Home: All Dressed Up

The pioneering spirit of children’s fashion designer Joan Calabrese is evident from a few steps outside her distinctly modern home in the green hills of Newtown Square. The soaring vertical walls of burnt umber brick are a striking departure from the modest colonial residences in the area.

“We were inspired by the modern movement of the time and really wanted a modern home,” says Calabrese, who built the house in 1969. At the time, nobody wanted the deeply sloped lot, despite its picturesque views, but fortunately, Calabrese knew a good contractor: her husband, Jack, who was part of the family business, Calabrese Construction (he has since retired). “Our neighbors didn’t know what to make of it, and I think they were confused,” she says. “But now they absolutely love it, and it’s everyone’s favorite house.”

Calabrese graduated from West Philadelphia Catholic High School in 1957 and has made a living out of heeding her instincts, be it for fashion or architecture. She turned down a full scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to make her own way, and eventually started her own design company in 1975. Today, she has a national following for her luxurious girls’ dresses (infant to 14), and hanger space in about 100 stores throughout the country and even a few in Japan.

The same principles that fueled her 30-year career in fashion and the rich handmade details that define a Calabrese label — delicate embroidery, lace and beading on plush fabrics — are at work in her own home. Silk is a favorite material. Calabrese herself crafted the plush Italian silk pillows embellished with tiny beadwork that rest on her living room sofa. She made them for a catalog shoot of her clothing line, but liked them so much she kept them.

“I love contrasting elements, textures and colors,” she says. “Elegant contrasts put together in unusual ways give a spark of surprise to a dress or a room.”

Calabrese brings a painter’s eye for color to any project, and her home is no exception. Almost every room is a uniform soft white, but bold red accents throughout the house provide that contrast she adores.

The accents pick up on a brilliant vermilion powder room — where a 1970s opera light fixture stands out like a jewel against the bold tone — and the deep-claret family room. “The reds are a nice surprise,” she says. “They stimulate the eye. I often use the same type of twists when making a garment. It can still be elegant and classic, but that spark of contrasting color or texture keeps it modern and up-to-date.”

Although it was built almost 40 years ago, the Calabrese home has endured the test of time, thanks to its many classic elements. Its centerpiece is a steel-and-oak staircase framed by a handcrafted wood balustrade, a housewarming gift made by Calabrese’s father. The space surrounding the stairs is loftlike, airy and flooded with light. “We really wanted the house to be as open and free-flowing as possible,” she says. Light pours into the dining room through cutaway windows, which are bare of treatments to better frame the view of the property’s tall evergreen border. The trees give the Calabreses all the privacy they need.

Every fireplace was custom-designed and built, and each resembles a work of art more than a hearth. One in the family room is white and dark red brick, while the two-story fireplace in the living room has a flared conical hood with unusual sweeping lines. “Jack drew out the shape on cardboard first to get the shell-like form. Then a wooden frame was made and plastered over,” says Calabrese. “We cut out the ceiling around the flue to borrow the light coming down from the skylights of the second floor. It was an engineering feat that was well worth the effort.”

Rooms are furnished with a mix of modern classics and antiques, all with an equally timeless look. The family room, with its cozy, clean-lined furniture — an Eames chair, a pair of leather club chairs — is clearly inspired by Calabrese’s favorite designer, Ralph Lauren. “He can do no wrong when it comes to housewares,” she says. “He is the king.”

She doesn’t do much wrong herself. Many of her purchases have been made on overseas trips, whether she’s traveling for business or for pleasure, and her natural instinct for great style has proven a worthy guide. “You can make some great finds,” she says.

“I am like a laser beam,” she says. “It takes me one second to recognize the ‘rightness’ of the object, and another to make the purchase. However, it could take a long time before I encounter the right thing.” A favorite find is an 18th-
century French armoire that she purchased at a since-departed antiques shop in Narberth. “I love beautiful old wood that is hand-carved,” she says. It plays wonderfully against the angular steel- and-glass table and sleek white walls in the dining room.

Calabrese also picked up a beautiful Victorian frame on Portobello Road in London. “You have to get there first thing in the morning or you’ll have lost the best things to the dealers,” she says. The rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris is another regular stop — the French tapestry pillows in her living and dining rooms were purchased from one of the many antiques shops there.

Other influences are closer to home. Both of Calabrese’s daughters inherited her creativity, and Elena Calabrese, a jewelry designer based in San Francisco, made the metal end table in the living room when she attended the California College of the Arts. Paintings and drawings by both girls decorate the walls, and Calabrese herself painted a portrait of her grandmother, Maria, that hangs downstairs. Gerard Tempest, Calabrese’s cousin from Italy who apprenticed with the renowned Italian surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, painted a series of equestrian scenes that line the walls of the stairway.

Architectural renderings of the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC — Calabrese’s favorite building — hang in the master bedroom suite. “We both appreciate great architecture, and I love books,” she says. “I share the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson, who said, ‘I cannot live without books.’”

Her collection of titles on everything from art and fashion to biographies and world history overflows the custom cherry shelves of a warm and inviting library in the adjacent room. American histories, particularly the California Gold Rush, are favorites. “The spirit of adventure and discovery it must have taken to do that trek at that time in history is extremely compelling,” she says.

The appeal is obvious: Calabrese is a pioneer in her own right. In the fashion world, and in her own home, she has always delighted — and excelled — at braving a new frontier.