An Oasis of Comfort & Beauty

The design of a home intertwines three conceptual strands: the desires of the designers, the structure of the space, and most importantly, the needs of the residents. Dana Oatley Ortego has thrown herself passionately into interior design for 20 years, and when she brought her expertise home she paid a textbook attention to those three strands.

“My house has become a mad scientist laboratory for me,” she laughs as she describes the evolution of her Baton Rouge home’s look. In the 10 years she and her family have occupied the house, it “has really evolved. It is radically different from when we started.”

Ortego uses terms like “mad scientist,” “radical,” “schizophrenic,” in describing her work because she brings a lot of direction and energy to bear on it. Further, as the single mother of four, she has a lot of plates, usually valuable English antique ones, spinning at once. “This is a place for my children to live and have friends over.” Add in her two dogs and a cat, she acknowledges that it is “a houseful—but it is really comfortable.”

For the last 20 years, Ortego has run an interior design firm with her partner Beth Levine primarily in the Baton Rouge area, but has wandered as far afield as Mississippi. Finding the right ambience, she says, “depends on what the space calls for, and depends on what the people in the house are looking to do.”

She moved into her home, a 1949 Georgian placidly occupying the center of three lots between seven spreading live oaks. “This house has wonderful bones,” she says. With its plaster walls and limestone floors, she feels, “It looks as good empty as it does full of stuff.”

And as she fills it, she has found, the house needs to morph as the family grows. She pulled all the books out of the original bookcases in the study, added fine decorative porcelain, and voila—a comfortable, more spacious dining room. “The dining room used to be the study,” she quips, “and the TV room used to be the dining room.”

The porcelain is interesting because Ortego collects blue celadon china, something her mother did, the predilection going back more than half a century. She likes the porcelain because “I like things that are versatile; you can make a lamp out of it, or hang it on the wall; it looks good in the kitchen, in the dining room, or the bedroom.” And with her creative re-arrangements, that’s a good thing because as she says, “Things get all over the house.”

“I like a neutral and serene palette,” she says, sharing one of her trade secrets. “The more monochromatic it is, then all the trinkets and stuff doesn’t make it seem full.” She adds, “When everything is solid and plain you can put in all your stuff—and I love my stuff.”

Despite the elegant feeling of the house, and the intense attention to its layout (the rooms were not dressed or altered for the photographs in this story) Ortego is most gratified that her house is a comfortable home. “There is nowhere in the house that’s off-limits to the children. When they were little they rode their bicycles through the house.”

“It’s their home—living and breathing like they are—as much as it is an experimental place for me to work,” she says, slowing down just enough to savor her accomplishment. “But it is first and foremost a place for them to want to come home, not to some rigid museum.”

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