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Real Estate / Houses

The Dark Side

Stunning Dallas House Embraces Life’s Intense Complications Thanks to Its Daring Interior Designer Owner

BY // 10.18.16
photography Shayna Fontana

Brooke Roberson’s University Park house is a contradiction of dark and light. The chiaroscuro effect not only makes a design statement, but opens the door to her own complicated psyche. An ink-black library, where she and husband Rod decompress and sip a martini or glass of Scotch together after work, is moody and cerebral.

Other rooms are sunny spots, such as the kitchen with its communal farmhouse table where children Lily, 4, and Jack, 7, do homework and make art. The living room — light-drenched and filled with potted tropical plants — is a cheerful alter ego to the brooding nooks scattered throughout the house that are styled with curious objects and mysterious photographs and art.

A visual representation of Roberson’s personality, the house is a paradox of emotions that we all experience throughout a single day, if we’re willing to acknowledge them.

“A lot of people are afraid to get to know their dark side,” she says, “but it’s healthy to know yourself on both levels.” The 38-year-old interior designer and former professional photographer cites decorator Dorothy Draper who put American baroque-style on the map in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and the store Grange Hall as her biggest design influences.

Despite their contradictory styles, Draper and Grange Hall are both known for pushing conventional boundaries. “Some people want their house to be out of a catalog,” Roberson says. “I like to shake things up a bit, to do things people are not comfortable with.”

The Robersons bought their circa-1978 house near Snider Plaza five years ago. When her parents first saw it, they tried to talk their daughter out of it. It had dark brick and wood everywhere, including the floors.

“They were shocked,” Roberson says. “They couldn’t understand what I could see in it. It was from a totally different generation, and the tone was so different from what I like. But it had great bones, and I had a vision for it.” After updating and renovating inside and out, she drenched the house in Benjamin Moore Luminous white punctuated by Tricorn black.

An artist at heart, Roberson grew up in West Virginia, where she was a frequent visitor to the Dorothy Draper-designed Greenbrier resort. “It’s one of my favorite places on Earth,” she says. “The colors and sophistication really had an impact on me.”

Roberson made her way to Dallas by way of SMU, where she was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Meadows School of the Arts, where she focused on drawing and photography.

In the library, vintage swivel chairs from Antiques Moderne in Designer's Guild velvet; round side table by Worlds Away; Wisteria coffee table; Arteriors lamp; French theater sconces from Found Antiques; Chesterfield leather sofa from Restoration Hardware
In the library, vintage swivel chairs from Antiques Moderne in Designer’s Guild velvet; round side table by Worlds Away; Wisteria coffee table; Arteriors lamp; French theater sconces from Found Antiques; Chesterfield leather sofa from Restoration Hardware

After college, she worked in New York City as a fashion photographer, among other jobs. After four years, the rigors of surviving wore on her, and she moved back to Dallas, where she took a job at Dunn and Brown Contemporary (now Talley Dunn Gallery). She also served as assistant to noted art photographer Nic Nicosia, who is known for exploring the dark side of suburbia through staged black-and-white photographs that blur the line between fiction and reality. “There’s something haunting about Nick’s work that I relate to,” Roberson says.

The two have remained close friends, and several of his works hang in her house, including his 1991 Real Pictures #6, a dark and unsettling image of a young girl standing on the kitchen table dressed like a ballerina in the spotlight, while her parents look on from the shadows. The photograph hangs in the dining room above an antique French chair, a family heirloom left in its tattered original upholstery, its white muslin underside exposed. It’s a stunning composition layered in meaning, elicited from her years as a trained artist rather than any formal notion of what interior decoration should be.

Roberson inherited design clients from friend Emily Miller, while Miller was on maternity leave. The transition to designer seemed a good fit; Roberson had already been styling shoots for Miller’s finished projects, and Miller had confidence in Roberson’s eye.

“I’ve had to teach myself about the business side of it,” she says. “But the fact that I haven’t gone to school for interior design means I don’t have anyone’s voice in my head, telling me to do things a certain way.” One of her first jobs was the interiors for her husband’s restaurant, 18th & Vine, a barbecue spot inside an old Tudor house on Maple Avenue, which gets as much praise for the crisp black-and-white interiors as it does for the food.

For Roberson, interior design is just another way to dig deeper into ourselves, much as a photograph by Cindy Sherman makes us delve below the surface. “The mystery of Sherman’s photographs fits my house perfectly,” Roberson says. “I get what she is trying to do. There is something normal and familiar in her work, but also something odd. I see this quality in my own work.”

The sense of peeling back layers is also what drives Roberson to antique stores and flea markets. “You see an old chair, and it makes you wonder: Who sat in that? That chair has information about someone’s life, about their journey.”

Her house is filled with mementos of the past: old pocket watches, cards with interesting calligraphy and photo-booth images of friends. There are antique typewriters from a typewriter-repair business owned by her husband’s family and tiny bronze casts of her children’s hands made by artist Brad Oldham. There’s a gallery wall with black-and-white family portraits and a drawing by artist Helen Altman.

“All kinds of stories come to mind when I look at these things,” she says. “I like layers — that’s real life. To me, it’s important not to just show the surface, but to show some depth.”

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