At age six, Alexandra Howard loved to curl up on the floor of her family’s historic Charleston home and persuade her father to join her for art projects. “We would work on them for hours upon hours,” recalls her father, Dr. Gene Howard. “Designing, drawing, creating: That was the language she spoke. If we said to Alex, ‘Draw the water lilies at Giverny,’ she could grab some oil pastels and do it in reasonable facsimile.” So, it seemed destined that her parents—including her mother, Elizabeth—would ask their now-designer daughter to reimagine the same home that had first stoked her creativity.
Completed in 1789, the Harleston Village residence had been lovingly restored and remodeled by the Howards once before, when their daughter was still a child. Years later, architect Beau Clowney fashioned a period-appropriate addition for the home, establishing a large kitchen and family room downstairs and spacious main suite one floor above. Next came Gene’s passion project: a tropical garden to encircle the home, reminding him daily of his childhood abroad.
“My father was the third generation in his line of family to be born and raised in India,” reveals Howard. “His father was an infectious disease specialist dedicated to the eradication of malaria, and he traveled extensively, collecting beautiful art and furniture along the way.” He grew to appreciate the beauty of hand-crafted, artisanal pieces, a love he passed down to his son. “My father inherited many Indian treasures, from a teak campaign chest to a brass tray table, and each one has a story to tell,” the designer notes.
Heart set on employing those narrative-rich “stories” as a springboard for the redesign, Howard scoured the world for additional antiques to balance the gravitas of her family’s heirlooms. But acting as de facto builder for a slate of renovations, she first overhauled the bathrooms and kitchen. Capitalizing on Clowney’s sound enhancements, she embraced the “airy, treehouse feel” of the home’s combination eat-in kitchen and family room, keeping those spaces gracious and garden-inspired—with mostly undressed windows to show off the home’s original moldings as well as the enveloping subtropical gardens. All-brass hardware keeps things classic, while an unexpected brecciated marble—Arabescato Corchia—injects an element of surprise.
Not one to shy from color either, Howard assembled a palette that pulls fresh greens from the surrounding flora, providing a natural foil for the ruddy hues of her parents’ Southeast Asian keepsakes. “To me, reds, oranges and golds are the historical colors of Southeast Asia; they’re colors of the old temples, of monks’ robes,” the designer notes. “I have never been into trends, and I always gravitated toward those tones, even when they may have been considered dated.” To wit, she adds this bit of advice: “I think it’s important to design with what you like, not what you think you should like.”
The formal living room is a point in case: Its jaw-dropping Kurdish rug delivers the rich gem tones Howard believed the project needed, in concert with carved reliefs between the windows, framed in alternating red and gold silks. A Chinese lacquered screen (one of several similar iterations throughout the residence) brings drama to one end of the space, while beside the fireplace, a charcoal etching on rice paper—procured from Angkor Wat in Cambodia—commands center stage above an antique Japanese kimono box taking a turn as a coffee table between two cane-back settees.
“I wanted every single item I brought into the home to be long-lasting, to be something I’d be proud to inherit, and to be appropriate for the age and history of the house itself,” says Howard, underscoring the mantra of a city known for fiercely upholding historic preservation and classicism. “When you live in a house with bone structure like this, I believe it demands a certain reverence and begs for traditional pieces.”
Ensuring each objet d’art would become a conversation piece was key. “I sourced the kinds of accessories that would have guests percolating with questions about the history of the home,” explains Howard, who even had de Gournay’s Early Views of India wallcovering hand-dipped in tea for a custom patina. “I didn’t want anyone to ever be able to pinpoint when this home was designed, but for it to feel truly international and collected over a lifetime. Anyone can recreate a ‘look.’ But it takes knowledge and heart to create a home.”