All words: Ashley Wright
All photos: Jeff Martin
DeNada knitwear designer Virginia Arrisueño and her husband, artist Kelly Towles (his first DC solo art show in years, “The Death of Ulysses,” is open this weekend at Hierarchy) have redefined the phrase “working from home.”
The couple, their two-year-old son Atticus, and their dogs live and create in the artist lofts on O Street in Northwest D.C. Towles’ work studio is actually hidden inside their beautiful third floor loft – it’s sectioned off from the rest of their living space by big, rustic barn doors that prevent Atticus from getting his hands on Kelly’s rainbow wall of spray paint cans. (They do let him draw on the walls when Dad is around, though.)
Arrisueño’s airy, light-filled show space is next door to their living quarters, making her commute approximately 10 steps. When I ask how they managed to find the show space for Virginia’s line and their apartment in the same place, Virginia explains: “We were living here for a year when the space next door opened up. The cool thing about this building is it’s just artists and designers and people in the creative community, so it was really inspiring.”
This eclectic mix of artists-next-door includes textile mavens like Virginia, graffiti artists like Kelly, and everything in between: writers, mixed media artists, sculptors, photographers, and more. Virginia and Kelly place a lot of value on snagging a space in this permissive, creative environment because it allows them to have exactly the life – and apartment – they designed for themselves.
“We don’t really live the very conventional lifestyle – both artists, both self-employed – and needed something where we could spend time with our son and still do what we love to do,” Virginia says as we admire Kelly’s graffiti-style family portrait in the living room. “Whenever someone tells us ‘You can’t do that’ or ‘You can’t live that way,’ we say that we’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
They’ve applied this motto to everything in their joint life, from arranging their schedules and work spaces so they can spend the majority of their time with Atticus to gutting and re-designing the loft where they now live. “Imagine the space really bare – it was bad. We had to put a lot of thought, time, and love into the space and make it our own. There was no kitchen, there was no lighting … We wanted to recreate it so it fit our lifestyle,” Virginia says as she gestures toward their minimalist kitchen.
Kelly laughs at the memory. “When [Virginia] came in here she almost cried. The space was a big fixer-upper. I was like, ‘You gotta see a vision.’” Virginia chimes in: “He’s more patient and I’m more instant satisfaction. He was like, ‘We’ll conquer one room at a time.’”
They started in the kitchen, tearing swathes of insulation away from the high ceilings and installing the plumbing themselves. “Building the kitchen, we knew that we were having the baby so we didn’t want cabinets on the bottom,” Virginia says. “We wanted him to be able to walk around and just do whatever he wanted.”
They designed the whole space with a baby in mind. “That’s why the kitchen is totally open; that’s why Kelly’s studio is behind doors. We put big furniture in front of outlets. Any of the bigger shelves and mirrors are attached to the wall so he can’t pull them down … our son is the biggest priority in our life, and the last thing we want him to feel is that he can’t make a mess or play with his toys. Wherever he wants to go, he can just go.”
The result is a space that’s both functional and fun. In the past Atticus has had a swing in the middle of the open loft that he can play on; now there’s a hammock chair hanging from the ceiling where he can sit. He has his own little “room” next to his parents’ bed and his toys are stashed in different places around the apartment. When I remark on how they must have had a difficult time finding a place to put everything, Virginia laughs. “Since it’s an open loft space, we really had to figure out storage. That’s why we have lockers. For Atticus’ toys we use the ottoman.”
The strategic mix of unique storage spaces – lockers and furniture – and dividers like heavy curtains ensure the loft never feels claustrophobic or cluttered.
When I ask what their favorite thing in the apartment is, they both immediately point to the dining room table. Virginia tells us the story: “Before we moved here, we never had a dining room table. Every place that we moved, we would always have a two bedroom place; the second bedroom would be for my studio and the dining room would be for his studio all the time. When we moved in here, we were so excited – ‘We actually have room for a table to eat at!’ We keep a ritual where whoever picks up Atty from daycare has to make dinner, so then we’ll have dinner together.”
This ritual is just one example of the way they’re making their lifestyle work for them. Since Kelly and Virginia live and work in the same space, there’s nowhere to sulk if they have a fight and nowhere to retreat to if they need some alone time. However, this lack of separation works for them: “We’ve been together for 13 years, and we’re around each other 24/7. I don’t know many couples that can actually do what we do. We’re in each other’s business all the time.”
This togetherness is only interrupted when they lock themselves inside their respective studios to work.
Virginia, her assistant, and their new intern (“It’s my first day!”) have minimalist desks along one wall of Virginia’s show space. The middle of the room is dominated by a huge, knarled wooden table illuminated from above by an expansive skylight. Free-hanging rods around the room showcase examples of Virginia’s work: Scarves, snoods, and shrugs in cozy neutrals ranging from creamy ivory to rich black are offset by deep, lush purples and forest greens.
Kelly’s space is the opposite: A riot of color greets the eye as he swings open the barn doors to reveal a small, charmingly crowded room full of paint cans, half-finished projects, concept sketches, and his unique brand of graffiti-style art. Anyone who knows the D.C. food and beer scene should be familiar with Kelly’s work: He’s done murals for Toki Underground and DC Brau. Kelly is currently in the midst of designing a huge, colorful piece for Erik Bruner-Yang’s Maketto on H Street.
Virginia and Kelly have managed to balance work, life, family, and art to produce a space that’s equal parts striking and comfortable. They’ve managed to incorporate elements reflective of both their individual styles and who they are as partners. In this traditionally buttoned up city, their home is a haven of creativity and color.