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Helen Thompson | Photo: Casey Dunn | January 17, 2014
French blue. Hot pink. Tomato red. Paul and Jessica D’Arcy spun the Pantone wheel for a strikingly hued house in the hills of Austin.
Paul D’Arcy is an Internet executive whose job is to rally people and ideas to make projects happen. This skill—learned, or perhaps already in his DNA—was integral to getting the house he shares with his wife, Jessica, and their three children to materialize. Designed by Scott Specht and Louise Harpman of Specht Harpman Architects, the brick, glass and stucco house would have been a stunner no matter what. But Paul’s contributions invigorate the 5,500-square-foot house with the kind of revelation that manages to be both discreet and startling.
The D’Arcys moved to Austin from New York in 1998, in part because they both had jobs in Austin, but also for personal reasons: “We liked the quality of life here,” says Jessica, who is the executive director of the Webber Family Foundation that awards grants for educational programs for low-income youth. The couple refined their decision by opting for the rugged landscape of Westlake Hills, where an oak-filled lot they had long admired had come on the market. Says Paul: “We told Scott and Louise, ‘Here are the rooms we need—and we want really modern.’”
Even more important to the overall design were the property’s trees. “They are sacred to the D’Arcys,” says Scott Specht. The agenda meant that the architects would have to figure out a way to insert the house into the wooded landscape. The two-story building, composed of two long rectangles that jog where they meet in the middle, is anchored by a wing faced with black manganese brick on the left, and a stucco wing on the right. A glass center section is the public part of the house that’s open front and back to nature. Perpendicular to the house, a manganese brick wall slices front and back: “It shoots through the trees,” explains Specht, making the house a part of the landscape in the least invasive way. Hovering above, a stucco second floor houses the family bedrooms.
The design deftly includes all the great modernist architect Corbusier’s five standard elements of modern design: steel piers, ribbon windows, a free facade without obvious supports, an open plan and a rooftop garden to compensate for the green space displaced by the building. In addition, the house is energy efficient, with hidden solar panels, lo-e glass and LED lighting. Meanwhile, every night, Paul, who was the contractor on the project, scoured the Internet looking for deals and subcontractors, as well as plumbing supplies, tile, all hardware, and each and every pane of glass. To say he enjoyed the process is an understatement. “This is a person,” says Jessica, “who came home from school when he was 5 years old carrying a replica of the Guggenheim Museum that he’d built with blocks.”
As if those tasks weren’t enough for the indefatigable executive, he also selected every piece of furniture, a task Jessica was happy to relinquish. “This is the fourth house we’ve done,” says his wife. “He has such an eye and the ability to visualize. I was happy not to do it.” Paul did have help, though, from his late aunt Barbara D’Arcy, who was the chief decorator of the model rooms in the furniture department of Bloomingdale’s flagship store in Manhattan starting in the 1950s. The rooms became a mecca for people who aspired to learn what was stylish and well-made. In the late ’70s Barbara also directed the redesign of Bloomingdale’s entire first floor, a three-year project that Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New York Times, described as “perhaps the most daring piece of large-scale store design in a decade.”
Teamed with her nephew on what was to be her last project, the twosome is responsible for the big surprise of the seemingly subdued house: Beyond the neutral palette of the public areas, the house is wild with color. “That was Barbara’s decision,” says Paul. “She picked the palette from the art we had.” No one argued: The master bedroom is teal; a study is tomato red; an office is yellow; their son’s bedroom is orange; and the two girls’ bedrooms are hot pink. White is the unifying hue, a recurring theme in every room, either in the furniture or in the art. “Paul lives in the Pantone color wheel,” Louise says. “He always told us that color is where it’s at.” Even the ceilings are painted to match walls. “Barbara was adamant about that,” says Paul. “She believed ceilings were the most boring surface in a house and insisted that you must paint ceilings the same color as the walls.” Furniture selection was just as bold: A 17-foot-long white leather sectional sofa isn’t the obvious choice for the 36-foot-long living room, but it was the right choice, making a single grand statement. Says Jessica: “We entertain often and guests always end up on the couch,” says Jessica. “But when it’s family, it’s just as likely for one of the children to curl up at the end of the sofa to read.” The bouncy shag area rug in the living room is actually three sewn together, a solution that provided the size they needed without the expense of going custom. A white glass-fronted cabinet system by Alno in the kitchen was a practical choice—easy to clean and wear-resistant—while the reflection of the backyard’s green landscape in the panels adds vibrancy to the minimalist room.
“The motivation behind how this house turned out was the sense that everyone wanted it to come alive,” says Harpman. All involved are admirers of modern architecture, but the clients worked to avoid the typical austerity of such houses. “I like them,” says Jessica, “but I don’t want to live in them.” Instead, the house is fun to live in, fun for guests and fun to explain. “Paul is a proselytizer about color,” says Harpman. “He knew that his idea would work.” And it does, as if by magic.