Something's Gotta Give

Designer Martha Baxter Finger’s sublime use of color and texture is marked by creative compromise.

Laurann Claridge. Photography Jack Thompson.
September 29, 2010

Interior design Martha Baxter Finger with Michael Landrum. Portrait photography Karen Sachar. Styled by Michael Rodriguez. Hair and makeup Victoria Callaway.
Successful relationships of every sort require not only compromise but some serious negotiating skills. No one knows this better than designer Martha Baxter Finger, mother of one teenage son, who four years ago married private investor Richard Finger, father of three young daughters, and, in the process, created a family of six.  The couple resides in a 1960s house on a winding private drive in River Oaks — an inlet undiscovered by most unless they veer off Willowick, past the Frenchified manses and sprawling estates, then roll up the narrow passage, curious about what lies beyond. Richard Finger had called the unassuming space home for eight years, and he wasn’t anxious to leave, even though he and his new bride now needed much more space to blend their brood.
“I think Richard had a sentimental attachment to this house and to the lot and the view … Not everyone in Houston has this view,” Martha says, referring to the bayou-backed greenscape. “Every time we went to look for another house in Houston, he’d drive home and get really quiet. He just loved it back here.”
After months of looking, it was settled: They would stay in the house Richard couldn’t part with but expand it carefully and respectfully — a task easier said than done. “Initially we were going to expand off the back of the house, but the city wouldn’t let us,” Martha says. There was also the matter of a big tree alongside the house … Richard was determined not to take down the massive sweet gum — “never, never, never” were his exact words — even though it would have afforded them the space they desperately needed to build an addition. 
Martha and her architect, frequent collaborator and friend Michael Landrum, walked the property for four days, studiously contemplating their dilemma and sketching out a plan. Before revealing their proposal, Martha told her husband, “If you want to stay in this house, you have to give to get.” Turns out he was willing to give enough to take down the tree that impeded their progress — but now it was Martha’s turn to reciprocate.
Up to this point, she had preferred to play it safe in her own homes, leaving them awash in easy-to-live-with neutrals. But her new husband craved color — the bolder the better. “I came from a very muted, tone-on-tone design in my own home,” Martha says. “My husband told me, ‘I don’t want to build this house if you don’t give me color. You can’t give me a beige house.’ He really inspired me to step out of my box.”
She gleaned inspiration from every corner of the globe. There was the trip to Paris, for instance, when she found herself on the Left Bank with her mother-in-law, wandered into a paint store and, on a whim, started mixing moss and loden, cobblestone and charcoal — hues that would eventually cover the living-room walls and Richard’s library. 
Then there was the journey to South America … One of the modern Philippe Starck hotels where they stayed featured an ornate silver swan-neck faucet in its otherwise contemporary bath. Martha snapped pics of the piece with her iPhone and showed them to a surprised Landrum and her contractor, Dave Black. Recalling the photo months later, Black gave Martha the famed gold Sherle Wagner fixture that another client was replacing. She promptly silver-plated it and installed it in the mirrored powder room downstairs.
In New York, Martha and Landrum stopped for drinks at the Gramercy Park Hotel designed by artist Julian Schnabel. The vision of those massive bronze front doors remained in their collective consciousness. Back home on Texas terra firma, they decided to scale down the Gramercy Park doors and recreate them in painted steel.
Other visions swirling in her mind were realized via chunky, statement-making moldings, un-lacquered hardware (some, like the sculptural bronze banister designed by Landrum, have only a “living” finish that, over time, reveals a warm patina) and wall coverings with a textured hand, such as burlap and washed cypress. Longing to create the feel of a pre-war Manhattan apartment, where the tony rooms seem intimate despite spanning more than 10,000 square feet, Martha frequently shopped in New York for items unattainable here. As a dichotomy, she wanted the exterior of the property to go practically unnoticed. “My idea, in talking to Michael, was to create a very urban space,” she says. “From the front, I didn’t want it to appear large or pretentious, so when you walked in, you were surprised.”
Eighteen months later, the newlyweds and their four children moved back into the now-generous house. Each child has a bedroom and lots of space to play — in the media room, exercise area or communal living areas on each floor. “It’s funny,” says Martha, “I built this house, and I think now it’s influenced my other designs. I’ve always used my home as a laboratory … and done my own thing that’s sometimes been a little shocking to people.” Despite all her hard work here, she admits, “If it was just me, in three to five years, I could sell this house and start all over again … I would love that because I love that process … But I think I’d have to pry Richard out of here.”
For more pictures and details, click on 'launch slideshow' above.

“My husband told me, ‘I don’t want to build this house if you don’t give me color. You can’t give me a beige house.’ He really inspired me to step out of my box.” — Martha Finger