, exploring what makes them happy. Soon, the cross-disciplinary dialogue about our health will finally include talking about how our homes, offices, and public spaces affect our well-being. But it’s a different solution for every person. I try to nudge this conversation out of clients to get at what’s deeper and more important than the superficial of how something looks. It’s about how spaces can have a positive, profound effect on our lives rather than be an ego-blast for an architect, designer, homeowner. I always assume that I can give clients what they want, but not necessarily in the way they thought. I sometimes have to undo some of their preconceptions, and I have to be very open-minded.

What was your first reaction to the existing house?
Great location, beautiful old original farmhouse, low ceilings.

wallkill farmhouse exterior
The homeowners often enter through the back of the house with its welcoming long porch

What were the main problems with the existing design?
They wanted to make another guest bathroom since they were sharing their bathroom.

What were your initial thoughts and reaction to the site and house and your suggested solutions?
Magnificent view of horse country and rolling hills. I told them, ‘Hold on a minute. This is basic. You should have a master bedroom suite with bathroom. Take out two bedrooms, go to the other side of the house where there are spectacular views, and we can bring plumbing lines up since it’s above the kitchen.’ They seemed taken aback at the idea. They ruminated, then saw the logic and that my program was possible.

How do you feel about the results?
Thrilled; my clients told me they weren’t sure why they hadn’t thought of the idea themselves.

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