Going for Gray

For a young family’s first suburban foray just across the Hudson River, designer Penny Drue Baird creates a sumptuous, soft landing pad.
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A sofa from Roche Bobois anchors the family room, which features wallpaper by Weitzner and an alabaster ceiling fixture by Fuse Lighting. Photograph by Brittany Ambridge.

Gray, the color of battleships and dreary weather, has been enjoying a prolonged reinvention in the design world. But it takes a finely honed talent to elevate a color often synonymous with dull to an unparalleled level of elegance, sophistication, and comfort. Penny Drue Baird, perhaps a colorist in the truest sense, has been doing just that for decades, creating beautifully articulated, gray-inflected rooms with a timeless quality to them.

Baird had previously designed two New York apartments for Kerri Levine and her husband, Jared, before the couple decided to leave the city for a suburban spread just across the Hudson River, in Cresskill, New Jersey. The capacious six-bedroom house was the ideal spot to raise their young children, and it even came with panoramic views across the river. “We wanted a relaxed home where every inch could be used every day,” recounts Levine, who runs her own real estate company, “and a house that was absolutely kid-friendly. Penny has six children, so she knows exactly what that means.”

The color palette, it turns out, was Levine’s idea. “I’m a gray person,” she says. “I love every shade of it.” And even though Baird has done a lot of neutral rooms, she swears it’s not a signature look per se. “Honestly, I start every project with the client’s directive,” the designer says. “It’s just that a lot of clients have come to me asking for neutrals. I recently finished a very colorful apartment in Paris, but I think a lot of people are finding neutrality to be calming. Kerri and Jared are a young couple with two young children, and what they really wanted was a fully functioning house for all of them.”

Not to mention a bottom line that was within their reach. “I suspect that most of Penny’s clients don’t even give her a budget,” says Levine, who has a close relationship with Baird and likes to “call her my older sister. But she was perfectly willing to include pieces that we had, things we’d inherited from our grandmothers, and to fold in lower-cost items to stretch the budget.”

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A vibrant painting by Brendan Murphy, a custom metallic-based table, and a vintage Italian ceiling fixture from John Salibello lend extra shimmer to the dining room, where custom chairs by Bespoke are covered in a Kravet faux leather. Photograph by Brittany Ambridge.

“I admit that I’m a snob,” says Baird, who is known for her attention to architectural detail and her affinity for French furniture, “at least in terms of quality, design, and creativity. That doesn’t mean everything has to be a rare antique.” The designer, who keeps an apartment in Paris and has written six books featuring her work, knows the nooks and niches of the City of Light’s flea markets the way most people know the aisles of their local supermarket. She found several pieces for the project in Paris, as well as from retailers like RH, West Elm, and Mecox.

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Philippe Starck–designed chairs from Kartell surround a Roche Bobois table in the breakfast nook. Photograph by Brittany Ambridge.

Additionally, Baird added new moldings and flooring (from hardwood to stone), refaced the fireplaces, and updated and ultimately transformed the kitchen and the bathrooms, delivering the Levines with the family-oriented, yet luxurious and inviting home they had set their hearts on. It turned out that the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, given the COVID-19 lockdown that went into effect not long after the project’s completion. “You know a home is working for clients when they are shut in with two small children for the better part of a year,” Baird comments, to which Levine adds, “I don’t know what we would have done if we had had to go through that period in a city apartment. My son now says he loves the house so much, he’s never going to leave.”

The print version of this article appears with the headline: Neutral Territory.