Complex colors and little surprises bedeck this traditional Texas home
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.
Photography: Fran Brennan
Produced by Helen Thompson
Interior design: 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.
Living Room Details
Fern blends textures with an animal print, silk pillows, and roses.
Small notes of vibrant red complement the yellow walls of the living room. An angora rug covers the heart-pine floors, which were dredged from a river where they had been buried since before the Civil War.
Interior designer Fern Santini, a native Texan, respects tradition in her Austin home but isn’t afraid to take risks. “I’m my only client who lets me do whatever I want!” she declares.
A diptych by the late Mickey Mayfield is the dining room’s focal point. The long antique pine French farm table is graced by new rattan chairs. A shed-roof ceiling in beadboard keeps the feeling of a porch, which is how the space started.
The family room’s “egg” chairs are recliners even Fern can live with.
Boxwood shrubs in pea gravel add sculptural elegance to the home’s farmhouse-style exterior.
Based on early dogtrots, a gallery connects the front and back of the house.
Iridescent glass tiles cover the kitchen counters and backsplashes. “They were the perfect option for bringing in more light,” says Fern, who notes that there is only one small window above the sink. The island picks up the green of the tiles.
Fresh flowers and produce add to the kitchen’s cool palette.
Fern’s favorite room, the library, is filled with her design books. She painted it a “dark brownish-green to make it more intimate and less pedestrian,” then toned it down with a gold Tibetan wool rug.
Fern Santini: Walking the Walk
“I could spend my last dime on art.”
Fern Santini doesn’t just “walk the talk,” filling her own home with the art she professes to love. She shares her passion, not so much proselytizing others to become collectors as encouraging the artists themselves. She is co-president of Women and Their Work, a nonprofit Austin art gallery that’s been giving women artists an opportunity to show their work for 25 years. “It’s a venue for women artists, and it’s the one place they can turn to actually seek help in learning how to do their shows,” explains Fern.
The nomenclature of Women and Their Work may be a bit misleading. The organization doesn’t wait until its target audience is a group of adult women. “We work with 18 schools in more disadvantaged neighborhoods in Austin to provide extracurricular art programs. All school art programs have been cut, but the PTAs in wealthier schools have picked up the slack. We’re trying to reach the poorer schools.” Click here to learn more about this organization .
Built above the new family room to create a second story, the master bedroom is filled with pieces Fern already owned.
Rosebud, a Brussels Griffon, peeks out of the bathtub; Myrtle the Scottie sinks her paws into the angora rug. The columns in the corners were salvaged from a Paris apartment.