Ellen Freeman Roth                      

October 25, 2001

At Home with Mario Russo

Form and line are defining elements of Mario Russo's life on the job and off. A hair stylist and creator of his own line of hair and body care products, Russo owns two Back Bay salons: Salon Mario Russo at 9 Newbury St. and another on the third floor of clothier Louis Boston. The attention to detail and eye for style that draw customers throughout New England to his salons are evidenced in his clients' tresses and in his Beacon Hill home.

Russo, 41, lives with his companion, Frank Gilligan, and yellow Labrador retriever, Tessa, on the second floor of a four-story building that was originally one townhouse. The men renovated their home with a commitment to open up the space while retaining its rich Federalist-style details. "We were sensitive to the original architecture, which attracted us to Beacon Hill in the first place," Russo said.

Inside the building, a banister designed by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1800s ushers visitors upstairs. Russo and his upstairs neighbor carried that element to the third floor with a new banister milled to match Bulfinch's original. While Russo moved the entry to his flat to the opposite side of the floor, he salutes the building's heritage with a plaster veneer that retains the imprints of the original door and window opening into the stairwell.

"Frank's a New Yorker and likes texture, so he brings plaids and taffetas and horsehair into the design," Russo said of Gilligan. "I'm a true minimalist. For me, a home is about art and the essentials: a sofa, chairs, a bed. Designer Celeste Cooper from Repertoire helped us marry the two styles.

"We entertain a lot," Russo said, "so in the living room, we have a number of sitting areas. The symmetry and scale of this room provide a comfortable atmosphere. At the same time, we retained the original moldings and fireplace details."

Russo's art collection includes antiques he and Gilligan have found during their travels, along with an array of contemporary art that reflects Russo's interest in space, line, and geometry. In the rich, lacquered, terra cotta library off the living room, a large photo by Shelburne Thurber of a windowed wall with venetian blinds opens up the room and complements the windows on the opposite wall. The library is multi-functional.

Vermont slate floors in the master and guest baths add local texture and serve as a counterpoint to the glass tiles and sinks as well as the glass wrapped around the tub in the master bath.

Russo was born and raised in the southern Italian town of Formio. During his work day, he takes his lunch break religiously, usually at Cafe Louis in the Louis Boston building.

"Everyone who knows me knows that my lunch hour is important to me," he said. "It's something I grew up with. Lunch was always a more substantial meal than dinner. When I get home, I cook a lighter dinner."

In the kitchen, a professional Thermador gas stove with grill has a large hood to absorb fumes from grilling. "This hood has such a powerful vacuum you have to be careful of small animals in here," Russo joked. Stained walnut kitchen cabinets are offset by large glass sheets on the wall and granite counters. The kitchen doubles as an office: Russo's and Gilligan's laptops sit on a counter next to the table, and the kitchen chairs on wheels provide for ease of movement. Outside the kitchen on the deck is a courtyard that feels more like Italy than Boston.

"This outdoor space sold us on the apartment," says Russo. "It reflects my roots. I grew up in a typical Mediterranean home in which rooms extend from courtyards. We designed two areas on the deck, a dining area and a sitting area with chaises. At night, this whole deck is lit. We eat all our meals out here when weather permits. An irrigation system keeps the plants lush when we're away."

Russo and Gilligan spend most summer weekends at their Cape Cod cottage, and now are looking to Vermont for some other weekends.

Weekend getaways notwithstanding, "I love living on Beacon Hill and I love Boston," Russo said. "It's a very European city in the sense that it's so walkable and has distinct neighborhoods. Here on Beacon Hill, I can walk down the street and get everything I need. I walk to exercise in the morning, to stay in shape for my work, which is very physical. Then I walk to work. This is very much a lifestyle one could have in Europe."