Architect: Dillon Kyle, Dillon Kyle Architecture, 3219 Milam, Houston, TX 77006; 713/520-8792, dkarc.com.
Landscape design: Thompson + Hanson, 3600 West Alabama, Houston, TX 77027; 713/622-0602, thompsonhanson.com.
Photographs by Werner Straube
Text by Candace Ord Manroe
Produced by Helen Thompson
When short-listing her favorite hobbies, Virginia Mary Brown begins and ends with decorating. "I'm addicted to home design books and magazines and to decorator showhouses. And now I have to add design blogs to the list of addictive substances," laughs the Houston homeowner, who left her first job as a corporate attorney to start her family 15 years ago.
Four sons later, she reaped a return when she and husband Ray built a bigger home on the Tanglewood property in suburban Houston where her grandmother's 1950s-era ranch house had stood. Virginia Mary reviewed all the decorating ideas she'd been collecting, winnowed out all but the best, and worked with architect Dillon Kyle to showcase them in her new family home.
"Dillon is a friend from childhood, and everyone I spoke to recommended him, which thrilled me," she explains. "We took our time and developed the plans over two years before building."
Several design concepts gleaned from showhouses appear in both the architecture and the decorating, but without a whiff of the over-the-top theatrics that can make a showhouse too rarefied or palpably impractical. "I'm a big mimic, especially when it comes to showhouses," Virginia Mary acknowledges. "But I assure you, this is a normal home. It's not the kind you walk into and go, 'yeah, right.' Real people really live here--cleats, dog, and all."
Virginia Mary gave a shout-out to those real people in a uniquely personal upholstery treatment on her great-grandmother's rocking chair, "where all the babies were rocked." Artist friend Heidi Prince hand-painted the rocker's cotton duck fabric with the names of every family member who ever sat there. Starting with Virginia Mary's great-grandmother, the litany concludes with the names of her and her two sisters' children. Multiple appearances of the name Virginia Mary point to the time-honored Southern tradition of namesakes. "I love this chair," says Virginia Mary, "but I honestly can't remember if it was my idea or one I picked up from a showhouse or magazine."
The open flow of the house and its amplitude of natural light are definitely showhouse-inspired. Virginia Mary admired the concepts when she toured a couple of Houston's annual River Oaks Garden Club Azalea Trail showhouses, designed in the 1930s by the late renowned architect John Staub. "Because his houses were built before air-conditioning, rooms had windows on three sides for maximum ventilation. It really makes spaces very bright and happy, and I knew I wanted that for our home." Staub's use of clear sight lines also resonated with her. "Looking down our entry hall, you can see all the way through the house," she notes.
Virginia Mary further credits her up-close observation of Staub's architecture with her own home's use of step-downs, like the one leading from the kitchen to the sunken family room. This feature distinguishes the two open spaces, giving each its own integrity. "There's also a change in flooring from pine to brick every time there's a step-down," she adds.
Laid in a herringbone pattern, all of the interior pavers are 1950s-vintage Cedar Bayou bricks recycled from her grandmother's house. More are used outdoors, where they're artfully mixed with new bricks to provide the desired coverage. "I got this idea of a vanishing threshold where there's no visual break between indoors and outdoors from the Pink Ribbon Showhouse in Houston," Virginia Mary says. "The bricks in the family room extend to the patio outdoors, so indoors and outdoors flow together."
Among favorite showhouses Virginia Mary has toured are two in Atlanta by Dan Carithers, who was named a Traditional Home Icon of Design in 2009. "He placed art and objects above the archways and really drew the eye up. I tried to do that here, to take the eye all the way to the ceilings, which I painted a custom pale blue-gray for definition--but subtle, kind of like a shadow," she says.
One example of how she draws the eye up is her arrangement of art between French doors in the living room. She stacked identically framed botanicals in a single vertical column from just above the floor to just below the crown molding. The eye sweeps up, and the effect feels bracingly fresh. Upstairs, she deployed family portraits in the same floor-to-ceiling formation, but this time she blanketed the landing walls for a gallery that's both an intimate family tribute and an eye-catching style statement.
Despite her self-deprecating label as a design mimic, Virginia Mary is far more. Her well-defined opinions are integral to the design. "I believe that architecture can help unify a family," she theorizes. "I wanted a design that was not compartmentalized, because I wanted our family to be together and close." For the same reason, she went against the trend and said no to a master suite downstairs, insisting that all bedrooms be upstairs. And in another increasingly uncommon move, she opted against a bedroom for every boy. "My kids are really close, like puppies in a box," she laughs. "They have fun together and are each others' best friends."
Of course, too much of anything is never good, and that includes closeness. Thus the big, gray sliding barn doors that separate the sage-green family room--the only deviation from the home's mainly gray and off-white palette--from the kitchen.
"I wanted to be able to close off the family room when the boys are watching TV in there and the adults are talking in the kitchen or the living room," Virginia Mary explains. Or the reverse. Both family and living rooms have TVs. "This is a family home. We have a TV in the living room because we watch games there. It's just a fact of our lives."
The big kitchen was inspired by one she admired in a design magazine. "I wanted a lot of counter space and a big table in the middle. Everybody has to go through here to get anywhere in the house---and that was deliberate. We gather here at the start of the day and at the end. With four boys, someone's always in here eating." The inviting results--not just in the kitchen but all over--raise one question: Who says a decorating junkie can't be productive?