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State Houseby Helen Thompson | Modern Luxury Interiors Texas magazine | April 12, 2012
Presiding over a curving tree-lined street, the house is hard to miss. It looks very much like a perfect—if oversized—architectural element that’s become separated from a neoclassical landmark and has ended up in one of Austin’s stateliest neighborhoods. Designed by architect Paul Lamb, the stucco, glass and steel dwelling was a straightforward answer to his clients’ complicated interests. He: avid about functionality, modernism, privacy. She: a lover of exuberant style and neoclassicism, and fearlessly fashionable to boot. “The husband wanted a very modern house,” says Lamb. “But his late wife had the most inventive range of references in mind—she always did everything the way she thought things ought to be, regardless of what anyone else thought.” The architect understood, though, that their seemingly competing world views were not mutually exclusive. Instead, they enhanced each other: “I combined the French Enlightenment with a concrete bunker, and this house is what we ended up with.”
The homeowners, from a prominent Texas political family, assembled a dream team to work on their new house. Lamb had already renovated the house of another family member and was a trusted style compatriot. Interior designer Clayton Morgan had worked on several projects with the homeowners as far back as 1979 and had remained a close friend. Builder Don Crowell and landscape designer Dylan Crain completed the roster. Top on all four design-and-build lists was how the house was going to function. “That was really important to the husband,” says Lamb. How the house was to be decorated was the wife’s special skill.
Looking at the house now, it all seems so simple—because the house itself is deceptively simple. The tripartite one-story structure is made up of a see-through central core that serves as entry and living room. Matching stucco-clad wings flank the living room, where views stretch to the street in the front and out to a veranda and terraced gardens in the back. One wing houses the procession of bedroom, two dressing rooms and an office. The other wing is where dining room/library, kitchen and laundry are laid out, one after the other.
“The house is ingeniously versatile,” says the homeowner, the scion of a celebrated Texas family that counts a governor among its members. “There really isn’t a dining room, but we can bring in four tables and seat nearly 30 people for dinner in the library.” Each wing also has a garage—a his-and-hers arrangement that suited the needs of the homeowners. Bounded in the front by a steel-framed glass door and in back by a wall of steel-framed doors and windows, the central room has shock value—like a glittering jewel luxuriating in its setting. It’s a dramatic effect emphasized by the enormous crystal-lavished, 18th century Italian chandelier hanging front and center, brilliant and plainly visible from the street.
“My client’s late wife was one of a kind,” says Morgan about the well-known music patron, artist, banker and fashionista who died in 2009. “Everything she bought was the very best.” But she didn’t overdo it: “Edit, edit, edit was her mantra,” says her husband. The interiors of this well-edited house are testament to her edgy vision: “She pared everything down to the most basic functionality,” says Morgan.
The living room is spectacularly anchored by the chandelier; the pier table underneath was the first antique the wife ever bought. Now it’s a convenient spot to set down a guest’s purse. Seating areas are on either side. The furniture—a gilded French daybed and chairs and two Christian Liagre sofas—hint at luxe, but upholstered in white linen, they sidestep showiness in favor of moderation. And minus the predictable carpets, the living room’s understated décor deftly accommodates the husband’s desire for minimalism. Just in case you missed the dramatic effect going in to the room, though, please turn around. You’ll see the room, soaring to 20 feet, reflected in twin 18th century, 6-foot-tall French mirrors hanging on either side of the front door. So much for restraint.
While the living room is all about reflection and transparency, the library/dining room toys with the opposite point of view. Black (“my wife’s favorite color”) shows its power in bookshelves and a black steel-fenced courtyard just beyond the glass doors, where guests can adjourn to smoke cigars. Philippe Starck’s black Lucite Ghostchairs are a tongue-in-cheek reference to the wife’s Francophile ways. But the curvy chairs are not precious. They do double duty outside on the limestone-slab porch, as well as inside with the high-tone pieces.
In fact, the exterior of this house is as important as the interior. Views to the outside dominate every room—kitchen, laundry room, and master bedroom all open onto views of the courtyard. Ever conscious of how the house would function both now and in the future, the homeowners wanted transitions to and fro to be seamless. In case mobility might become an issue, for instance, there are no thresholds between rooms or at exits—a practical consideration, but an aesthetic bonus. Doorways stretch high to the ceiling and are free of the visual distraction of thresholds underfoot. It’s a small detail, but a big reason for the resulting clean aesthetic. “Interestingly,” says Morgan, “functionality actually became the driver of the looks.” And that’s probably the reason that passersby never tire of staring at this house. It’s just so obvious that something interesting is going on, and that it’s beguiling enough to make people recognize they really need to stop and think.