Since launching FORMA Design 25 years ago, Andreas Charalambous has split his time between residential and commercial work. So when a client tapped him to renovate a penthouse that would bridge both of these worlds, the architect jumped at the challenge.
The owner, an entrepreneur who resides in Maryland, acquired the Adams Morgan apartment to serve as an urban pied-à-terre and a workspace for his real estate and entertainment companies. “I wanted a way to collaborate with staff in a non-sterile environment—something cutting edge,” he explains.
Client and architect saw potential in the two-story loft that features panoramic city views, two en-suite bedrooms, dual terraces and a roof deck. But aesthetically, it was woefully outdated. “The apartment had an ’80s or ’90s vibe and an explosion of cherry wood on the countertops, cabinets and floors,” the owner recalls. “It was screaming for the right eye.”
After touring the space, Charalambous agreed, “It was not very inspired. The kitchen was generic, the lighting was poor and railings blocked the views.” Charalambous and associate Juan Gutierrez developed a plan to transform the bland interiors with an avant-garde vibe. Rather than gutting the space, they sought to transform it by better articulating the architecture, introducing a whole-house lighting program, updating the kitchen and opening up the views.
Most of the drama centers around the apartment’s double-height atrium. Charalambous designed a sculptural wall as a bold focal point above the existing fireplace. He also opened up a second-floor office to forge a visual connection to the atrium and views beyond, and further expanded sight lines by replacing conventional railings with glass panels. Other creative gestures—from a cut-out screen near the dining area to floating, interlocking ceiling panels with built-in lighting—define spaces and introduce a bold, modern language.
“These active, three-dimensional ceilings make the space more exciting,” explains Charalambous. “And opening walls lets you experience the atrium from all over the place. Before, it was a missed opportunity.”
In place of a single pendant that hung in the atrium, they selected blackened-steel Super-Oh fixtures by Delta Light in three different sizes, hung so they make a strong statement but don’t obscure views from the upper floor. “Lighting is a big part of what makes this space amazing,” says Charalambous, who collaborated with Vincent Sagart of Poliform | sagartstudio on the lighting plan.
The designers set out to create moods for both intimate and party settings. Linear Splitline fixtures are integrated into channels and niches that ascend the fireplace wall and traverse the ceiling to reach the loft. “I decided to pick up some of Andreas’ architectural lines,” Sagart explains. “In the end, this unified both levels and brought the spaces together.” Meanwhile, adjustable Topix fixtures bathe the staircase wall with wide and narrow beams of light, creating a 3-D effect. Splitline and Topix, also made by Delta Light of Belgium, can be dimmed and adjusted in myriad ways.
Charalambous set out to eliminate visual clutter, creating a pared-down background for contemporary furnishings and architectural accents. In the kitchen, for example, traditional cherry cabinet fronts were replaced with flush panels free of hardware. A busy backsplash gave way to back-painted glass, while a new island of Snow White Krion from Porcelanosa provides gathering space for work and leisure. Reducing the color palette throughout to gray and white, contends Charalambous, “simplifies the way you see the space so that whatever we decide to play up—such as new upper cabinets with glass doors from Poliform—becomes a focal point.”
Now complete, the project meets the owner’s request for dual functionality. “The way we set it up, the dining area is also a meeting area, the kitchen is a bar and the living room is also a lounge,” says Charalambous. Upstairs on the open landing, another lounge area with a built-in flat screen was designed for meetings and brainstorming sessions.
The architect notes that the success of the project was driven by a few strategic moves. “It wasn’t about tearing out everything and redoing it,” he reflects. “It was about making the space exciting by investing in lighting, upgrading the kitchen and creating the sculpture wall above the fireplace—the things you actually experience.”
Why is lighting crucial to a successful renovation?
Charalambous: Lighting can transform a space depending on the mood you want to create. You can have the most beautiful interiors but if they’re not lit well they won’t work.
We design lighting for all of a room’s potential functions.
What makes a partial renovation challenging?
As opposed to gutting a home, a partial renovation means you have to adjust existing elements so the result feels like it was all done at the same time, with the same intent and quality.
You shouldn’t have a sense of what is new, what is old or what was renovated.
How do you help clients allocate costs?
When we start looking at finishes, we keep in mind whether the budget is on the high, middle or lower end. Don’t spend all your money in one room or it will look out of place. The project should
feel consistent in the quality of materials, lighting and finishes.
Renovation Architecture & Interior Design: Andreas Charalambous, AIA, IIDA, principal; Juan Gutierrez, project architect, FORMA Design, Washington, DC. Lighting Design & Kitchen Consultant: Vincent Sagart, Poliform | sagartstudio, Washington, DC. Renovation Contractor: HBW Construction, Rockville, Maryland.