Ian & Martha’s Tasteful and Sentimental Home

published Jun 17, 2014
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(Image credit: Christine Lu)

Name: Ian and Martha Robinson
Location: Church Hill; Richmond, Virginia
Size: 1,800 square feet
Years lived in: 4 years; Owned

Ian and Martha Robinson have the kind of style that seems effortless. Once you get to know them, however, you realize that it’s even better than that: their style has developed over time from attention to craftsmanship, quality, and artistry. They value simplicity and beauty, and are mindful about the practicalities of living on a budget and with two children.

(Image credit: Christine Lu)

When you walk through their home, you’re surrounded by historic elements, but the simplicity and minimalism gives it a modern vibe. It’s a place where you would want to hang out for hours, surrounded by rays of light and children playing underfoot.

(Image credit: Christine Lu)

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Our styles differ a little bit, but the things we agree on are the minimalism and craftsmanship of the space we live in and the tools and decor we fill it with. If we have the opportunity to actually make a purchase for our home (not just take what’s available in hand-me-downs) we like it to meet at least 2 of these 3 criteria: beautiful, sentimental, and/or useful. Ian studied industrial design and architecture, and has given me the language to describe what I love. This sounds so esoteric, but I love things that are true. I have an aversion to facades, anything with a veneer. I have a hard time with wood that’s been painted because I love being able to see and appreciate the fundamental materials. I don’t like something trying to look like something else. Concrete trying to look like marble, plastic trying to look like wood or metal or ceramic or glass. I can appreciate synthetic materials, just as long as they’re true to what they are.

Inspiration: It probably doesn’t come through in our decor, because much of what we have was not necessarily hand picked but handed down, but we are both especially fond of and inspired by Japanese design and architecture, particular the way they approach modernism, and the lifestyle that compliments it.

Favorite Element: The millwork throughout the house, but particularly the original hardwood floors that are about a hundred years old. They anchor the house in its history — I like to imagine all that they have survived.. They’re heart of pine, an incredibly dense and durable hardwood that is only available today through reclaiming. They creak in a comforting sort of way, have aged so beautifully, and provide such a beautiful surface to compliment any style.

Biggest Challenge: It’s an old house that has survived seasons of love and seasons of neglect. I don’t know how many times it has been flipped, but depending on the hands it was in, different owners made different “improvements”, some with regard to the existing style and craftsmanship of the original house, while others evidently took the path of least resistance to just get the job done. There are a number of places around the house that still catch our eye and make us think “What were they thinking when they did this? What possessed them to think this was a good idea!” It’s just that way with old houses in the hands of either the profit driven or those without the means to do it right. Either way, living in an old house, you’re always waiting for the next surprise project to jump out at you, and that’s a little nerve wracking at times. We know it’s not perfect and never will be, and honestly I’ve come to love that about it. My family and all of the marks we’re making on this house are welcomed by those of all the residents before us.

What Friends Say: They notice the natural light that’s present throughout the day because we’ve got a lot of windows and we’re on a corner lot. The houses in our neighborhood average about 6 feet apart, so you don’t expect much direct sun when you walk into most of these homes.

Biggest Embarrassment: There are a few pieces of furniture that aren’t all that structurally sound, but I still keep them out as if they are because they’re beautiful and have sentimental value. We have a number of infirm pieces of furniture that my Grandma has given to us to care for. I’ve had them for years and still haven’t fixed or reupholstered them. I don’t want to throw them away because of their timeless materials, not to mention the personal and family stories that are so much a part of them. But at this point they’re just a tease. I hate having a chair sitting around that almost looks comfortable but will actually break beneath you if you try to sit in it. My husband hates these lingering nagging projects. It makes him do crazy things like run out to Lowes and buy the cheapest, and therefore ugliest, folding chairs just so we have a safe place for our overflow guests to sit.

Proudest DIY: The backyard that we leveled and hand sifted all of the trash and river rocks out of. It was such a tedious and labor intensive job, thank God we did it before we had kids because otherwise it would still be hanging over us! But it was so worth it. We love the outdoor living space it is now, whereas before it was a frightening wilderness. We put in a slate patio, with large pieces we found for ridiculously cheap on craigslist, planted lots of trees, veggie garden beds, herbs, and succulents. Both of us love growing and nurturing things and being outside, so this little space has provided great relief in a sometimes heavily urban environment. We have low fences, which makes it more inviting to neighbors and friends. If we’re not on our front porch, working in the backyard has created so many opportunities to engage and build relationship with our neighbors. It’s a neutral, welcoming space.

Biggest Indulgence: Does replacing a broken AC with a brand new unit count? That’s definitely been our biggest expense. We like to work with what we have and come up with creative and affordable solutions to home interior needs, so I can’t think of anything that has felt like an indulgence yet. The most we’ve ever spent on one thing was either the $200 leather couch we got on Craigslist, or a new vacuum cleaner that was similarly priced.

Best Advice: Curate AND Create. I miss out on a lot of discovery when I catch myself trying to mimic someone else’s style. Inspiration is an important part of creation, but it takes discipline and a willingness to risk to follow your own intuition about a piece, a layout, bringing colors and textures and patterns together, or what you hang on the walls and how.

Dream Sources: Anything handmade, by contemporary Japanese designers preferably, with clean lines and raw materials.

(Image credit: Christine Lu)

Resources of Note:


  • Mirror: Antique from my grandmother
  • Side Table: Antique from Ian’s grandmother


  • Couch: Craigslist
  • Trunk: My grandmother
  • Bookshelves: Ikea
  • Armchair: Thrift store
  • Paintings/Pictures: The large oil painting is from a street artist in Brazil; woodblock print by Sadao Watanabe (scored at an estate sale for $50 priced for its frame!); Sumi Ink painting: inherited from my great Aunt who bought it in China in the early 1900’s; Japanese Fan photo: something I photographed


  • Dining table: Ethan Allen, Hand-me-down from ex-pat siblings
  • Chairs: Ian’s grandmother’s
  • Paintings/art: A replica from the 50’s from my Grandfather
  • Chair/desk: The trash.
  • Chandelier: I bought it at a yard sale and painted it
  • Typographical map of Richmond: Purchased from Carrie Fleck, designer and creator of the map


  • Artwork: Homemade
  • Kids Table: Ikea.
  • Secretary desk: Great great grandfather made it.


  • Bed: Brass plated, Craigslist
  • Side Tables: Cherry and walnut, Ian made them
  • Lamps: Goodwill


  • Bed: Craigslist
  • Drafting table: Goodwill
  • Trunk: Antique from my grandmother
  • Rug: Jute, World Market
  • Oil Painting: Casablanca, Morocco


  • Crib: Craigslist
  • Bookshelf: Hand-me-down for now expat siblings
  • Rug: Wool and Jute, World market
(Image credit: Christine Lu)

Thanks, Ian and Martha!

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