Homeowner Sarah Nolan couldn’t have predicted that the living room of her new Scottsdale penthouse would have champagne-colored swivel chairs with fringe paired with a peacock-print rug, or that the base of her kitchen island would be washed in gold leaf. But then again, after working with Chicago designer Julia Buckingham on three previous projects—and becoming close friends in the process—she never gave a second thought to how it would turn out.
Sarah, a Chicago native who uses the Arizona abode as a place where she and her four children can retreat from the harsh Midwest winters, had grown so in tune with her designer while working on her home in Winnetka, Illinois—as well as a downtown Chicago apartment and her mother’s condo in Florida—that after an afternoon of choosing tile together for the penthouse floors, kitchen and bathrooms, she was content to let Buckingham do the rest. “There’s a relationship between the two of us that is the most unbelievable meeting of the minds,” Buckingham says. “I didn’t have to dig deep to think, ‘What would Sarah do?’ It was just like, ‘What would Julia do?’”
To begin, Buckingham brought in Gilbert-based builder Ron Barney, who had worked on the designer’s own second home in Phoenix. As with Sarah, Buckingham’s shared past experience with Barney was critical for the build-out of the Scottsdale penthouse, which had remained vacant for 10 years, never having gone beyond the concrete slab and studs. “Julia needed someone she’d dealt with previously, since she was remote and orchestrating much of the work from Chicago,” Barney says. “We’re a great team—she has the vision, and I have the ability to make things happen.”
Buckingham enlisted Barney to enlarge the master bathroom, transform a bedroom space into a study and bar adjacent to the dining room, and anchor the living area with hefty built-ins surrounding a gas fireplace. Then, as Sarah likes to say, “came the fun stuff.” She had already been storing away the contents of a dining room Buckingham designed for a Napa Valley show house in 2013. Still more pieces came from another show house Buckingham did in Lake Forest, Illinois. “I’m not allowed to be near any of Julia’s projects,” Sarah jokes.
As it happens, the penthouse dining space perfectly accommodated the Napa show house’s custom round table crafted from an antique water mill wheel, as well as a colorful light fixture made from vintage tea lights that Buckingham found in Paris and an oversize contemporary art piece by Chicago artist Linc Thelen. Pocket doors made from antique glass rondeles and a new rug with chain details pull the room together. “Julia’s like a curator—these found objects become pieces of art that you get to live with,” Sarah says of Buckingham’s skill in highlighting modern furnishings and art with vintage, antique and rustic finds that give a room character.
Sarah had originally thought she would transfer many of her furnishings to Scottsdale from the Chicago apartment, which recently sold. But that notion quickly faded. “I wanted the Arizona home to be light and bright,” she says, noting the penthouse has sweeping views of Camelback Mountain, The Phoenician resort and the buttes of Papago Park. “I wanted to have more fun than just recreating my Chicago apartment in Scottsdale.”
And fun is what she got. Those fringed swivel chairs are a nod to the West, but the glossy leather strips go down to the floor like a flapper dress—without a cowboy in sight. Adjacent is a shiny black-and-white console that sits underneath an elaborate black-and-white paper cutout by Richard Shipps. “They’re so much alike, but also so incredibly different, which is the way I like to design,” Buckingham says.
Buckingham went on to use a dramatic black-gold-and-white tile Sarah chose for the kitchen as a foil for custom pendant lights made from smoky Murano glass and vintage Lucite bangles, which pick up the details of the carved-wood island base that shimmers in gold. In the master bedroom, the designer took a pair of green ombre velvet chairs Sarah saw in her showroom and placed them in front of the fireplace along with crimson fabrics for a daybed and pillows in an adjacent nook. Buckingham also employed a vintage carousel horse she had found on her travels in a bedroom for Sarah’s daughter—a competitive equestrian—as a nod to the white Arabian horses she boards nearby.
Through it all, Sarah kept herself in the dark about her designer’s progress. “I told her to surprise me,” she explains, “and when I finally walked in when it was done, I just felt like I was home. Julia’s ability to put it all together is just magic.”