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Victorian minimalism in small-town Pennsylvania

A 125-year-old home marries period details and a strictly streamlined aesthetic

Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today, we look at how hardware designer and sculptor Carl Martinez applies his minimalist style in a maximalist setting: his Victorian home in Easton, Pennsylvania. “I wanted to live in a simple manner with few modern amenities in the old bones of this house,” he says.

Martinez, who makes artistic custom hardware, lived in New York City for 20 years before he decided he wanted some nature in his life. Through friends, he discovered Easton, a town of some 27,000 people, which he describes as “having a well-established artistic community.”

After some false starts trying to buy a large building, he stumbled across a brick Victorian, built in the 1890s. “It looked like it had been abandoned for several years, and I was curious about it,” he says. He was on the porch peering through the windows when the administrators of the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society pulled up. The Historical Society owned the building, and they just happened by to check on it.

Photos showing details of Carl Martinez’s Victorian home: A hallway with a single bulb and gray walls, an ornate coal heater with a curved top and a colorful tile hearth, a staircase that’s painted white save for the raw wood on the treads and the top of
Clockwise from top left: A hallway shows some of Carl Martinez’s design principles for his Victorian home: raw wood, a single bulb, and soft gray walls; in this house, a defunct coal heater is an architectural moment; when the staircase was being painted, Martinez decided to leave the stair treads and the top of the newel post raw; he salvaged this large mirror from a building that was being demolished in Philadelphia. He loves its decaying state.

“They asked me what I was doing, and when I told them I was interested in buying the house, they invited me to take a look inside,” he says. “It was very dark and musty. It was full of bric-a-brac, as they were using it to store donated items. But the bones were amazing. So, what started as trespassing ended as a real estate transaction.”

That’s not to say that when the place was cleared, those lovely old bones didn’t need to be reset. Before its years as a storage facility, the building had existed as a rooming house, and most of the high Victorian details that remained were well worn.

Photos of the outside of Carl Martinez’s house: The front is brick with gray trim, a tree stump is sculpture on the front porch, the back is painted white and has a lush, green garden.
From left: Although many people associate Victorian homes with brightly colored exteriors, Martinez chose three shades of gray for the outside trim of his home; a stump salvaged from a field full of cows is now sculpture on the front porch; when he first saw the backyard, it was neglected and weed-choked, but Martinez pictured the garden that exists today.

“The woodwork just wasn’t in very good condition—it had a lot of scratches and flaws,” Martinez says. “The flooring and the woodwork were very dark, but I sanded it all down. I left the floors raw and light colored, and I painted the woodwork and most of the walls white. The lighter colors seem to draw in the natural light.”

He decided to take a Scandinavian approach to decor. Furnishings are kept to a minimum, light fixtures are limited to single bulbs mounted on the ceiling, and the mattress in the master bedroom is on the floor. It doesn’t even have a pillow in the way of adornment.

“I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve been to Sweden many times. I’m attracted to more stark environments—to me, they seem serene,” Martinez says. “All of the furniture and things in my home have a story or some meaning, and most of them aren’t new. I have never been drawn to brand-spanking-new things. Most of my items come from auctions, antique stores, and flea markets.”

Photos from Carl Martinez’s home: A photo of him among the plants in his sunroom, the sunroom filled with green plants, ornate antique furniture against a simple gray wall.
Clockwise from top: Martinez in his sunroom; during the winter, the sunroom is filled with plants from the garden; he says that simple backgrounds make the things you put in front of them special.

And as for that pillow-less bed, Martinez laughs when he explains: “I’ve never slept with one. It’s part of my monk-like tendencies.”

That’s not to say everything is bare and spare. Throughout the house, there are moments of collecting intensity. Cabinets are filled with colored glass, small paintings, and metal pieces, and some walls are covered with collages of inspiring images.

“A lot of the things in the cabinets are things my mother collected in Iran,” he says. “I grew up there, and we came here when I was 17. When you are uprooted from your childhood country by revolution, you tend to hold onto pieces that have a strong symbolic nature or represent a tie back to that era.”

Photos of Carl Martinez’s home: A little-used kitchenette displays framed insect specimens, bold green plants are like sculpture in the house, a metal chair without cushions displays a frame with bold lines, a cabinet holds a colorful collection of glass
Clockwise from top: In a previous life, the home was a rooming house, and this kitchenette is a remnant of that time. Because it’s lightly used, it doubles as a display moment; bold green plants are natural exclamation points in the home; a chair without cushions can be admired for its frame; a cabinet holds colorful glassware collected in Iran.

The interiors are also touched by nature. Throughout the house, stumps, leaves, and branches appear—not just as bit players, but as the stars of the room. They are cast in their leading roles due to sheer presence.

Take the living room mantel, for example. Before Martinez purchased the home, an unknown occupant stripped the fireplaces of what were likely elaborate Victorian mantels.

Martinez embraced the simplicity of the denuded features, making them simple boxes. Now, the ornamentation comes from the great outdoors: A large piece of driftwood is mounted over the firebox, a giant bamboo section is propped against one side, and an enormous palm frond leans against the other.

Photos of Carl Martinez’s home: A bedroom is spartan, with just a mattress on the floor; in the bathroom a piece of trim acts like a shelf; in the living room a big piece of driftwood is on the mantel, a large section of bamboo leans against one side and
Clockwise from top left: The master bedroom is simply outfitted with a mattress on the floor; in a bathroom, a piece of salvaged molding becomes a shelf; the fireplace in the living room has driftwood on the mantel and a palm frond and bamboo section on the sides; in the living room, a sofa stands alone, with no coffee or side tables.

“I’ve always loved seeing nature juxtaposed against a white wall,” Martinez says. “It reminds me of how Richard Avedon would roam around New York City with a white backdrop. When he saw an interesting person, he’d roll it out and take their photo against it, and you’d suddenly see intricacies and expressions you wouldn’t notice otherwise. For me, when I put nature against a similar backdrop, I see a similar type of beauty.”

Martinez remained friends with administrators at the Historical Society, and says that when he invited them over to the house after the remodel, they were surprised — they probably expected to see refinished dark wood and wallpaper. But, much like the clarity Avedon’s backdrops brought his subjects, the plain backgrounds throw the traditional details of the home into high relief.

“When you look at the dining room floor, you see that it’s an art piece,” he says. “Without the dark varnish on the boards, you can see all the different species of wood they used. These floors were laid by hand, and their level of intricacy is amazing.”

Martinez has dozens and dozens of images on the wall above his desk, making a colorful collage.
In his office, Martinez decorates the wall behind his desk with art, photographs, and other images. “Every once in a while, I have to strip it all off and start again,” he says.

Martinez occupies the house with his parents, who moved in shortly after he finished the renovation. Luckily, they share his style preferences. “Both of them have adopted my Zen approach to design,” he says. “In this country, it’s considered unorthodox to live without coffee tables, rugs, and side tables. But we think there’s something nice about sitting in a beautiful room and admiring the space without clutter."

That said, the homeowner acknowledges that, when compared to the long life of the house, his decor’s presence is brief. “We are just a part of the history of the house,” Martinez says. “It’s like that line in Out of Africa, where Robert Redford’s character says that we don’t own anything, we are just caretakers. I feel that way about the house. I’m just passing through, taking care of it for now.”

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