How designer Rodman Primack reinvented the Victorian era in Louisville
In the dining room of a Victorian home in Louisville’s bohemian Highlands neighborhood, Stephen Reilly is surrounded by art. A thin man speaks with graceful authority, pointing at the playful gothic-baroque wallpaper in the room.
Hand-painted with watercolors by artist Francesca Gabbiani, they feature whiskey bottles, eagles and cigarette boxes. Beside him looms a collection of resin boxes designed by North Carolina native Sam Stewart, 15 in all. Each one is backlit by the mid-afternoon sun, and grows smaller as it rises toward the ceiling.
With its revolving walls and eccentric proportions, Riley and nonfiction author Emily Bingham’s home has what he describes as a “whimsical home.”Alice in Wonderland Impact.” To cross its threshold is to enter a crazy maze that grows curiouser and curiouser with every step, where the 13-foot-high walls encourage visitors to always look upward and reconsider their relationship with space.
When they bought the 1871 home in 1995, Bingham and Riley assumed responsibility as stewards of a valuable slice of local real estate just a block from the bustle of a trendy commercial corridor. They were surprised that it would also become an extension of their civic engagement, philanthropy, and commitment to social justice.
“Working at home was a foreshadowing, in an unexpected way, of the turns our lives would take,” Riley says.
A former director of the Speed Museum of Art in Louisville, Riley was instrumental in bringing Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor to the institution in April 2021, just months after Taylor was killed by Louisville police officers. The museum’s urgency in a moment of crisis has been widely welcomed. Now, as founding director of Remuseum, an initiative of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, he is helping to redirect the ways cultural organizations spend their money.
At the same time, Bingham’s books ask readers to reevaluate accepted historical narratives, a task not always easy in the South. her latest, My old home is in KentuckyIt highlights the racist roots of Stephen Foster’s classic tune and questions whether it should have a place in contemporary public life despite its importance in the popular music canon.
Bingham and Reilly, who were disruptive by nature, eventually turned their attention to changing their living quarters. Their home was initially decorated with family in mind, but after 17 years spent raising three children, they were craving a change. Big change.
“Emily turned to me and said, ‘You know, we either need to blow it up, reinvent it dramatically, or we shouldn’t do it at all,'” Reilly says. They enlisted Rodman Primack—founder of the Mexico City and New York-based textile and interiors studio R.B. Miller and co-founder with Rudi Weissenberg of the design gallery AGO Projects—to “break down the boundaries between art and decor.” And they smashed it.
Primack embraced the “public history” of the house—its particular cultural and geographic context—and turned up the volume. “We started talking about how color affects the way you move through a home and how pattern can add some dimension,” says the designer.
Just as Reilly sought to change the way we experience art in museums, he and Primack sought to change the way we experience art in museums. He lives with her. “Houses are not museums,” Primack adds. “I want people to really live in these places and feel that the work we’ve done allows them to live their best lives.”
To reduce the height of the entrance, Primack enlisted the help of Marco Rountree Cruz, a Mexican artist with roots in graffiti. Inspired by an offhand comment Bingham made one morning over breakfast about sandhill cranes flying across Kentucky, Cruz created a mural using black electrical tape that gives the room a striking sense of dimension. Primack painted the floor, knowing that the combination of colorful patterns and wear over time would mimic the welcoming quality of a threadbare rug. In the living room, charcoal and cream striped taffeta curtains were inspired by the photographs of Malian photographer Seydou Keita. The round conversation sofa, upholstered in pale primrose yellow, offers another nod to the home’s Victorian roots. Then a decorative deviation. The federal mirror hanging above the shelf? It was designed by young New York artist Misha Kahn, who offers a punk touch with a shimmering purple frame.
In Riley and Bingham’s view, creativity and function not only go hand in hand, they are aesthetic equals, committed partners who push each other forward. When they work well together, the result can reach “a whole other level of happiness,” says Bingham.
This openness is at the core of how the couple moves through the world, as pastors and citizens. Much of Riley’s mission is grounded in a belief in the power of art to foster conversations, and Bingham’s work as a historian interrogates generational differences to expand our cultural narratives. That’s the lesson Primack learned from working with the couple in their home.
“The past always tells us something,” he says. “We don’t have to be stuck in it.”
Main image: Brass lighting fixtures by Michael Anastasiades overlook the dining room. Colorful resin boxes designed by Sam Stewart. Additional design by Liz Bingham Rogers.
This story appears in the November 2023 issue of town and country, Titled “Charity Begins at Home.” subscribe now
(tags for translation) Louisville