An abstract by German artist Charline von Heyl—whose works appear in the collections of museums like New York’s MoMA—dominates a living room wall in this Austin, Texas penthouse. Vying for equal time, sweeping city vistas are visible through steep floor-to-ceiling windows. But while views are a constant, the same cannot be said of the art collection throughout. “My client was very modest and mentioned she wanted a pied-à-terre to house rotating pieces of art,” says interior designer Allison Burke, of meeting the homeowner for the first time. “But I had no idea of the magnitude of her collection.” An Agnes Martin painting that was once in the master bedroom, for example, now occupies space above the dining room banquette, while a pair of slender sculptures by Beverly Pepper graces the entry. And on any given day, the owner is apt to present a recent find to add to the mix.
It was amidst this ever-evolving artscape that Burke learned to flex and bend. In addition to ascertaining a color scheme and the right blend of furnishings to complement the gallery-like surroundings, accommodating change became a routine part of the process. “She frequents major art fairs, and I’d often receive calls saying she had discovered a new artist,” explains Burke, noting that the living room was rearranged to better suit entertaining large groups, which in turn helped highlight the gilded bronze carvings on a Campana Brothers chair procured in Europe. She also painted a wall blue to better suit the latest framed arrival, a Robert Ryman oil on canvas. “I figured out early on my role was to keep the interiors simple and timeless so the artwork could do the singing,” Burke explains.
The two quickly developed a collaborative relationship, with the homeowner serving as curator of her international collection and Burke focusing on creating relaxing spaces intended for art appreciation. And with so much action on the walls and through the windows—and architectural features like 36-inch-wide structural concrete columns in the living room and the master suite to consider—the interior designer’s response was in part textural. “Softness and depth were always the front-runners,” says Burke, who kicked things off with a living room rug featuring a lush melding of teal and gold hues consistent with the owner’s affection for jewel tones. Like the artwork, a modular Walter Knoll sofa can be reconfigured to face the view or the fireplace as mood and entertaining requirements dictate.
Meanwhile, Burke also reworked parts of the penthouse based on the owner’s storage needs, directing changes executed along the way by builder Ken Burger of Wilmington-Gordon. “We believe everything should be stored in its place,” notes Burke. “However, with such sweeping views, the residence lacked a lot of walls and high-functioning cabinets for daily use.” With that in mind, the entry was updated with a larger coat closet and art shelves, the guest bedroom now includes pull-out nightstands plus ample storage built into cabinetry on the headboard wall, and a media room located next to the master bedroom was transformed into a walk-in closet.
Because not all art hangs on walls, determining pinpoint placement of suspended items was also a must. According to Burke, Pae White’s airy concoction of woven wire spheres was hung just so “to capture the necessary volume in the living room without competing with the coveted river views,” the interior designer explains. In the nearby dining area, a Tomás Saraceno sculpture is used to similar effect. “It’s incredibly dynamic but doesn’t steal too much visual space,” she notes. Elsewhere in the room, velvet on the banquette continues the textural thread, and the rounded corners on the tabletop and the chromed quatrefoil base respond to the owner’s preference for smooth edges.
With views in the master suite equal to those in the public areas, the question became how to incorporate the drama while establishing a sanctuary. “We angled the bed to capture where the river begins to bend,” says Burke. Elsewhere, Minotti armchairs topped with brown shearling and a wool-and-silk rug serve as luxury counterpoints. And come evening, layers of nylon netting woven with crystals hover above the bed, twinkling in harmony with the city lights below. “Color and texture provide threads of stability, and there’s a balance here and everywhere,” Burke says. “My overall objective was to make sure nothing detracts from the artwork and to create serene spaces so your eye is never confused about where to look.”