When Orna Willis looks at the skeins of embroidery floss hanging from the wall in her home studio, it's not just a visual treat.
"Color has such a strong effect on me," Willis said, "that it gets mixed up in my senses until I don't know if I'm seeing it or hearing it or tasting it."
For Willis, an artist who creates intricate designs for her online fiber, fabric, and metal gallery and store, the pegboard is like grapes to a winemaker. "All I need to do is turn around and look at it, and it gets my creative juices flowing," she says.
So when Willis and her husband, Reid, both 53, moved with their 9-year-old daughter, Nina, from a McMansion in Ann Arbor, Mich., to a loft in Northern Liberties six years ago, color became her muse for the 2,950-square-foot blank canvas.
Today, the house is awash in artwork, much of it by Willis' 30-year-old daughter, Shiri Wolf, mixed with a few highlights by other artists including Andy Warhol and Piero Fornasetti. The main living room evokes warmth as well as space, with vignettes throughout: groupings of Scandinavian glassware, or large, prolifically growing terrariums. Willis' favorite design elements are those created of objects that she and her husband have accumulated in their travels to South Africa, Italy, Spain, Cambodia, and Israel, where Willis grew up. But nothing dictates the character of the rooms so much as the color.
There's the art deco sofa discovered at a garage sale and reupholstered in chartreuse, and the pair of leather chairs in dusty tones of pinkish red and cordovan that look worthy of a Sundance catalog. Willis painted one with leather paint, but has yet to attack its mate because she's not sure she likes the color quite yet, "though it's growing on me." The purple leather camelback sofa from Ethan Allen, a wedding present from Reid, completes the collection of furniture, all of which was in their Ann Arbor house. Reid, a patent attorney, pours his creative energy into maintaining an extensive classic film collection, leaving design choices to his wife - although he takes credit for that signature purple piece.
"The only rule we have about design is that we have to love it," Willis said. "I never think, 'Where will I put this? Will it go with the decor?' I collect what appeals to me. There must be some kind of common thread in it though, because . . . it still works."
That might have something to do with her art degree from the University of Haifa in Israel, where she studied painting before taking up fiber arts in 1994. She admits a certain fondness for a particular shade of "mustardy puke-green," but says she really loves the "ish" colors - greenish-brown, grayish-green, reddish-yellow - that "don't have a name that you can define in one word."
Still, when they first moved in, the family discovered loft living was trickier than anticipated. The lovely maple floors and massive caramel-colored roof beams seemed to swallow husband, wife, and child when they wanted to settle down in front of the TV, and the trendy exposed-brick walls provided limited storage options for a family with a live-in artist. So last spring, the Willises decided to renovate, charging Philadelphia-based architecture firm Qb3 with two tasks: create intimacy and storage space.
Partial walls were built to establish nooks for reading, while Ikea wood countertops lined new walls, creating beautiful and economical shelves for Willis' books.
Willis' studio, behind a newly installed partial wall, is a haven for color matching, with a custom slatboard for fiber that was framed to give it a more finished look. Two Ikea kitchen units joined by a wooden countertop provide multiple drawers for the tools, beads, skeins, needles, and other implements of Willis' business, Orna by Design (ornadesign.com).
The studio has its share of mess - there are "fabrics and unfinished projects and all the clutter of ongoing brainstorming sessions," she says - but Willis organized the space with detailed labels. The natural light from the north-facing window further illuminates the room's colors, and provides a welcome change from the windowless area the studio used to occupy, now a space for a cozy TV room, accented with a purple ottoman and a bright-red Ultrasuede chair.
Down the hall, Nina's room pops with shades of pink and orange, and features Cambodian art, reflecting Nina's heritage, that includes a mobile and embroidery by Cambodian land-mine survivors. Orange tablecloths from Crate & Barrel hang suspended by clips at the windows.
"I love repurposing fabrics and I don't like doing hems - so when the tablecloths were a perfect length for curtains, I was thrilled," Willis said.
Where you won't find tablecloths is in the kitchen; a plain butcher-block table hosts most family dinners, and glass tile brings depth to the backsplash - but both elements are overshadowed by the new induction oven set into CaesarStone quartz countertops.
Across from the kitchen is another new nook, which holds Reid's piano and several framed needlepoint works, the first of Willis' artworks to be displayed in her home.