Lobbyist and hospitality entrepreneur Vinoda Basnayake entertains clients and friends in his edgy, art-filled Arlington townhouse.
Entering Vinoda Basnayake’s five-level Arlington townhouse is a bit like walking into one of his Dupont Circle nightclubs, the iconic bank robber-themed Heist or the modern-day Aspen chalet-themed Kabin. Open spaces and clean, minimalist furniture are punctuated with fun, edgy details like decorative gold skulls and faux fur throws. Large tinted mirrors and colorful works from famous graffiti artists line the walls; a state-of-the-art sound system blasts hip-hop hits; elegant fireplaces abound and a long marble bar invites you to taste a tumbler of Johnnie Walker Double Black, Basnayake’s favorite.
The similarities are no accident. When he decided over a year ago to purchase the property, the Washington-born lobbyist and hospitality entrepreneur enlisted the help of his friend Brien Watson of Brien Zachary Watson Design (who also designed Kabin and KARMA by Erwin Gomez Salon, in which Basnayake is an investor). They completely gutted the place, turning a traditional, “typical D.C.” building into a contemporary dwelling that reflects its owner’s aesthetic and lifestyle. Smaller rooms were combined to allow for open spaces with natural sunlight. Heavy dark wood floors were replaced with marble.
“I wanted a property that felt unique and tied to the city, but not cookie cutter,” Basnayake, 35, explains. “Brien did a great job of making the place feel different, not like a stuffy Georgetown home.”
“Washingtonians do not warm up to contemporary design, so we couldn’t scare them,” Watson says, “but this is pretty bold.”
It’s bold, yet functional, designed with entertaining in mind. Basnayake is a natural host. It’s what drew him to hospitality in the first place, starting a nightlife agency when he was an undergraduate at Georgetown and then, after grad school at Penn, opening the District’s first rooftop club, the wildly successful Eden. Hosting events is also pertinent to Basnayake’s day job as a government relations lawyer for Nelson Mullins. “I have two seemingly distinct careers, but there’s so much overlap and I love when that ends up happening,” he says.
The flow of the house makes it ideal for hosting fundraisers. On the first floor is a fully stocked bar, complete with ice maker, wine cooler, top-shelf alcohol and enough space for a bartender or two to easily serve 100 people. After enjoying a cocktail on the first floor, guests can wander up to the second level where a show kitchen with a built-in 20-foot island and dining table is the central feature.
“Everyone always ends up in the kitchen,” Watson explains. “So we thought, why not make the whole room the kitchen?
Instead of individual pieces of furniture, they wanted things to be more monolithic. The dining room table comfortably seats eight and is built into the island (with counters sourced from marble floors that are used in many places throughout the house). Guests can congregate there to admire the culinary skills of Basnayake’s good friend, noted chef Spike Mendelsohn, who’s been known to cook for his buddy’s weekly soirées. At the time of our interview, Basnayake had just hosted a fundraiser for Virginia lieutenant gubernatorial hopeful Justin Fairfax, and was making final touches on a Super Bowl party. A full kitchen being built on the basement level and a chic elevator (painted all black inside) ease the duties of catering staff.
Furnishings and architecture are like a “quiet background,” Watson says, while Basnayake’s art collection is “the color, the exclamation point.” Among the contemporary artworks are Justin Bua and Mr. Brainwash originals, as well as a batik print from a Sri Lankan artist handed down from Basnayake’s parents.
“I didn’t want to put up art just because it was expensive,” Basnayake says. “I wanted everything to speak to my vibe and personality. Every single piece is intentional.”
Basnayake got in touch with Bua through a friend; he told the artist that he was a longtime fan and even had his famous “The DJ” poster hanging in his college dorm room. They connected over their mutual love of animals. Bua soon sent Basnayake an unexpected gift, an original painting of his treasured cat Vesper gratis (it now hangs over Basnayake’s bed). “That was the energy I wanted in the house, the good vibes,” Basnayake says. Those good vibes led him to purchase an original version of “The DJ” that Bua had created with Los Angeles street artist Jules Muck.
The Mr. Brainwash piece seemed destined for the house, depicting the Marine Corps War Memorial that Basnayake views daily from his rooftop overlooking the city. That view, he says, is why he purchased the place.
“Even when it’s cold I go to the roof every day. I’m a D.C. guy. I love looking at D.C.”
View more photos in the March 2017 issue of Washington Life.