A client who literally refuses to take no for an answer may sound less than ideal, but for the team at Boston’s Hacin + Associates, one such energetic and creative collaborator’s approach led to aesthetic magic—and joy. “Truly, I would describe her—we all would—as a dream client,” lead interior designer Matthew Woodward says. “I’ve never had more fun on a project in my life.”
When Robin Nelson-Rice and her husband, Derica Rice, decided to move from suburban Indiana to Boston, their real estate broker and general contractor both felt H+A was the perfect match to reimagine a six-story 1881 Back Bay town house. However, founding principal and creative director David Hacin found himself quite busy at the time. “Robin looked at me right in the eye and said, ‘You don’t understand. You are going to be doing this project.’ And I actually loved that,” Hacin says. “As we were talking, we clicked, we connected, and that was it for her. She wanted to keep going with that process.” Soon, the client became intimately involved in every decision—with only a handful of exceptions. (“Let’s say you need a white paint; there’s 250,000 of them—I’m walking away,” Nelson-Rice recalls with a laugh.)
“A common theme throughout the project was asking for the impossible . . . and us figuring it out, at every stage,” says Christine Rankin Manke, who led architectural finishes. Nelson-Rice drove the unsentimental overhaul of the structure, including extensive reinforcement with steel, a distillation of complicated internal levels, and secondary staircases to super simple, spacious, and clean areas. It was a delicate balance of transformation and preservation that required solving many painstaking puzzles. “Searching for stone was like searching for artwork,” says Manke, who adds that Nelson-Rice was most interested in unique architectural elements she hadn’t seen before. “[S]he really [wanted] to push boundaries. For us, that was music to our ears.”
The home’s guiding light is arguably a graceful, ribbonlike staircase with a freshly ebonized handrail. “This really feels like a thread, unraveling and unwrapping from the ground all the way up to the sky,” Hacin says. “It’s almost pulling light in and pulling the dark accents up and out. It unifies the whole house.” The stair, which had been painted mint green and cream, is a point of orientation, revealing slivers of rooms and spaces along the way. “As you climb higher, the rooms become lighter, so more dark furnishings and fabrics are featured,” Woodward says. The opposite is true on lower floors. The stair itself is a gallery space through which dynamic art is woven, as well as a Merida carpet with intermittent custom hand whip-stitches. It helps imbue the space with a maker’s touch, which was an important for the designers. “You can see that the table’s been chiseled, something’s been carved or handwoven,” Woodward says, “and that really softened some of those glamorous, clean-line elements.”
H+A worked to reinforce that concept with art and special finds, such as the curvilinear Object Studio chair in the living room, which was directly inspired by the fluidity and tonality of the staircase. Additionally, Woodward says, “we made decisions wholeheartedly based on viewing the space as a gallery for contemporary Black artists. Robin was really thrilled to do that. Early on, we were conscious of showing restraint in the materials palette, so we could really let the art stand out.” The dining room in particular was designed around a Russell Young portrait of Barack Obama, a piece Nelson-Rice says, “speaks volumes—it’s peaceful, it’s hopeful, it’s positive.”
Still, graphic stone plays off sumptuous velvets and leathers, and some rooms—such as the primary bedroom—were designed to be overtly moody. A chic library with sculptural chairs from the (now defunct) 1stDibs Gallery is a favorite space, and one where Nelson-Rice likes to read, reflect, and have Friday night Zooms with girlfriends. Woodward describes it as “sitting in a hug.” The entire home, Woodward says, embodies a sense of grounding and peace. Appropriately enough, it’s the couple’s first residence as empty nesters. “People don’t speak very loudly, it’s almost like a spa in a lot of ways,” he says.
In that, she succeeded, even after the stress test of four straight months inside—with their three adult children, who joined for COVID lockdown. But in some ways, moving in just before a pandemic proved a blessing in disguise. “We were sequestered, but we had the best time because you can have so many different experiences,” Nelson-Rice recalls. “[My kids] refer to it as home now, so there was the gift of that.” Musing more broadly, she adds of the design team, “It’s incredible what they were able to create here. I can just be here, but still be fulfilled and inspired by a different space every day.”