La Jesse's Grand Gesture

Her Imperial Highness lets us in...

By Rob Brinkley. Photography Ka and Jan Yeung. Floral Design Avant Garden.
November 07, 2011

She’s a fashion aficionada, a fund-raiser, a budding artist and the chairman of this spring’s Dallas Opera Gala. (And that’s just for starters.) Meet Jessica Jesse, the straightest-shooting, most refreshing Dallasite you’ve never heard of — and the woman behind the modern fairy tale into which you are about to delve. Did we mention she’s an Austrian princess? Her Imperial Highness lets us in.

In the wee small hours of the morning, while you are deep in slumber, Jessica Jesse is awake and doing something wild. She’s holed up in the guest room above her garage, pulling silk flowers apart, one petal and pistil at a time. A scorching-hot glue gun puffs thin curls of smoke into the air. Delicately, carefully, Jesse squeezes a gooey dollop of burning glue onto the back of a leaf and then — wham — jabs it onto a naked shoulder. And then an elbow. And then another shoulder. The department-store mannequin she’s covering in hydrangea parts and peony petals doesn’t seem to mind at all.

Welcome to the certifiably wild world of Jessica Jesse, a relatively recent transplant back to Dallas from points hither and yon. We’ll get to that, but there are some rather more unusual bits to get out of the way first:
• She is a dislocated princess. She is Her Imperial Highness Princess Jessica Claire Monique Bowers-von Hohenberg of Austria, thanks to her titled Viennese father. But don’t use the P-word here: She’s just “Jessica.”
• She drives a big blue Audi station wagon, on which she will quietly point out the suede headliner, then insist you touch it. Jessica Jesse loves tactile things.
• She was a model in New York and in Paris, namely for one Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy.
• Her fashion C.V. also includes director titles at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, and a VP spot at Torie Steele, the tony, late-’80s boutique in Dallas and Beverly Hills, where the racks dripped with Frizon, Montana and Valentino.
• Remember Epicure on the Park, the pair of gourmet bistros in Fort Worth and Dallas? Her family started those. (The Viennese apple strudel on the menu is a clue.)
• She is, indeed, the chairman of April’s glittery Opera Gala, for which she is doing the event design herself.

For all of Jesse’s unconventional leanings, though, she’s remarkably down to earth. Your first meal at her house will likely be around the island in the kitchen, not in the dining room. When she’s not in the suede-lined Audi, she zips about town in a DayGlo-green Smart car. And, she has an especially dry sense of humor — delivering a punch line with great subtlety, then pausing for two beats while it floats over to you. There’s an easy, no-nonsense air to almost everything she does.

Except decorate. Behold the Jesse manse, a one-of-a-kind stage set where this renaissance woman lives with her husband Bill and their two-person brood, Charlie, 18, and Sloane, 8. The house sits squarely in a row of University Park dwellings, a Tudor here, a Federal there. It, too, had a traditional wrapper when the Jesses found it, about two years ago, after they decided to move to Dallas from San Francisco. “We came for the schools,” says Jessica, who has fond memories of Dallas from her SMU days. (Her upbringing, because of her father’s long career in luxury hotels, swung her from Mexico to California to Europe to Dallas.) The first order of business was tweaking the house — originally very “Ozzie and Harriet,” per Bill Jesse — to the family’s tastes. Acting as their own architects, up went sheets of architectural aluminum, down went decking of travertine. The too-dark swimming pool was replastered and the house’s recessed entry vestibule was sheathed in exotic lacewood. Where once stood “a big bunch of bushes” in front, a wide, welcoming plaza now reigns, and what looks like twin strips of lush green lawn are actually driveways — the Jesses insist you pull right onto them. Inside, more reinvention. The house had lofty ceilings and gobs of light, but the Jesses needed more walls for art. The unnecessarily large center hall was bisected to become a whitewashed gallery that zigzags between the front door and the living spaces in the back. A second staircase was added, too, itself a minimalist whirl of thickly laminated wood railings for which Charles Eames would’ve gone gaga. But nothing transformed the house like the stirring-in of the family possessions — pedigreed pieces from Jessica’s parents, modern bits that reference Bill’s days helping develop Design Within Reach, and new pieces found here and there. A grand piano lacquered royal blue? Happy birthday from Jessica to Bill. A surly fiberglass rabbit taking a drag on an ashy cigarette? Found in Dallas. Throughout this contemporary castle, there are eccentric riches galore, from drapes made of white patent vinyl that Jessica devised herself to a flower-petal-bedecked mannequin that strikes an elegant pose in the entry hall. That one is Jessica’s creation, too, one of a dozen planned, and from one of those sleepless nights wielding a glue gun. (“When we were renting a house before finding this one,” she says, “I couldn’t sleep at night.” Voilà, something to while away the hours.) But now Jesse is firmly ensconced in a house that is purely hers, a modern-day castle that functions as a real family home — with some twists, of course. The dislocated princess glances around. “You know,” she says, in her no-nonsense way, “this house is turning out a little bit quirky. We didn’t intend to go this far.”

For more images and details, click on 'launch slideshow' at top of page.

What editor Rob Brinkley saw on the day of our shoot: click here.

Living fussy and French? Ancestral and English? "C’mon" says Jessica Jesse. “Who’s kidding who?”