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A hot pink cowhide rug juxtaposes with a pair of death masks; photography by Laurie Perez

British Intelligence

by Rebecca Sherman | Modern Luxury Interiors Texas magazine | April 12, 2012

In the buttoned up, tastefully decorated neighborhood of West University in Houston, Sally and Mark Wheat’s house is a free-spirited wild child. Rooms run loose with python skin tables, hot pink cowhide, oversized paisley wallpaper, curly Mongolian lamb upholstery and a cheeky, Warhol-esque portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. On last year’s West U home tour, the Wheats’ house elicited astonished gasps of both delight and shock from those anticipating neutral Belgian linen slipcovers and French antiques. “I don’t think the neighborhood was quite ready for it,” says Sally, an interior designer. If truth be told, she went through her own rustic chic phase that celebrated the ample use of flax-colored linens, raw woods and antique French crystal chandeliers. The luster faded as soon as the new Restoration Hardware catalog landed in the mailbox a year ago. “When [the store] came out with all their Belgian slipcovered furniture, I said, ‘I’m done.’” That, coupled with the spring 2011 home tour, prompted an entire overhaul of the house, save the kitchen. “Every room has a fun element to it now,” says Sally, 46. “It’s everything I’m drawn to.”

Inspired by the groovy looks she admired in her favorite magazine, the London-based Living Etc., Sally was empowered to be fearless with choices. “The color combinations in Britain are funky and bold. They mix stuff that’s crazy, like a giant bulldog lamp with a frilly shade on top. Everyone’s mixing periods right now, but here it’s more of a formula. The Brits don’t follow the rules. Nothing’s too serious.”

She’s also an avid reader of style blogs, such as that of British designer Abigail Ahern, and the Nero Chronicles by sister Houstonian Alcira Molina-Ali, which helped generate new ideas and a fresh start for the 4,000-square-foot spec house the Wheats bought from builder Bo Whiteford in 2006. A former middle school history teacher, Sally took a break from teaching to be home with her children, Nick 12, and Sara, 10, and to renovate a series of West U bungalows the family has lived in. She hung out her own shingle after neighbors in West U, Southampton and Tanglewood started requesting her to do their homes. She also has a space at Memorial Antiques & Interiors, where she sells vintage and antique furniture and accessories. Don’t get her wrong—she still does what she calls the traditional “Houston look” for clients, “but more and more people are hiring me to do something fun,” she says.

The walls are painted in Sherwin Williams’ alabaster, which provides a clean backdrop and makes it easy for Sally to change the rooms when she tires of the current arrangement, as inevitably she will. “I was determined to make those pink chairs in the living room work, so I built the whole room around them,” and added pops of pink in pillows, benches and accessories throughout the house to tie everything together. “I could totally redo everything again; it’s like a sickness.” For a while, she says, she took out all that color by moving the pink chairs into her office/guest room and putting out neutral pillows. “That’s what I tell my clients: Keep a neutral base, then go as wild as you want with accessories.”

The Wheats’ house may be lighthearted, but there wasn’t any scrimping on quality. In the dining room, Milo Baughman chrome chairs upholstered in royal blue Pindler & Pindler velvet are pulled up to a custom-crafted longleaf pine table Wheat spotted in a national magazine. In the living room, there’s a pair of channel-tufted Ward Bennett club chairs covered in Osborne & Little fabric, and a midcentury, mirrored coffee table from the estate of prominent Houstonian John Kirby. Throughout, there are references to London designer David Hicks’ love of sophisticated geometric patterns in upholstery and high society designer Dorothy Draper’s penchant for glossy black lacquer. And just before anything gets too derivative, Sally tosses in an element that throws it all off, like the Mongolian fur-covered bench in the dining room, “with a flirty quality that you’d normally see in a bedroom,” she says. Or the blue-hued portrait of the queen in the living room, which she unexpectedly found at Shabby Slips in Houston and put in an antique gilt frame. “It reminded me of all that crazy English stuff I see, and I love pop art.”

In lieu of lacquer, a classic pair of Parsons side tables were covered in faux python. In the front hallway, guests are greeted by the aforementioned shocking pink cowhide rug and a pair of ancient plaster death masks on the wall, purchased at the Guild Shop, a resale store in the Montrose neighborhood. “My kids say, ‘Mom, we have the weirdest stuff,’ but they also think we have the coolest house on the block.”