A lover of contemporary aesthetics, interior designer and homeowner Elisabeth McCabe didn’t seem likely to be taken with a traditional-style home. But when she saw a stately Georgian-style residence in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston, she was captivated. “The house was dark and the kitchen was too small,” McCabe says. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I came back seven times and kept visualizing how I would open it up and create this clean, simple interior as a backdrop for the things I love.”
McCabe had been house hunting for mainly one reason: Her family needed more space. “I have a husband, Brian, three children, two dogs, a cat and a fish,” she says. “We were outgrowing our old home.” The designer and her brood, however, were already living in River Oaks and wanted to stay there. “We moved to this neighborhood from New York City 16 years ago and haven’t left,” she says. “It’s near the city and is filled with beautiful old-growth trees.”
The designer gave into what felt like a gravitational pull and purchased her ideally situated would-be dream home. She was then poised to make changes but required assistance with the architecture. “My husband and I prefer contemporary design,” she says. “So, when I saw another house close by that had clean lines but still fit in with the traditional style of the neighborhood, I left a note for the owners, who called and gave me the name of their architect.” That architect was Reagan Miller—and he quickly joined forces with McCabe to help reimagine her new home. “The house was generally well-done,” Miller says.
“It was just dated, and Elisabeth wanted a more current sensibility.” Therefore, Miller painted the typical red brick white and replaced the traditional-style entrance with a modernist steel canopy that hangs above double steel front doors. For the interior, he modernized the layout. “I opened up the kitchen to the family room by removing a staircase that compartmentalized the areas,” he explains. “There were two other staircases, so the third wasn’t necessary.” Using the square footage he had gained, the architect added a small office and bedroom on the upper level.
The third staircase was superfluous, but the prominent trimwork throughout the house was not. “I fell for the high- profile moldings,” McCabe says. “When I first looked at the house, I imagined painting them and the walls white so everything from the ground up would be monochromatic.” Eventually, the designer did just that. And the effect of the white-on-white design gesture was a neutralization that let the texture of the moldings burst forth. McCabe made the wood floors a textural experience, too, by layering high-gloss polish on top of an ebony stain. Similarly, the walls and the ceiling of the study are painted black and glisten with a lacquer finish. “We added so much sleekness to this house; it’s everywhere you look,” says builder David Stone.
Once the interior architecture was transformed into a bright and richly textured setting, McCabe, who resides on the board of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, was able to place her collection of significant contemporary artworks. “There’s a light box by Leo Villareal in the entry,” she says. “At night, the space turns different colors depending on the color of the box.” In the living room, sculptures by Joseph Havel are ethereal in presentation. “They’re old book pages buried in Lucite,” says McCabe. And above the study fireplace, an abstract work by Dana Frankfort has the word “think” hidden within its paint. Some works the owners identify with on a personal level, such as a lithograph by Robert Longo, while others focus on form and color. The wildly diverse collection, which McCabe cultivated with the help of art consultant Melissa Kepke Grobmyer of MKG Art Management, also includes works by Kenneth Noland, Pat Steir, Andy Coolquitt and Jackie Saccoccio.
The achromatic luster of the flooring and the walls was the ideal background for McCabe’s collection of whimsical furnishings, too. “I design the way I choose art,” she says. “I buy things I love, and they all seem to work together.” To this end, the designer combined antiques and modern pieces in each of the rooms. “It’s more interesting and unexpected,” she explains. Antique French chairs surround a Eero Saarinen-designed table in the dining room, where a massive and glittering Art Deco-style crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling. “I wanted that fixture for years,” McCabe says. In the entry, the designer offset an iconic vintage black plastic hand chair with a midcentury Italian Lucite pendant, while in the living room, she juxtaposed a pair of white barrel chairs with vintage crystal sconces and a fanciful Hal Bienenfeld Art Deco mirror.
McCabe’s home—a design that celebrates both traditional and contemporary styles—is a beautifully minimalist scene where her dynamic collections have the spotlight. But that’s not how it began. “This house was on the market for almost two years,” McCabe says. “I don’t think people could see how to open it up.” In her mind’s eye, the designer knew almost immediately exactly how she would transform the space. “I envisioned having almost no color and lots of texture,” she says. “I wanted to give my favorite things great presence by making everything else aesthetically peaceful.” Today, the house appears exactly the way she visualized it, proving imagination really is everything.