Award-winning interior designer Tracy Davis sees beauty in simplicity
“In today’s society, we have a lot of distractions,” says interior designer Tracy Davis. “Stripping out all the visual noise in your residence makes it a softer landing, a place of respite. There’s value in creating a really beautiful interior background, and it doesn’t have to be complicated.”
Those are core philosophies of Urban Dwellings, the interior architecture design firm that Davis founded in 2005, which has received several national accolades over the past couple of years.
“I think I’ve evolved as I’ve gotten older,” says Davis, who is 53. “When you’re new and starting out, you look to icons in the industry. But I am a type A personality. I don’t like a lot of tchotchkes; I like things clean.”
Her five-person team works out of a studio and storefront boutique on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, where Davis’ floor-to-ceiling office windows overlook the Portland Observatory and a sidewalk where neighborhood kids skateboard or walk to school. It’s a completely different scene from her home in Bath, with its private gardens on the Kennebec River, and she loves both landscapes, watching those neighborhood kids grow from season to season, watching the river freeze and thaw.
A sense of place is another critical element of Davis’ work. There’s a seaside home in Cape Elizabeth that she designed that gives such big props to the landscape that just looking at photos of the house you might conjure up the memory of fresh summer sun and ocean breezes. For this whole-house design, Davis was named the Interior Design Society’s 2017 Designer of the Year.
“You don’t need a lot of stuff, but the stuff you have should hold meaning.”
Urban Dwellings, as its name suggests, has a niche with the architectural design of living spaces in cities—and that’s true, with their client base extending beyond southern Maine to Boston and New York.
In Portland, however, some of the best-known samples of their work are public spaces. In the Arts District, there’s The Cumberland Club, its Federalist-style exterior complementing a timelessly modern interior with an appreciation for history in the details. Likewise, in the West End, Urban Dwellings was part of the team that transformed a single-family home designed in 1881 into a luxury 15-room hotel with a spa, restaurant and a classy but relaxed vibe.
Urban Dwellings was part of the multimillion-dollar expansion and makeover of Bayside Bowl, with a retro but modern feel. There’s a mezzanine overlooking the action on the lanes as well as a rooftop bar featuring not only a killer view of the city skyline but, incredibly, a taco truck. Bayside Bowl caught the eye of “Bowlers Journal International,” which named it the Best Renovated Center in the United States last year.
“My comfort zone tends to be contemporary,” Davis says. “But I really dig the whole renovation piece, whether it’s bringing history back to the forefront with a current use or looking at the forms of 50 or 60 years ago and giving them new life, bringing them up to the current standard of living and making them relevant to a modern lifestyle. For example, today we value more light but also protect our privacy. Design can be a bit of an illusions game, too—understanding how to preserve views and create views.”
The Urban Dwellings staff works as a team, dividing up tasks within each project and tackling 16 to 22 projects a year. “We don’t take every job, but we have a great referral list,” Davis says.
Even though Urban Dwellings has a recognizable design aesthetic, each interior they design is uniquely tailored not only to the space itself but to the clients’ vision, preferences and practical considerations.
“These aren’t our homes,” Davis says. “We’re hired to help others achieve their goals, putting ego aside. I feel like it’s a natural extension of nurturing for me, where I don’t have kids and that biological connection, but I can help people nurture their goals through their living environment. We’re seeing a lot of empty nesters and have been helping people realize their goals regarding how they want to live their lives now.”
The process starts with meeting the clients—not only seeing the space to be designed but how the clients actually use their space.
“It’s a bit invasive, right?” Davis says. “The way we live in our space is private, so it’s important to meet each other. I listen and watch their body language. I caution clients that we don’t want to create a lifestyle for you to move into; we want to design a space for your lifestyle. Interior design is a financial commitment, so we want to be thoughtful in our approach and with the materials. We want to create the new classicism—by which I mean a background that allows you to be flexible as you grow.”
“We don’t want to create a lifestyle for you to move into; we want to design a space for your lifestyle.”
An interior design may provide a clean background, but rarely is a home a blank slate. Most clients already have some furniture or art they treasure, and the Urban Dwellings team builds around those pieces.
“My philosophy is about creating balance throughout the whole house and having the furniture or art be the pops of color or the thing that draws your eye,” Davis says.
She travels extensively, going to shows throughout the country and in Europe, finding beautiful and unusual objects that will become beloved accent pieces.
“Beauty has a price, and people are willing to spend money on something that resonates with them,” Davis says. “They may be of the thought that they’re never going to own a home but they’re going to have treasures that they use every day.”
For example, a young woman walked by the Urban Dwellings storefront boutique every day and coveted a Firestone demitasse espresso set, a set of four cups and saucers rimmed in gold, priced at $120. Her mother eventually came in and bought it for her.
“It’s a little splurge,” Davis says. “You don’t need a lot of stuff, but the stuff you have should hold meaning. We want to find that piece that makes you happy, that makes your heart sing every time you look at it.”
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who loves a little splurge now and then.