Designer creatively twists traditional into "today"
Several years ago, he was dressing the windows of a Dupont Circle hair salon. Today, fresh-faced Joseph Ireland is running a successful interior design firm, cutting his teeth on homes in Georgetown, Kalorama and Potomac.
The 30-year-old decorator's growing reputation led him to be selected for the Spring show house currently on view at the Washington Design Center, where he has created a soothing "weekend space" for finding your inner Zen. Ireland works from a third-floor office in a building on artsy 14th and Q streets Northwest, next door to the Asian restaurant Rice. He shares his three-year-old practice, called JD Ireland, with the "J" and "D": Julie Weber, 28, a friend since high school days in Gaithersburg, who manages his projects; and business partner Dan Wehrung, 34.
As the creative force in the firm, Ireland maintains a laid-back attitude toward decorating that often wins him repeat jobs among Washington's finicky and demanding homeowners. "I'm not a dictator," he says. "I adapt easily to a client's taste. I like having someone bring something to the table." Designing rooms that are both elegant and comfortable, he often blends in a homeowner's favorite furnishings. "Instead of coming in and [making] a fortune selling you the fabrics and the furniture, he appreciates what you've already acquired," says Marianne Foulger. She and her husband, real estate developer Bryant Foulger, hired Ireland after trying four other decorators to redo their Potomac home.
"He has a good sense of color and proportion," Foulger says. "It's hard to find that. Most decorators come in and say, ‘here is the look.' Joe really understands the flavor of the family and what works for us." After starting with the family room, she says, Ireland designed a homework space for the couple's school-age kids and moved on to transform other parts of the house. In addition to installing new curtains and furniture, he reupholstered the dining room chairs, repainted end tables and made sure family photos were kept in place.
Ireland, who attended Montgomery College but never graduated, admits he is still developing his style, which draws on both the traditional and the modern. "I like mixing history with pieces that are contemporary," he says, "but not so contemporary that they feel out of place." Inspiration, he adds, comes from the work of New York designer John Saladino and Washington über-decorator Thomas Pheasant. The "tone-ontone" look of their interiors, created through a subtle layering of textures and colors, is certainly evident in Ireland's beige-on-taupe room at the Washington Design Center (on view through June 24), where cushy armchairs and a sofa from Gore-Dean are paired with a metal coffee table filled with pebbles.
His "tone-on-tone" subtly layers colors.
Another influence is noted Washington designer Jose Solis Betancourt, who hired Ireland as an apprentice after admiring his creative arrangements in the windows of the Axis hair salon off Dupont Circle.
"He taught me a lot about creating a story, how each room needs to relate to the next room," says Ireland, who worked for Betancourt from 1999 to 2001.
Ireland's offbeat displays – including a red refrigerator filled with bottles of "Milk" bath and body products – not only caught the attention of Betancourt, a regular salon customer, but young urbanites who hired Ireland to help them furnish their apartments. That work, in turn, led Ireland to open a design practice with Wehrung in 2002 and then hire Weber, who became the third partner in 2004.
His knack for combining found objects with antiques and new pieces – a skill developed during his window dressing days – has served Ireland well. From sprucing up Logan Circle digs for yuppies, his work has grown more sophisticated in style and scope.
Youth has its advantages, Ireland says, in not only attracting like-minded, up-and-coming urban professionals, but smoothing over taste disputes between homeowners of the opposite sex. He claims he is "able to achieve a happy medium between what the wives and the husbands want."
Referrals often come from the Georgetown furniture store Hollis and Knight, where Ireland has helped with buying and displaying furniture. That's how Vickie Burns, vice president of news at the local NBC affiliate, ended up hiring the young designer to remodel her two-bedroom townhouse off Massachusetts Avenue NW in Wesley Heights. "Before we bought a single pillow, he helped me redesign the kitchen and lay out the floors," Burns says. Simple but effective changes, like relocating the refrigerator and extending crown molding to unify the kitchen, she explains, won her admiration for the designer's practical approach.
At the same time, Burns notes that Ireland helped her to achieve a "clean and serene feeling" in her renovated 1980s home through a mix of new and recycled furnishings. "He pushed me out of my safe zone," she says, citing the designer's recommendation of a turquoise-and-brown patterned fabric for a living room chair. Ireland's newcomer status within Washington's staid design scene is a plus, Burns says. "It makes him freer. He has a keen eye for detail, but he doesn't impose the design world on you."