"Darla is charismatic," says Sam Davis, referring to the life-size fiberglass cow that occupies pride of place in his unique mid-Cambridge apartment. "She deserves a setting appropriate for her star status." No faux cow could ask for more. Darla has her own stall behind Dutch barn doors in the "foyer" of Davis's apartment (which looks somewhat like a sophisticated nursery school playroom). He's rigged the room, too, so that with the press of a button, Darla slides out of the barn doors on her grassy platform, while colored marquee lights flash and toy monkeys clap musical tambourines.
Davis, the inventive mind behind Darla's sumptuous quarters, is a self-employed guitarist/ teacher who performs regularly with The Funky White Honkies, a 17-person rock-'n'-roll band. He's also director of the lesson department at Cambridge Music in Porter Square, where he teaches 60 pupils or more weekly, ranging in age from 5 to 80.
A native of Pennsylvania, Davis, 53, majored in philosophy at Penn State and has been playing guitar for 41 years. Back in 1980, when he joined a college sweetheart here, he was a struggling musician. It was a serendipitous guitar lesson with a Cambridge teacher that found him the apartment he's still in today, though the term "struggling" no longer applies.
"When that teacher told me there was a free apartment available in his building with the job of super, I honestly said, 'What's that?'" says Davis. The apartment was a mess, but it had lots of light, a southern exposure, and a certain coziness. Over the years, he's been able to commandeer additional space, and he's poured thousands of dollars into improving it. "My surroundings are almost an aesthetic imperative," he says. Meanwhile, working as the building's super is a good fit. "No heavy lifting, no rent, no utility payments, and I like bringing order to the environment."
He was inspired to transform his apartment after purchasing Darla in 1989 for $1,100, plus $500 for shipping, from Los Angeles. He thought of her as a mascot. "She was a bit dowdy on arrival, but I beautified her big-time," he says, painting her eyes blue and adding extra-long lashes and gold-leafing her horns. The bovine influence spread to what Davis calls the "cow project," a three-year-long kitchen rehab that included repainting every surface in high-gloss black and white patterns that combined cow markings with Dalmatian spots. Sandwiched between his other commitments, Davis tackled the job himself, aided by carpentry and painting partners.
The design spiraled from there. Underneath all the cow-inspired spots, the kitchen work area lines up along one wall, unified by a black backsplash, a new black laminate counter, and new custom lower cabinets. On the floor, existing tiles were ripped out and a new plywood layer put down as a canvas for the room's painted theme. The kitchen table, designed by an architect friend, is attached to the wall and supported by a single pedestal. Painted black, the table is surrounded by 20-year-old chairs now painted in the cow pattern, as is the pedestal. Chair seats are recovered in luxurious black-and-cream spotted velveteen. Darla-patterned dishes, mugs, salt and pepper shakers, a toaster, and other useful kitchen addenda - all gifts - are massed neatly where used.
Admittedly an eye-opener, the kitchen is surprisingly easy to relax in. The surroundings are crisp, bright, and amusing - not at all jumpy. Adjoining rooms in clear view are painted in broad blocks of solid color, in soothing contrast to the kitchen's liveliness. Another key factor in making it all work is Davis's meticulous neatness and sense of order. "I'm not trying to show off ," he says. "I just had an idea and ran with it. Musicians like visual effects. I consider this whole apartment an art installation."
Estelle Bond Guralnick is the regional editor for Traditional Home magazine and is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.