Written by Candace Ord Manroe
Photographs by Fran Brennan
Produced by Helen Thompson
Interior designer: Fern Santini, Abode, 4414 Burnet Rd. Austin, TX 78756; 512/300-2303, fernsantini.com.
Landscape architect: James David, Gardens, 1818 W. 35th St., Austin, TX 78703; 512/467-9934.
Contractor: Santini Construction, Inc. 512/751-2191.
Fern Santini: color-wheel twirler, arts supporter, lover of surprises, Texan to the bone. Fifteen minutes in Austin should do it. That’s time enough to spot a tee or bumper with the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” It’s a pride thing, and Austinites mean business. Since 1980, when the funky, hippie-muraled music venue Armadillo World Headquarters closed after 10 years of staging progressive country music and blues, the city has been on the prowl for a replacement—all things deliciously different to feed its iconoclastic image.
In design, that’s tricky territory to navigate because Austin—like all of Texas—worships tradition. What else would you expect from the state that still prides itself on having once been its own nation? Respect for homegrown architecture is a birthright. In her 1939 Austin home, interior designer Fern Santini’s particular genius is an ability to straddle both sides of the traditional/trendsetting line. She kowtows to tradition to a point, then yanks it every which way to suit herself.
In 2000, Fern and her husband, Jerre, a contractor, bought the vernacular farmhouse-style home knowing that Jerre would remodel it. “We both loved the beautiful old neighborhood, which is close to The University of Texas,” says Fern, “but the house was only 1,600 square feet. We wanted to add 2,000 feet to make it a more livable size.” They agreed certain elements were sacrosanct. The exterior’s chalky white limestone—locally quarried and known as “Austin stone”—was top on the list. “When we bought the house, we thought it was stone veneer,” laughs Fern. “But no. The walls were 14-inch-thick solid limestone—a nightmare to cut,” as Jerre discovered when he tried to enlarge the front door and the pair of front windows.
“The idea was to have the house still fit in the neighborhood, but to make it appear more balanced,” says Fern. “I thought the front door and windows were too small, so we added a double glass door that had a better scale and brought in the light, and we doubled the size of the windows. We also widened the front steps.” The porch—a feature borrowed from 19th-century Texas vernacular farmhouses—was untouched.
Inside, changes were extreme. “We gutted it down to zero,” says Jerre. They added a second story for a master suite and guest bedroom, built a new family room, powder room, and library downstairs, and enlarged the dining room and kitchen. They also enhanced the traditional architecture by including a central hall reminiscent of a dogtrot—traditionally an open-air gallery that bisects a farmhouse to cool it down in summer. “It made sense to create a central axis from the front door,” says Fern. “The enclosed dogtrot connects the front living room and library to the dining room and family room.”
Fern’s decorating hinges on complex colors and little surprises. “My clients are always teasing me about my color descriptions, like, ‘It’s a greenish-grayish-brown,’ ” she laughs. She gravitates to olives, golds, and reds, and prefers working with more than just two colors. As for surprises, “I like turning the corner and seeing something that makes me smile.” Maybe it’s the living room’s fluffy angora rug. Or its Parisian floor lamps with the feather shades. “Jerre and I spent a whole evening gluing those feathers on,” Fern notes.
“I hate ‘kit’ decorating, where everything matches,” she insists. “I don’t buy art to match the sofa, and I don’t believe in artificial flowers.” Retro-modern pieces like the living room’s mid-century folding chairs by Hans Wegner mix with ornate antiques such as the glamorous 1930s mirrored tables in the living room. “I like contrast—nothing predictable.”
Art is the single most important component in her design. “I could spend my last dime on art,” Fern admits. Though mainly local artists are displayed throughout the house, Fern considers such accessories as the dining room’s Ingo Maurer light fixture, “Birds! Birds! Birds!” art, too. “It hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, and it makes me smile,” she says. “It’s totally unexpected in this space.” As both art and surprise, the piece allows Fern to scratch off two design objectives from her list. Because of its presence in the master bath, a traditional Fortuny-shade chandelier achieves the same goals of being artful and unexpected.
After 13 months, Jerre finally completed the remodeling. He installed the last of the appliances on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning, exhausted, he and Fern hung the Maurer fixture in the dining room—only to short it out. “It was because we were so tired!” wails Fern. But they pressed on to entertain 30 guests for Christmas dinner, respecting tradition in true Austinite fashion. As if there were any other way.