WHAT IF YOU had the ability to envision what a room should look like, from entry to far wall, from floor to ceiling, and everywhere in between? And what if you had inherited a generous helping of classic English and American furniture, paintings, carpets and silver?
With time and patience, and a wonderful eye, you might—might—wind up with a Georgetown apartment that looks as if it might be on the boulevard Saint-Germain. It helps that the grand main room’s proportions are more Continental than American, practically square, with high ceilings, and large windows on two sides letting in enormous amounts of natural light.
How did Woody Mefford, for 15 years the lucky and talented resident of said apartment, find such a magical place? “I saw an ad in the newspaper,” he says, laughing at his own good fortune (and, probably, at how 20th-century that seems now). A deputy assistant secretary in international trade during the Reagan administration, Woody had recently returned from almost a decade of living in London. Happily, a local development company had begun revitalizing historical properties around Georgetown, including buildings with collateral living space.
“This building used to be a tobacco warehouse,” Woody is saying, looking out a south-facing window in the direction of the river, a few blocks down the hill. “They would offload the tobacco and roll it up here to be hung and dried.” Standing on a vintage Turkish kilim amid gilt-framed paintings and a neoclassical gilt wall sconce, I find it hard to imagine but it’s no doubt true: Tony Georgetown has a late-18th-century industrial past.
The apartment, like so many, has the galley kitchen near the entry, which means visitors must march past it to get to the apartment’s other rooms. But the rather glitzy-looking shiny black granite counters and light-brown wood cabinets give the room a dressy look. “Black refrigerator, black dishwasher, black counters: not exactly my taste,” Woody notes; he prefers crisp white kitchens. “And the black shows every spot.”
The kitchen also had a pass-through to the next room, designed to be a dining room. Woody used cookbooks, and collected pieces of porcelain and small paintings to plug up the space on the kitchen side; books, pictures and architectural objets fill it in on the counter’s other side, opening to what Woody has dedicated as a library/sitting room/TV room.
The library is anchored by a large inherited antique Caucasian carpet, in rich hues of red, green and blue, but what really animates the room is the array of photos, all in silver frames (except one: “Perfection can be boring”) assembled on the shelves of the large bookcase opposite the sofa. In these images, a family grows up, children get married and have children of their own.
The large living and dining room is where Woody’s design-eye shines. Anchoring the space with the significant mahogany pieces from his family, including a handsome Baltimore sideboard (“The English call it brown furniture,” he points out), Woody uses his sure sense of balance and texture and color to leaven the mix—a pricey antique Persian carpet here, a Kurdish carpet there; paintings from his great-grandfather’s house on one wall, vivid modern works on paper on other walls.
Woody enjoys the hunt for just the right piece (even when it’s prolonged by someone else). The pair of early-19th-century English gilt chairs are an example. Working for an antiques dealer in London, he would see a pair of chairs in the dealer’s shop, but the dealer would say, “No, those are not right for you.” And, when traveling around England and thinking he had found the perfect pair, the dealer would disagree, repeating: “not right for you.” Finally, after a few years, a pair of gilded chairs came to the dealer’s attention, which he said were not only beautifully carved and perfectly scaled, but also masculine and sturdy, with original covering. “These are for you and will be delivered to you, tomorrow.” Woody was thrilled, but rather short on cash. Not a worry, the dealer kindly allowed Woody to keep the chairs and pay later . . . “much later,” according to Woody.
The chairs are indeed masculine and sturdy. Good thing too. “This place is for living and has withstood children, dogs and parties,” says Woody. “My friends and my children’s friends are warmly welcome to sit/ sprawl on all the furniture. Thank goodness they are sturdy. Like every piece in the apartment, the chairs are to be lived-in . . . nothing too fussy and precious.”
Perhaps sensing that Woody missed the hunt once his own place was finished, friends, aware of his keen eye and design talent, began to ask him to decorate their homes and apartments. Invariably, he has accepted these requests, constantly enjoying the fresh challenges presented in “the hunt.” So far he has decorated a rather grand co-op in Manhattan, several houses and apartments in D.C., as well as in Beaufort, S.C., and in his hometown of Cincinnati.
But Woody has no ambition to compete with professionals. “I can walk into a room and envision where things should be, and enjoy finding the right pieces of furniture, selecting the right fabrics, wall colors and accessories, and pulling it all together. “Apparently it is something others think I can do well, and I find their delight in my decorating amazingly satisfying, even though it’s a far cry from the deeply rewarding humanitarian work I had been doing, before. ”
While living in London in 1992, he co-founded Lifeline, a humanitarian organization, which provided emergency and continuing care to the innocent victims (especially children) ravaged by the devastating Balkan wars. As Lifeline grew, it expanded its humanitarian reach from the Balkans to other countries, including Romania, Poland and Russia. “It was incredibly rewarding, instilling a deep personal passion for providing development assistance, particularly to those whose lives are torn apart by conflict or natural disasters,” he explains. Returning to Washington in 2000, Woody consequently accepted a senior-level position at USAID, managing a complex portfolio of international development programs in 23 countries across Europe and Eurasia.
Now and in the future? Woody would like to continue a life of helping others improve their lives: lives filled with hope, dignity, peace and prosperity. Perhaps by helping to provide humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees currently flooding into Europe? Or, by helping others transform their living spaces via furniture, fabrics, color, texture and accessories. Remarkably, he seems to be rather gifted at both!