Deborah Houston first met Anna Polk some 20 years ago while vacationing in Jamaica. Both mothers of young children at the time, the two quickly bonded and got together whenever plans allowed. This included more overseas adventures, as Houston joined Anna on travels with her husband, Louis, better known as “Bo.” Coming full circle, it’s fitting the friends’ first collaboration as designer and client would be in another tropical locale: Palm Beach, Florida. Deciding to split their time between New York and South Florida, the Polks had considered several move-in-ready homes in the town but ultimately purchased a residence that required a renovation, allowing them to adjust it for their lifestyle. “We liked the cozy feel of the property and the size of the house,” Anna says. “The actual house was not my style, but I had a vision of what it could be with a lot of work.” For help, naturally, they turned to Houston.
As a blank slate, the Polks’ new home needed plenty of vision to personalize it. “We had to make the spaces flow, be functional and not feel cavernous,” Houston says. “My job was to create a sanctuary that was calming and elegant, yet casual in nature.” To do so, she teamed up with residential designer Michael Perry, general contractor Tim Givens and landscape designer Keith Williams. While the traditional Palm Beach-style aesthetic on the façade remains intact, everything else has been thoroughly reimagined to yield fluid connections between inside and outside.
As a first impression, “it was a terrific little house that could be saved,” Perry says. “The bones were great, and its scale on the property fit perfectly. It gave us the opportunity to bring the landscape inside.” One such key move involved relocating the entrance, creating a direct line of sight from the front door to the garden beyond—something the previous entry lacked. Williams worked magic at the newly conceived front by incorporating raised planter walls and placing espaliered jasmine and gardenia near the door for a fragrant welcome. “We wanted the house to feel slightly elevated from the street, giving it more of a dominant presence,” the landscape designer says.
Like the entrance, Perry reworked all the spaces within so every axis leads directly to the outside. He also relocated the dining area and kitchen for a better flow. Off the master bedroom, the residential designer centered the pool, one of the show-stopping elements on the property (a must, given Bo is an avid swimmer). “The clients wanted something special,” Williams says, “so the pool water is at the same level as the paving. We also tiled it with blue glass, so it looks like it almost disappears.”
For Houston’s part, she was driven by ambience, taking to heart Anna’s request for “calm, beachy, Zen spaces where we could come down and be hermits.” The designer began as she always does: with the interior architecture, detailing spaces before any furniture was even conceived. “I had the most fun doing the millwork,” she says. “It was where I wanted to bring in the details.” In the living area, Houston set the tone with a tray ceiling paneled with wood stained a driftwood tone. The feature complements the fireplace, made of stone shot through with gray, cream and taupe shades. “The stone was an elegant piece that pulled the look together,” she says. “I had seen a slab of it and thought there was something very calming about it.” Another paneled ceiling appears in the kitchen, its crisp white hue harmonizing with the cabinetry. The ingenious island, meanwhile, contains a generous banquette that faces the garden’s dining area, all the better for fostering those important indoor-outdoor connections.
Selecting and designing the rest of the details inside, “my intent was to keep things beautifully layered,” Houston says. “Anna has beautiful objects, and they are all displayed in layered ways.” She hewed close to a neutral palette and wove in textural elements, choosing linens for upholstery and jute for carpets. The furnishings themselves are simple and understated, and many are of Houston’s own design, like the master bedroom’s streamlined nightstands and bed. “It wasn’t about the pieces but the overall effect,” she explains. Lighting was the one spot where the designer opted for a few statement items. She hung a collection of wood pendants in the living area and, shining above a center table in the entry, displayed a sculptural fixture that consists of handcrafted bronze leaves.
As testament to a job well done, “Bo will occasionally call to tell me how much he loves the house,” Houston reports. And, while she and her clients’ two-decade friendship might have been the foundation for the project, the designer gained more meaningful connections as a result. “Michael and the rest of the team were so collaborative,” she says. “We shared ideas and became good friends. It was a great experience because of that.”