Not quite 30 years ago, a couple on a ski trip to Santa Fe found themselves spending more time on Canyon Road (the city’s renowned gallery district) than on the slopes. During that time, they purchased their first artwork together–a painting entitled A Total Boar–which now hangs in their Austin home’s lower entry, where they see it daily and it still extracts a chuckle. What began with that purchase grew into a lifelong passion for studying and acquiring art. “It is genuinely central to our life together,” says the wife. “And yes, we buy what we love. There is no other factor involved. It has to move us.”
Not surprisingly, what stands out as you enter the house isn’t the all-encompassing city view, which includes the UT Tower, visible from the two-story entry. Instead, all eyes focus on the stairwell, where a grid featuring more than 2,000 tiny plaster sculptures filled with layers of glass-like pigmented resin effervesces in the light. Having larger walls made it possible to expand the space between each sculpture by a fraction of an inch, and the installation grew from a 7-foot square to an 8 1/2-foot square. The wife recalls artist Paul Fleming remarking that it felt like the installation could breathe. “And he was right,” she says. “It took on a whole new life.”
Speaking anthropomorphically about art is routine for the owners, who chat about their sculptures and paintings as if they are old friends. Consequently, early meetings with residential designer Ryan Street included handing over precise measurements for each piece and a request for a sheltered area with a glass partition to protect a delicate sculpture of four nuns. “The owners have a diverse collection and tasked us with finding an appropriate space for each piece,” explains Street, who worked with project architect Eran Montoya. “We found ourselves preparing walls and, in some cases, entire spaces to accommodate, complement and feature each work.”
Over time, conversations about replicating the aesthetic of the owners’ prior French Provincial residence in Houston, where they previously lived for several decades, shifted to a discussion with the resulting structure featuring stucco and a standing seam metal roof outside and burnished concrete floors and black elm cabinets inside. “The house is very linear, but it is not stark,” says the wife, who hired designer Rachel Mast at the urging of builder Matt Shoberg to tackle the interior design.
The founder of Circline, an international art and antiques marketplace, and a protÃ©gÃ© of renowned New York architect Peter Marino, Mast came to the project with a deep understanding of the art world and a think-outside-the-box attitude nurtured by her former boss. “Anything was possible with Peter,” she says, “so instead of seeing boundaries, I begin by considering the best thing a project can be and then bring that in.” Mast immediately proved her worth by ensuring the fly ash-to-cement ratio in the concrete floors was adequate to yield the mottled look necessary for a warmer effect. In the master bathroom, she deftly handled a request for prohibitively expensive marble slab walls with the purchase of a marble block cut so each tile could be book matched to result in a slab look. And when the homeowners made a game-day decision to go with Poliform cabinetry throughout, she and Shoberg–with the crucial help of his project manager, Joseph Zambarano–ensured a flawless final installation.
While there was never any doubt the furnishings would defer to the art, the selections still needed to make a mark. “We knew the pieces had to be as neutral as possible,” says Mast, “but with modern design there’s not a lot of furniture, so the lines had to be perfect.” The designer opted for high-profile Italian brands and considered countless faux leather samples for seating in high-use areas like the breakfast room and the lounge in the bar area. Fabrics and textures also emerged as featured players in the living room, where the chenille-covered sofa passed the softness test, and in the master bedroom, where a leather bed backed by a suede wall embodies luxury and comfort.
In the overall process, placing art came last, and the wife claimed that task as her own. “I have a very good sense about what balances with what,” she says. While in their prior residence they had simply hung pieces as they bought them, this home provided the opportunity to consider the relationship the artworks had with the house and with one another. “Here it wasn’t about where something fit,” she says, “but where it works.”