When architect Virginia Kelsey was hired to renovate a custom home in one of Houston’s leafy gated communities, the objective was fairly circumspect: to remodel a third-floor space into a luxurious suite for guests. What she wound up doing by the time the project was completed 18 months later, however, was something altogether different.
Once Kelsey began, she says, she realized that other areas of the home also called for her attention. Her clients—an oil and gas investor and a financial executive—were open to her suggestions. “If we were going to pull it apart, then it made sense to do it right,” says the husband, who had moved out of a modern house in the same neighborhood after its open rooms and hard surfaces proved incapable of muffling the noise generated by his growing family.
With her clients’ blessings, Kelsey adjusted the scale of the home’s exterior, lowering its central pediment to bring it more into proportion with the rest of the structure and giving the front gable a gentler neoclassical line. She added an elegant mantel to the front entry and affixed quoins to the building’s corners to give it substance. The result: A simplified silhouette vaguely evocative of a Georgian manse. “It’s all about proportion and scale,” says Kelsey, who, though trained as a modernist under I.M. Pei, considers herself a classicist. “We brought all the disparate parts into harmony with each other.”
Inside, the objective was to address the lack of definition and personality. Kelsey reorganized spaces not only to make them more usable, but also to make them more warm and inviting. With the help of builder Jake Housberg (they have worked together for nine years), she wrapped the kitchen in large slabs of statuary marble and designed an island reminiscent of a French Empire cupboard she found on 1stdibs, and reconfigured the master suite to allow for dressing rooms, storage closets and an updated bath. Throughout, ceiling heights were adjusted to give rooms a more human scale.
The new interior proved to be the canvas upon which designer Lucia Benton could be bold and inventive—and into which she could incorporate her clients’ extensive collection of Aboriginal, Oceanic and African art and objects, including a painting acquired at an auction in Australia on the night of their wedding in the States. (It required some post-reception long-distance dialing.) “Their collection is amazing,” says Benton.
The designer developed a strong background color story of deep chocolate, aubergine and red, and incorporated into it a layered mix of textures, patterns and materials. She refinished inherited pieces, such as the dining chairs that were bought at auction 25 years ago, and repurposed others, including the architectural elements from an Indian temple she had made into bedside tables.
She also found ways to dramatize the homeowners’ works of art as the points of interest they undeniably are—earth-toned mud paintings from Australia; a life-size body mask festooned with grasses from Papua New Guinea; and a headdress embellished with glass beads and plant fiber that once belonged to a Ugandan king.
“What makes me happiest about this project is that my clients now have a house that makes them happy every time they walk through the front door,” says Benton. “Everything is as it should be, and they finally feel like they’re at home.”