When a young couple first began imagining where their family would reside, “we didn’t even have any children yet,” laughs the wife. “But we knew the life we wanted our future kids to have.” They dreamed their brood-to-be would enjoy lush green days outdoors and lively gatherings in a contemporary yet playful house steeped in art and culture. Eventually, that vision became possible with the discovery of a lot perched on a limestone bluff and covered with a thick canopy of live oak trees overlooking Lake Austin. To make their dream here a reality, they turned to architect James LaRue and interior designer Fern Santini. “James brings incredible warmth to his designs,” the wife notes, “and Fern has such a wealth of knowledge.”
As their family—which now includes two boys and a baby girl—began to grow, so too did their ideal abode. Navigating its footprint around the fairytale-worthy oak trees posed the first challenge. “The city of Austin classified them as heritage trees,” notes LaRue, whose project manager was Emily Haydon. “So they absolutely had to be protected.” With sufficient setbacks, he designed a U-shaped layout that deftly cradles the ancient oaks. Landscape designer Rick Scheen and landscape architect John Hall also created modular steel planter boxes mirroring the home’s rectilinear frame. “Our yard is the perfect spot for ‘tree ball,’ a game the boys invented with their grandfather,” muses the husband of the resulting outdoor spaces. “The trees are a part of our lives.”
Though modern in style, the vernacular of the residence was deeply informed “by what we call Hill Country contemporary, using materials seen across the region,” continues the architect. These geographical details unfold through locally sourced limestone walls and wood ceilings, which flow from the exterior to interior. Accents of patinated copper paneling “pick up the color of the trees,” he adds. “It’s a living finish that will get richer over time.”
Taking the baton, Santini further interpreted organic textures in unexpected ways inside. In the foyer, for example, a wall tiled in custom straw marquetry creates geometric facets that catch sunlight. Elsewhere, she collaborated with builder Greg Reynolds to construct a cantilevered staircase from reclaimed oak beams. Paired with a glossy glass-and-brass railing, the design offers “a great mix of something crisp with something old,” describes the designer. “Combining new and vintage always keeps a house from looking dated.”
LaRue and Santini also focused on cultivating a vibrant, family-centric lifestyle melding indoor and outdoor gatherings. The architect placed the entertainment area at the heart of the home, surrounding it “with glass on the sides, which brings in nature and reveals more of the site,” he explains. Meanwhile, glazed doors naturally guide festivities to the expansive negative-edge pool, where an elevated deck soars above the grounds. “It’s a beautiful moment, viewing the lake with the water falling behind you,” adds LaRue.
Santini fleshed out these luminous spaces with an eclectic blend of art and decor. Because the clients opted to start from scratch, the designer wanted to bring in items with timeworn patina—from the vintage Belgian oak dining table to the kitchen’s antique rug. Conversely, for more contemporary furnishings, the couple gravitated “to works of art that just happened to be functional,” she recalls. These include pieces with dynamic silhouettes and a sense of movement, namely the dining room’s chandelier with colorful floating LED candles and the living room’s circular hanging chair “that everyone always gravitates toward,” laughs Santini.
Meanwhile, other artworks lean more sentimental, including a piece in the foyer by French-Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez that nods to the wife’s Venezuelan roots. Honoring the owners’ adopted hometown, Austin artists also enjoy pride of place, as evident in the living room’s Lance Letscher collage and the breakfast area’s neon installation by Evan Voyles. Strong color accents trend nostalgic as well, like the game room bar’s green hue selected in homage to Steve McQueen’s famed Jaguar, one of the husband’s favorite vintage cars.
Surrounded by light and life, the kids already claim the house as their own, running well-worn circuits up and down the stairs. Indeed, this abode has become a scaffolding for memories the couple had always imagined. “I think we all had places we loved so much growing up in our home that we still reconstruct from memory,” shares the husband. No doubt this residence has given these owners exactly that.