If the walls in Andrea May’s La Jolla home could talk, they’d spin tales for hours. And not because they’ve witnessed generations of lives—they’re newly built, so they haven’t—but because everything within them is interwoven with stories rooted in the interior designer’s family lore.
Take the ship chandelier in the family room. It wasn’t nabbed from a showroom floor, nor was it a quirky antique store find. Instead, it’s the former centerpiece of the bar at a San Diego harbor eatery where May’s family used to celebrate birthdays—pulled out of storage and sold to her after the restaurant’s interiors received a contemporary makeover. Then there’s her collection of classic Baker furniture, beloved because her mother and grandmother held the company in such high esteem that she was determined to restore and reuse even outdated pieces. She has an antique drum table purchased by her grandparents as newlyweds that included the original sale slip. Even the walls, ceilings and floors, shiny-new as they are, serve to chronicle her decades-long friendship with architect Paige Koopman.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that May sees herself as not just an interior designer but a storyteller. It’s an idea at the heart of her firm’s “slow luxe design” philosophy, which specializes in helping clients curate and blend their personal treasures with inheritable objects. She’s sentimental yet curatorial—and her own best client, she jokes. “When rooms tell stories, when spaces are conversational, when they convey the personalities of the people that live there, that’s where the authenticity lies,” she says.
While many of the pieces in the home speak to May’s deep connection with the past, building this home was about creating a bridge to the future. The La Jolla property that she and her husband, Ira Feinswog, own is a double lot where she envisioned two houses forming a compound for her three adult children and their partners and kids. “I imagined one would be our home, the other a breezy beach house, and in my whole Pollyanna view of the future, there will be 30 grandkids running back and forth someday,” she says with a laugh.
Building both homes entailed about four years of construction work, with May and Koopman—an architect formerly based in La Jolla who now resides in New Zealand—collaborating in bursts during the latter’s frequent return visits. Thanks to the dozens of projects the two had worked on throughout their 20-plus-year friendship, May’s dream of fitting a modern Greek Revival-style home (inspired by the historic Southern mansions of Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans) into a steep hillside proved a feasible challenge, finessed by project manager David Duncan. “Flow and a strong indoor-outdoor connection were musts, so to achieve both we ended up creating three separate levels with each opening onto the slope in different directions,” says Koopman, who paired the style’s trademark white columns and “temple” façade with modern steel windows and doors that overlook gardens by landscape contractor Gary McCook.
Koopman’s first-hand knowledge of how May’s family lives informed the layout and spatial choices, right down to scaling spaces to accommodate a collection of existing furniture. Ceilings, too, received special attention. “Paige and I feel like people always ignore that fifth wall, so here the ceilings really define the spaces,” says May. “The main living area could have been one continuous ceiling plane, yet the ‘living room’ is zoned by a coffered portion, and the family room portion sits beneath one that’s trayed and coved.”
With so many antiques and heirlooms moving with her, the interior designer concentrated on tying everything together. With herself as an indulgent client, she wasn’t afraid to take risks. For instance, painting the living room’s trim and paneling with Farrow & Ball’s Light Blue and Studio Green shades resulted in a serene palette she adores, but it’s one May doubts her clients might be inclined to pick. Her pink-and-floral-filled bedroom is undeniably feminine, recalling a touch of the style she observed as a design-obsessed young girl visiting family friends’ homes in Dallas and Houston. And her wallcoverings run the gamut from an immersive rain forest-like mural in the entry to classic chintz and chinoiserie patterns—even a custom-commissioned print of her dog, Monty, in the study.
In short, May’s style might best be described as a twist on traditional that naturally leans a bit “granny chic” or even “grandmillennial,” to use the latest design term du jour. It’s a look that fits neatly with the home’s underlying Grecian- and Southern-inspired grandeur. “It has one foot in the past and one foot in the present,” May says. “It’s comfortable, warm and welcoming—that’s what is really important.”