Designers to Watch

This Boston Firm Delivers Crisp Updates of Historic New England Homes

Lexington, Massachusetts, dining room created by Elms Interior Design
Portrait of Dee Elms
Dee Elms enjoys outfitting historic homes with contemporary comforts. Top: In a Lexington, Massachusetts, dining room, Elms installed a Christopher Boots chandelier over a Promemoria table. Untitled 18, 2016, from photographer Ori Gersht’s “Blow Up” series, hangs on the wall (interior photos throughout by Michael J. Lee Photography).

Designer Dee Elms lives in a historic house in Cambridge, Massachusetts — more about that later — but her projects range from historic renovations of colonial-era homes to modern condos. Whatever the period or architecture style, the interiors she creates all exude warmth and comfort, suggesting that a Dee Elms–designed home would be a lovely place to live.

The native New Englander’s involvement with design started more than 16 years ago, when she moved to San Francisco to study yoga but instead decided to totally switch career directions. “I say that I had a midlife crisis when I was thirty and trying to figure out what I really wanted to do,” she explains. “I ended up renovating the apartment I was living in, and I was surprised by how much I loved it and how happy it made me.” 

The experience led Elms to begin working in the industry, learning as much as she could about the basics of good design. “I went back to the old masters, and I pored over any book that I could get my hands on,” she says. “I’m thankful for the way I learned, because I really enjoyed it.”

With that self-education under her belt, Elms moved back to Boston to be close to her family and eventually launched her own shop there.

Her firm, Elms Interior Design, handles plenty of new-construction projects. It’s most noted, however, for transforming storied New England houses by mixing historic detail with present-day flair. “Ninety percent of what we do is contemporary, but there’s a nod to classic in there as well,” she says. “I don’t do hardcore or uncomfortable contemporary. I do clean, crisp and comfortable. When you commit to a renovation, you want it to be amazing. You want to sit on every piece and be happy.”

We talked with Elms about her aesthetic philosophy and her own home renovation.

West Brookline living room designed by Elms Interior Design
A Jean de Merry chandelier forms the centerpiece of this living room in West Brookline. James Nares’s Before the Rain, 2015, to the left of the fireplace, adds a splash of color, while HOLLY HUNT’s walnut-frame sofa grounds the space.

Who were some of the designers that inspired you?

When I was starting out, Sister Parish and Albert Hadley and Thad Hayes were huge influences on me, but Steven Gambrel was mind-blowing. He’s a classically trained architect, but then he mixes everything in — it’s very contemporary. If someone left me in a room alone for two days with his books, I’d probably be OK. I would read them over and over and notice new details every time.

Do you have a furniture designer you love?

Charlotte Perriand started designing almost one hundred years ago. She had all this foresight into how we should live, and her design is still amazing. She would be my OG designer. 

For someone contemporary, it’s Pierre Yovanovitch — he’s also a French designer. When I was in Paris, I went to his atelier for a talk and a tour. He has these really cool pieces that he sometimes inserts into classic spaces and sometimes into contemporary ones. The range of his work is amazing.

Living room designed by Elms Interior Design in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood
Pamela Jorden’s Lee, 2017, adds a vibrant note to a living room in Boston’s Back Bay. An Antonio Citterio for B&B Italia sectional and a Holly Hunt club chair provide ample seating.

What about a favorite artist?

I love contemporary art. Some of my favorite artists are Stanley Whitney, Elise Ansel and Sophie Treppendahl. I really believe that bringing color into an interior through art makes the space come to life. 

Where do you find your style?

I find inspiration around me every day, in even the most simple places. Chipped brick, frayed fabric, water droplets on old paint — they can inspire deconstructed patterns.

I also love traveling. Paris is my favorite. I go every year for Déco Off. It’s great to see designers from all over, but the city itself is just so inspiring. Talk about classic and contemporary and bringing them together!

Would you live in Paris if you could?

I’m not sure if it would be as special if I lived there. I’d be happy to go for a month. We really love Cambridge. We love our neighborhood, and we’re committed to renovating our house, which is an ongoing project.

Beacon Street bedroom designed by Elms Interior Design
Pieces with unexpected finishes — chain-mail pendant lights, faux-leather nightstands and a velvet channel-tufted bed — bring this bedroom in a traditional home on Boston’s Beacon Street into the 21st century.

Tell us about your renovation.

Our house isn’t super historical, but we wanted to make it feel like it could be. Historical detailing is something my husband and I both get into, so it’s been fun to inject that into our home. We’re into the detailing, down to the shingles, the peak of the roof and how we trim out the windows.

What’s your dream project?

For me, it’s the house and the client. I love it when clients have a classic, beautiful envelope and are willing to mix up the interiors with more contemporary pieces. I think that’s the most beautiful combination. When it’s done well and respectfully, it’s top notch.

Cambridge living room designed by Elms Interior Design
For the family room of a Dutch colonial house in Cambridge, Elms created a custom wool-velvet ottoman to complement the A. Rudin sectional and Holly Hunt Branche side table.

What design idea do you think is underappreciated?

Thinking through casing and trim details is something that’s not always done because it’s easier not to. A lot of people throw on a baseboard, put a cap on it and call it a day. I like to look at the shape and size of a house and see what that inspires. With trim work, you can add this amazing texture.

What sets Elms Interior Design apart?

We’re known for collected interiors. Our clients are busy, and they put an enormous amount of trust in us to design homes that it feels like they’ve traveled the world to create. Whether with furniture, art or objects, we strive to pull together layered interiors that reflect the diversity and complexity of our clients’ lives. 

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