Design Master v. Disaster, Part II: Who’s Camilla?

So, let me backup for a second.

My tenure as Mr. Hammertown began in 2004. For the last 6 years, I, along with a rotating band of my best friends, have been the primary residents of the stoic Greek Revival at Hammertown.

The house had been pretty much unoccupied since my parents moved to Ancramdale in 1999, becoming an impromptu purgatory for unused displays, awkwardly-sized antiques, merchandise that just would not sell no matter the price and a surprisingly large backlog of slipcovers from Joan’s grayish-brownish period.

Although my sister, who got the design gene, gave me a solid push in the right direction (clearing out space for an office, bedroom and den when I moved in), if anyone could make the place less presentable than it already was, it would be me.

You see, I fancy myself a scrappy do-it-yourself recycler, preferring to work with what’s available, be creative and figure things out, not just buy things. Well, I had been applying this principle for years, but primarily, in the virtual realm. While I work with design online on a daily basis, in the real world, when it came to creating a home, the only thing that carried over was the not buying things. Otherwise, I was pretty much a thoughtless slob.

So, rather than clear out retail rejects and leftovers from my wonder years, dust continued to gather, paint kept peeling, faucets kept leaking and, in a very real sense, ghosts walked the halls of this grand old house. It’s no wonder my mom rarely stopped in to say hello.

My office/library as it started. The initial idea: put a door where my paper-pile cabinet is.

Some things, however, could simply not be ignored. In 2006, we faced the fact that the house envelope was in serious need of repair. We rebuilt the porches (which seemed to be melting somehow) and painted the exterior. I made some inroads into repurposing the interior, but lofty ideas, coupled with my part-time residence and lack of vision, translated into modest efforts, never gaining enough momentum to stop the flow of transient inventory. I did make myself an office, but as you can see by the picture…that didn’t go too well. I made it so dark and gloomy, my girlfriend avoided me when I was in there (now she tells me).

My idea was to put a doorway from the nook into the library on the other side of the wall.

The kitchen was comprised of a cooking area and a nook.

So, it was with this poor track record and narrow scope of thinking  that I began to ponder putting in a wood stove. It fit my Spartan ideal and would make my girlfriend happy (i.e. warm). To allow for proper circulation, a doorway was needed between the kitchen and the library.

I alerted Joan to my plan. Since what I was considering required actual construction (not just moving some furniture around), the stakes had changed and for the first time in some time, my mom realized that she still loved this old house and wasn’t about to let her design-challenged son run roughshod over it.

“Gregg, whatever you do, this has to be done right.”

“Well, actually Mom, I was planning on doing it wrong.” (I was being sarcastic, but, looking back, there’s some truth there.)

So, we got off to a rough start. But, to her credit, Joan collected herself, considered the situation and said, “Why don’t we talk to Camilla?”

“Who’s Camilla?”

Camilla Mathlein (was relatively new to Hammertown. She had brought some of her clients to the store, so Joan picked up that she was a designer and feng shui expert (check out her website, we just finished the first draft today). Something about Camilla must have impressed Joan because, without seeing any of her work, she referred Camilla to a couple of long-standing Hammertown customers who were very particular, quite tasteful, but having a hard time coming to an agreement about a space they were working on.

Well, Camilla nailed it. And in the process, Joan got to see how she worked. What impressed Joan the most was the way in which she was able to work collaboratively with this couple and reconcile their distinct tastes and ideas.  One look at her drawings made it clear why she was so effective. By bringing abstract ideas and concepts together and translating them into realistic, yet artful renderings, Camilla’s method allows you to see how your ideas actually play out in reality. Her drawings help to rule out the more fanciful ideas that simply don’t work, but more importantly, her drawings have life. Her drawings add inspiration and vision rather than limit it.

So, back to our story…

Based on years of experience trying (and failing) to get this Taurus to see things her way, my Virgo mom, in all her wisdom, recognized the need for a translator.

Camilla came for her first visit to the main house last November. She approached the space very intuitively and listened to Joan and I offer our thoughts. I kept it simple (“I want a door…maybe a double-wide.”), while Joan spoke more abstractly about integrating the space, and, you know, other designy stuff.

After taking it all in, the first thing Camilla said was, “do you need this wall?”

With that, what began as my humble effort to make my house cozier for my girlfriend turned into my first ever design adventure. After a lifetime of making do with what was around, forces lined up for me to explore my own vision and design something right.

The fact is, I thought about taking down the wall years ago. I thought of how it would make the house more of a communal space; how it would support my dream of Hammertown as a gathering place to share ideas, art, food, stories and space with my friends and neighbors; how the house at Hammertown could feel alive, productive and beautiful again.

Doing it right, it turns out, meant more than making the door the right proportion and the molding historically accurate. Doing it right meant breaking through old habits and limited expectations. Doing it right meant the wall was coming down.

Less than a week later, Camilla dropped off the first set of drawings. We were blown away.


  • I love how you have captured the true essence of this family “design” story….especially since I am a key player. Really though, you and mom (along with the hammertown design crew) have really outdone yourselves. I cannot wait to eat my first meal in your new kitchen at the end of the summer! Rebirth on so many levels! Could this be the start of a new you Gregg? Will you be hoarding paint swatches and watching HGTV on your laptop? xoxodana

    • Joan says:

      This is quite a Hammertown story…the evolution of a house, and the stories it has to tell…past, present and future. I see a rebirth, and as Gregg’s Mom , the owner of Hammertown, and as a friend to all associated with Hammertown…this calls for a celebration….how about a Farm to Table Party over Labor Day! Can’t wait to celebrate.

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