For designer Carter Kay, the owners of a particular Buckhead townhouse in Atlanta are more than clients—they are friends, former neighbors and fellow parents. Perhaps that’s why she’s successfully devised interiors to fit their lives throughout several moves and two decades. “We met when we were neighbors on Broadland Road and raising our children,” says the husband. “One summer, Carter went with us to Paris and helped us select furnishings. Since that trip, she’s done four more primary homes for us, using all the same pieces.” Adds the wife: “We loved what she did, and we haven’t even thought about buying new furniture. We enjoy our things now as much as we did 20 years ago.”
But when the couple’s two sons left the proverbial nest, that concept was put to the test. Having lived in large homes for many years, they decided to downsize to a four-story townhouse better reflective of their new family dynamics. Kay’s time-tested instincts told her what her clients were after, so, working in concert with design partner Nancy Hooff and project manager Catherine Branstetter, she tapped residential designer Caroline Reu Rolader and general contractor Kevin Kleinhelter to make the new residence a fit. “Before the remodel, this was a typical 1980s townhouse with small rooms and a confined kitchen that didn’t suit the wife, who loves to cook,” Kay explains. “We worked with Caroline and Kevin to get the bones just right—then we added the icing on the cake.”
Rolader knew transforming the kitchen would indeed be a priority. “The traditional floor plan was rather dated,” she notes. “All of the rooms were separated from one another, and the kitchen was enclosed; working in there would have felt very removed.” She solved the problem by opening the cooking space to the adjacent living and dining rooms on one side and the keeping room on the other. A wet bar was quickly converted into a working pantry—a place where the wife can not only store sundries, but also use small appliances beyond the sight lines of guests. Kay took the newly expanded kitchen as an opportunity to make a design statement by painting the cabinets a spirited marigold. “My past two kitchens were white, so I was more than ready for some color,” says the wife.
As the project continued, the team focused on expanding and simplifying, making doorways larger and wider to link rooms and share light while eschewing ornate molding in favor of more streamlined trim. “A simple backdrop was best for their eclectic furniture and art,” says Rolader, nodding to a collection ranging from Auguste Garufi to Dennis Campay, and even including a work by Kay’s son, Colorado abstractionist Will Kay. Upstairs, all interior walls on the fourth floor were removed, turning the home’s topmost level into a loft-like office for the husband.
As design moved on to the decorative layer, the couple’s cherished collection of furniture and art served as an indispensable guide. “The wife documented all of the items she wanted to use, so we were able to take them into account during the design process, making sure there were places for the art and furniture,” Rolader explains. And that’s precisely how this residential designer prefers to work. “I love incorporating pieces that have meaning and memories,” she says. “That approach shows personality, and too often that’s something you don’t see. A home should be a living, breathing extension of the owners themselves.”
Kay believes the key to selecting furniture and art that would last these clients the better part of their lives was focusing on the classics and listening to the heart. “Classic will stand the test of time—be it a Jean-Michel Frank chair or a Directoire-style chest,” she notes. “You should also purchase things that speak to you. When I was shopping in Paris with the couple, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, but we ended up finding a chest, a desk and a pair of French chairs—as well as several other antique pieces. The idea is that they bought things they loved, and those pieces are still with them today. For this house, we purchased just one new piece of furniture: a smaller dining table.”
The third key, Kay says, is to buy pieces that will survive the years. “If you want something that will last forever, invest in heirloom quality,” she notes. “Many of the owners’ pieces, such as a pair of French armchairs covered in velvet, only get better with age.”
But just because the homeowners didn’t purchase new furniture doesn’t mean it doesn’t look new. “Carter’s genius is adapting the things we love to a new place,” the wife expresses. “The way she has arranged it here, everything feels new again.” One could say the owners have a fresh perspective of their own, too. “This house is warm and welcoming,” says the husband. “We feel like we are living our dream of a city life.”