Interior designer Christian Dow designed most of this Lake Anna resort with his own hands, a true labor of love. What started as a “cozy shell” — in construction terms, the most rudimentary structure with rough plumbing and unfinished drywall — is now a quaint, elegant lakeside retreat that Dow and his husband, Matt Sharbaugh, brought home on weekends, floorboard by floorboard. , tile by tile.
Such skilled craftsmanship certainly complements the work of this Washington, D.C.-based interior designer, but Dow has a whole other set of skills in his toolbox, starting with a law degree.
For Dow, the path to design began with successful house flipping projects in college and before law school. But first, he considered home design as a hobby. “My goal was to get an advanced degree so I could be someone in the world who earned a reasonable salary,” Dow says. “I never thought design was an option.”
Dow initially earned his law degree from Pepperdine, California, where he worked with startups and then in public broadcasting business development. “I didn’t feel satisfied artistically, but I thought this is what adults do,” he says. Meanwhile, he was guiding his parents through the renovation process, helping friends draw kitchen plans and sourcing home decor online.
Dow’s career took a surprising turn in 2015 when a friend asked him to oversee a massive renovation, offering him the equivalent of his legal salary. The project will take a few years and involves everything from space design to contractor management. Dow says the show brought a “wow moment.” But after thinking about it, he was hesitant to take that leap. Instead, he offered to help with the project. “However, it occurred to me that there might be a world where I could live a comfortable life, provide for my family, but also do something I loved.”
Good taste, on display
Around this time, he also started his Instagram page. What started as a creative outlet to share design images that spoke to him quickly attracted over 400,000 followers. “That resonated with a lot of people,” he says. Early on, he received hundreds of letters encouraging him to embrace his natural talent for design.
In fact, his first two clients were fans of his page. Their projects inspired Dow to leave the legal profession and launch his own design firm in 2017. “We expanded very quickly. “I knew that even though I had good vision and was good at some things, I would need to marshal my team to provide a full range of services,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Dow and Charbaugh, also an attorney with a penchant for home improvement, wanted to spend a weekend on the waterfront away from their busy lives in Washington, D.C. He says they eagerly accept offers to visit friends at Smith Mountain Lake “whenever an offer is made.” “We’d spend the whole weekend saying, ‘What if we could do this every weekend?’ However, the five-hour drive to and from Southwest Virginia made the location expensive.
A sign on the way home for Lake Anna — a manageable two-hour drive from the capital — caught their attention. In late 2016, they purchased property there that included an abandoned building and a lot of land. For a year and a half, they camped on the land, sometimes staying at the existing boathouse, and planned to build their dream home — a time Dow described as ideal.
After selling the plot of land that included this dilapidated structure, they decided to build their own lakeside family retreat on the remaining acreage. The couple hired contractors to build the structure, spent weekends building the house themselves, and brought in professional help for larger projects like roofing, framing, and adding a screened porch.
“Slowly but surely we built the house, just the two of us,” Dow says. “We didn’t want a lot of debt. We’re still young, and we have time.” They did every bit of the decorating in the house, and there’s a lot of decoration, which is one of Dow’s favorite design elements.
They installed flooring, installed lighting, built a bunk room, put in a fireplace, tiled the back walls, and more. “We really focused on doing things affordably and used mostly inexpensive materials,” he says. “And it’s gone really well. It’s not the kind of work I do professionally. It’s a passion project.”
The four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home is a master class in architectural space planning. It seats 12 people, and guests attest that it feels larger than its 2,500 square feet. “We use every inch; no place is off limits,” Dow says.
In designing the house, he drew on lessons learned from his days of flipping his house, and used strategies to make it appear larger: think high ceilings, carefully place windows, and pay close attention to sight lines. Another trick: dual service spaces. The hallway also serves as a mudroom, pantry and laundry, taking up only a small space from the adjacent kitchen.
“It becomes an actual landing space, instead of a hallway,” Dow says. The floor tiles, laid at a 45-degree angle, invite the eye to absorb them. A sculptural light, one of the home’s standout fixtures, draws the eye upward.
In each room, Dow combined an essential suburban floor plan with his vision of lakeside living. “I used semi-nautical elements to give the overall feel of a lakefront cottage,” he says. You’ll find circular windows and light fixtures with brass fixtures that evoke a skylight. He used clipper ships and marine accessories sparingly. “I wanted to give a subtle nod to the nautical theme, without being cheesy or overdone,” he says.
The kitchen offers perhaps the greatest nod to Dow’s love of the water, with the custom island featuring the curved lines and rich wood surface of the boat. Custom cabinetry wasn’t in the budget, so Dow designed the island himself, following YouTube tutorials for bending plywood for its rounded edge using boiling water. A two-inch thick walnut top completes this custom piece.
Double-stacked cottage-style cabinets provide storage space, with Cambria quartz countertops around the perimeter. The kitchen, with GE Café appliances, large Sinkology sink, and hammered nickel bar sink on the island, is constantly in use and is truly the heart of the home, where Dow and his family enjoy the ritual of buffet breakfasts, seated dinners, and special Sunday dinners.
Suitable for family and dogs
“We have great families and a lot of friends,” he says. “We didn’t want it to be fussy, like it was a designer home. Everything lasts, nothing is precious.” This was important for the comfort of the guests and also because the family welcomed their daughter in April 2021.
Dogs are welcome here too, with paw-friendly, locally sourced pine floors, and even a custom dog kennel, complete with lighting and plush floor cushions, tucked under the stairs where the family dog, Payton, keeps her toys.
A tough deadline — an eagerly anticipated visit from family — pressured Dow to furnish the entire house in about three days with materials available from Green Front in Farmville. He was busy with his rapidly growing business, and didn’t have time to do it any other way.
“Fortunately, I’m happy with most of the purchases,” Dow says. “Did I want to spend a few months with all the vendors I normally work with in different sizes and colors? Yes. Am I upset with how things turned out? No, I’m grateful it went smoothly. It took something big off my to-do list.”
Comfortable seating throughout is upholstered in cotton, leather, or made of wicker. Seagrass and wool rugs combine with vintage oriental style for added warmth underfoot. The neutral palette includes shots of blue with occasional touches of red. Of course, the lake view is part of the color scheme as well.
In this tranquil setting, life at the lake for Dow, Sharbo and their young daughter is easy and comfortable by design. Their days include wildlife viewing from the balcony, early cocktails, playing games every night, singing around the piano, and enjoying a movie from their extensive DVD collection. “What I love is how cheesy we are at the lake,” Dow says. “We spend our days the way we once joked that old people spend their days.”
(tags for translation) Meredith Ingram