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Helen Thompson | Photo: Ethan Stead, Paul Bardagjy and Chad Wadsworth | Portrait by Sandy Carson | October 3, 2013
AlterStudio Architects and interior designer Tracey Overbeck Stead team up for a high-energy, high-glam interpretation of modernism in Austin.
“This is the last house I’m going to build,” says the homeowner, a developer and third-generation Austinite. If his announcement is true, the long, concrete modernist residence caps off a series of homes that would make an architectural enthusiast weak in the knees: a trim Mediterranean-style villa in Austin where the developer grew up, a Jeff Berkus-designed California contemporary in Santa Barbara, and an Italianated city house in Austin where he lived for 25 years. The path from period architecture to modern wasn’t an evolution, though, as it sometimes is when a person’s taste becomes more sophisticated. In the case of this homeowner, his taste was already sophisticated, as well as opinionated. His new one-story house is a deft union of opposites: modern and yet decidedly traditional, streamlined but also complex, straightforward while flamboyant. Why does it work? Because the architecture by AlterStudio and interiors by Tracey Overbeck Stead, infused with the ever-present vision of the homeowner, make for a small masterpiece of opposing forces that have come to rest in a beautiful way.
Not by chance, though: the homeowner was returning to an idea that had been on his mind for a very long time. “I went to UCLA in the mid-’50s she says, “and became friends with film director George Cukor.” Cukor’s movies—The Philadephia Story, My Fair Lady and A Star is Born—made him famous, and so did his Sunday afternoon parties frequented by stars, writers and musicians such as Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy, W. Somerset Maugham and Cole Porter. The scene was Cukor’s ultrachic home decorated by William Haines, in the style that came to be known as Hollywood Regency. The glitzy look was typified by lavish fabrics and wallpapers, fringe on lampshades and Deco chandeliers—the excess was best offset by a strictly edited backdrop. “It stayed on my mind,” says the homeowner. “It was the style that I thought would fit my house.”
First, though, he had to get the house built. The homeowner already had the interior designer: Stead had worked with him on several other projects and was familiar with his recently purchased lot in a hilly central neighborhood, developed in the 1960s. “My parents live next door,” she says about the pie-shaped lot. But the architect was the missing piece: the homeowner went on the AIA Austin Homes Tour, found a house he liked and phoned Kevin Alter, the architect on the project. Alter and his partners Tim Whitehill and Ernesto Cragnolino are known for designing modern buildings and renovations; often, the hallmark of these buildings is the architects’ flair for dramatic materials and shapes. It was perfect for what their new client had in mind.
“I love modern architecture,” said Alter’s client, “but I also wanted a return to elegance.” Alter responded: “We started with the idea of midcentury design. But our client is someone who likes the experience of arrival when guests visit. Ceremony is important. For him, dinner is a big deal—he rings a bell, and the chef comes into the dining room in a uniform.” The architect’s answer was to design a long, narrow house that allows for a meander from front to back, achieving a luxurious sense of experience from one room to the next. The front half of the 3,500-square-foot house is public space that caters to the homeowner’s love of entertaining, including a foyer, living room, dining room with a bar, a separate kitchen and breakfast nook. An office and master suite make up the private areas.
The process of entertainment clearly starts at the street. There, decorative steel gates glide open for arriving guests, who then guide their cars around the circular driveway under a porte cochere to the peacock-blue front door, spangled in a shotgun spray pattern of Lucite holes. “They let light into the foyer during the day,” says the homeowner. At night, the holes are lit inside out. Light plays a major role throughout the house. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls stretch down the length of the house’s south side, overlooking the garden. Clerestory windows on the other side shed beneficent north light into every room.
With an exception or two, the 10-foot-high interiors are subdued: “We painted the walls in the public spaces white, and a softer gray in the bedroom,” says Alter. The exceptions, however, can’t be missed. The entry—where a sense of occasion was required—demanded drama, and Stead provided it. The ceiling was raised to 12 feet to accommodate a torpedo-sized 50s-era Lucite chandelier that the homeowner had purchased in West Hollywood. Stead had the door jambs lacquered black and chose black-and-white wallpaper to energize. All is reflected in the chevron-patterned marble floors bounded by two inset black tile borders. In this entry there is no question that the party has begun.
Dark-as-night stained quarter-sawn oak floors lead the way into the living room anchored by a marble fireplace that faces a seating area; across the room is a Lucite game table where dinner guests adjourn for dessert or cards. Beyond is the dining room. “I wanted to have two dining tables,” explains the homeowner, “because you can divide a party into smaller groups and everyone can hear what the other people at the table are talking about.” One thing they might be mentioning are the two creamy suede-paneled screens that embrace each table. Beauty is as beauty does, and in this house the screens conceal a serving station and butler’s pantry for the catering staff.
“The house is a simple form,” says Alter. “The elegance is in the floor plan and the materials.” In the master bedroom, a plush double chaise and satin-upholstered Calvin Klein headboard signal that this room is luxe, a place set apart from the outside world. But Stead couldn’t resist challenging the notion that a bedroom should be stimulus-free. “My client said he wanted the bathroom to have some ‘ooomph,’” she says. Her response was to use slabs of vein-cut Marmara marble for the floors and walls. The gleaming white marble, cut to expose vivid dark greyish-brown veins, is boldly striped and slightly unnerving because each slab is deliberately unmatched with its neighbor. “It was mind-boggling at first,” admits the homeowner, “but I really like it now.” Stead had guessed he would like it: “My client enjoys the opulent detail,” she says. “If he is going to look at something or touch it, texture had better be there.” The house is a masterful compilation of complex detailing, deceptively couched in an unpretentious structure. But the truth came out when the city inspector arrived for the final inspection before granting a certificate of occupancy. It’s an occasion feared by everyone involved in the building process because no flaw or inconsistency will go unremarked. The inspector, however, pronounced the house perfect. “It was a huge compliment to the builder,” says the homeowner. “But I wasn’t surprised. I think the house is perfect, too.”