This Family Moved From L.A. to Baltimore for One Really Good House—That They’d Never Seen in Person
But as much as they loved it, the bathroom needed an overhaul stat.
Updated May 16, 2023 5:21 PM
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When the painter that designer Robin Heller hired first heard about the color-blocked plans for her primary bedroom, he told her he’d be back the next day to help her paint it white again. “He definitely thought I was insane,” she says.
Robin’s big ideas didn’t stop there. Because she wasn’t just designing her family’s dream home—the four-bedroom ranch is a creative lab for her aptly named company, Surrounded by Color.
Just a few years ago Robin was working as a communications professional for brands such as Lucky magazine, Rolling Stone, Madewell, and J.Crew. She made the pivot to interior design in 2021 after completing a few of her own home renovation projects. “My business is still a baby, but this house has been a muse for me,” Robin says. “It’s kind of the showroom of my work at the moment.”
She was living in Los Angeles with her family at the time, when her husband, Noni, discovered the perfect property—in Baltimore. They hadn’t even seen it in person, but they knew. Plus Robin’s entire family is in the area. “He showed it to me, and we both were like, holy moly, this is the one.” They set up a FaceTime tour of the house and put in an offer right there. Two months later, they moved in with their boys, Liam (8), Lev (6), and Harry (9 months); two dachshunds, Zippy and Bug; and a bearded dragon named Jason.
Buying without a physical walk-through is always a gamble, but luck was kind to the Hellers. “We loved it so much from the second we walked in,” Robin says. “It was maybe even better [than we hoped].” The redwood exterior, mahogany panels, and curved walls—none of which are common in the neighboring properties—drew them in, but the home’s history (a pair of shipbuilding brothers constructed it in 1951) made the deal even sweeter. The yard was a bonus, too. Because of the droughts in L.A., they had Astroturf there. Here, they have three sprawling acres of grass and trees.
As much as they loved their new house, it wasn’t perfect. The first thing they did was renovate what would be the older boys’ bathroom to split the awkward Jack and Jill setup into two individual areas. In what’s now Liam’s own space, two tones of zellige tile cover not only the floor but creep all the way up the wall. “My tilers hated me,” Robin says, laughing.
Even before starting on the bathroom, infusing a personal touch throughout the house was a must. “We started hanging art right away,” Robin says. “It was the first thing we wanted to do.” Noni picked up an art-buying habit from his father, whose collection includes everything from Hockneys to Picassos. In the Hellers’ home, there’s a heavy Japanese influence thanks to the trips the couple have taken together (including their honeymoon), and pieces from artist friends like Colleen Herman fill in the rest.
The main living area is a small gallery for many of the pair’s favorite pieces of art and furniture. “I hate to kill the drama, but Noni and I never disagree on design—we really love the same stuff,” Robin says. “This room speaks to our personalities as a couple.” The pieces above the fireplace have been collected from auctions over the years. All of the chairs are mid-century vintage. The coffee table, which Robin dubs the workhorse of the room (and is often covered in Legos or puzzle pieces), is a custom creation by L.A.’s Sherwood Kypreos. The most essential piece in the room is on the ceiling. “I needed that 46-inch Noguchi lantern front and center,” she says. “When you come up the driveway at night it looks like there’s a moon hanging in our living room, and it’s just so beautiful.”
In the family room, more commonly called the “tie-dye couch room” in this household, one could argue that even the IKEA sectional is a work of art. “We had this Soderhamn sofa for eight or nine years and it’s been great,” Robin says. “We’ve swapped out the legs a couple of times, but when we moved here, I had this vision of tie-dye.” She turned to her friend Kalen Kaminski, who runs a creative studio called Upstate, to bring that idea to life. The custom cover was hand-dyed in swirls of yellow, pink, red, and blue that cleverly disguise messes. “There’s probably ketchup and dirt somewhere on there,” Robin says with a laugh. “But my kids cannot destroy it.” Matching curtains hang behind the sofa on oxblood rings and a Pepto-Bismol pink rod, all powder-coated in custom shades. Every bright color in the room was meant to bring balance to the moody walls swathed in Farrow & Ball’s Down Pipe.
A lighter gray-blue covers the nursery, which has a calming effect on both Mom and baby. “I feel the most comfortable in this room,” Robin says, adding that they spend a lot of sweet time here as a family, often over coffee in the early mornings. Of all the infant-soothing pieces in the space, Robin highly recommends the red pleated sconce mounted over the glider to all new parents. Her littlest is mesmerized by it. “It’s like he’s staring into space,” she says.
The grown-ups’ room is transfixing in a different way. Big blocks of color wrap around the walls and ceiling in oversize checks—the print her painter was so unsure about. Robin doesn’t follow trends when it comes to furniture or art, but paint, she says, can be more of the moment, so she went all in. She recalls several occasions when her clients got cold feet the night before a big paint project, but she always encourages them to just do it. What’s the worst that can happen? “I was in shock right after, but now I love it,” Robin says. “It’s so cozy to wake up in a warm hug of these colors.” There’s no going back to white walls now.