It’s not everyone who gets to vie with New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for a painting, but architectural and interior designer Allen Kirsch and his client did just that. During an art-buying trip to the Big Apple, they attended a gallery showing of esteemed artist Pat Steir’s work only to discover all the paintings sold except for two. “MoMA wanted one, and so did we,” says Kirsch, noting that the museum ended up getting first dibs. The duo, however, didn’t find out until a week after returning to Dallas that, Kirsch adds, “much to our relief, they opted for the one we didn’t want.” The happy homeowner and designer then began pondering where the 11-by-11-foot painting would go.
Finding a place for the commanding abstract in the house was just one of many art-related problems Kirsch had to solve following a sojourn that netted 39 paintings, including works by Frank Stella and James Nares. “Fortunately, the house was barely out of the ground,” says Kirsch, “so it was possible to do things like enclosing doorways to create more wall space and eliminating the drop ceiling in the dining room to make way for the paintings, many of them quite large.”
But adjusting walls was just part of the solution; determining appropriate backdrops for various pieces in the contemporary collection was an equally daunting task. Kirsch started by introducing rift-cut oak walls that started in the entry before dissecting the entire house and establishing lots of spaces for hanging art. “Rift-cut oak in a blonde finish is my favorite thing in the world,” the designer says. “It’s the tightest cut you can get, and the grain, with its perfectly vertical lines, is just the thing for contemporary art and a modern house.”
For the soaring 17-foot-high dining room—where the Steir painting now resides—and a lofty fireplace wall in the master bedroom, Kirsch opted for hefty stone tiles over more commonplace materials. “That kind of height demands a much stronger statement and a material with honesty and bulk,” he says. It also mandates a master craftsman, such as general contractor George Gerlach, capable of dealing with the unforgiving nature of modern design. “In this style of house, there are no moldings to hide anything,” says Gerlach, who matched the grain in the rift-oak paneling in all the cabinetry and walls. “If you make one mistake in the cataloging of the sequences, it could ruin the appearance of the entire wall or cabinet. Therefore, they are all grain-matched perfectly.”
Although there was never any question that the paintings would be the stars, an array of custom furnishings, many designed by Kirsch, are noteworthy in their own right. In the living room, a pair of chic gray mohair sofas complement a Jill Moser painting; in the family room, a cantilevered white-oak sofa table with a steel frame makes its own sculptural statement; and in the dining room, the marble table surrounded by 18 leather chairs, with room for up to 20, is nothing short of a wow factor. “It took five men and five days to install the five slabs that make up the table,” says Kirsch.
Much like the dining room, the rest of the house, including 2,800 square feet of outdoor living space, is designed with entertaining in mind. “This house really needs to have people in it,” says the homeowner, noting there are four king guest suites that were carefully planned to make visitors feel welcome. “The house may be modern but is by no means cold or uninviting. Everything is beautiful but also incredibly functional. I love that I’m still discovering little nuances that underscore the craftsmanship and detail that went into the finished product.”
Thanks to the measured hand of landscape architect Kevin Clark, every aspect of the landscape design, from the drought-tolerant Palisades Zoysia grass to the oversize Lueders limestone and travertine pavers, enhances both the architecture and lifestyle requirements. “We went with the large pavers because they aren’t too busy and reflect the clean design of the house,” says Clark, who included an unfussy rectangular lawn with steps down to the pool to draw visitors into the outdoors. “The point was to have consistency so the house and the landscape look like they were designed together.”
In the end, the house came together perfectly. “I love that the home has a crisp museum-like quality while simultaneously being warm and comfortable,” says Kirsch. “The project took a great deal of thoughtful planning, but it’s immensely gratifying to have it all come together—like a work of art all its own.”