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Inside Chad Dorsey’s Laidback, Graffiti-Tagged ‘Surf Shack’ in Forest Hills

The Dallas Designer and Architect's Handcrafted Home is Relaxed Luxury at its Best

BY // 02.07.20
photography Stephen Karlisch

Chad Dorsey, an interior designer and trained architect, has built and renovated dozens of homes for both clients and himself over the years. Often it becomes an exercise in box-checking. “I design so many houses where the program is all about resale,” says Dorsey, who co-founded MORE Design + Build in 2005 with partner Kurt Bielawski. An interiors-focused
business, Chad Dorsey Design, launched in 2018.

Dorsey found himself in that box-checking situation several years ago, when he was drawing plans for his own new home in Forest Hills. His original design for the 4,500-square-foot residence included two stories with four upstairs bedrooms and other amenities geared for a large family. It was the kind of house that would be easy to sell, but it felt impersonal. And it was way too much house for him, Bielawski, and their two dogs, a Jack Russell terrier named Jackson and a corgi mix named Lucy.

“The more I got into it, the more I thought about what I really needed, what I really wanted, and what my lifestyle was really like,” he says.

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So Dorsey headed back to the drawing board and came up with something more his style: a 3,000-square-foot single-story house with two modestly sized bedrooms, three bathrooms, spacious open living and kitchen areas, a mudroom/office, and a cozy TV lounge. The redesign’s smaller footprint also allowed for a bigger yard

“I’ve been designing houses for myself for 15 years,” he says, “and this is the most livable one yet.”

If you think the architecture of this house looks like one favored on the West Coast, you’d be right. Dorsey spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, where he recently opened a satellite design office, and he also keeps a small getaway in the San Juan Islands off the Washington coast

“For me, the perfect lifestyle is to live on the water in a simple building that’s still luxurious, with all of the things I need and want to be comfortable,” he says. “So I came up with the idea of a surf shack in Dallas with rustic cedar shingles on the exterior and corrugated metal on the roof and garages.”

Then he stained it all black, to mimic the Japanese burned-wood technique of shou sugi ban. The original driveway had become overgrown with vines and trees, adding to the windswept feel.

“Walking down the driveway, you felt like you were walking down a beach path, so I kept it,” he says. Dorsey also covered the front yard in white stone gravel that makes the house appear as if it’s sitting in sand.

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Chad Dorsey designed the corrugated-metal and shingle house to reference surf shacks along the California coast, stained black to mimic shou sugi ban, a Japanese burned-wood technique. The white-stone gravel yard is reminiscent of beach sand.

Luxury is a relative term. For Dorsey, it means polished-concrete floors that are not only rustically beautiful, but impervious to dogs. Luxury also means a kitchen filled with chef-worthy Gaggenau appliances and sleek Dornbracht plumbing fixtures.

“I’m a big cook,” he says. “Last night, I braised some chicken and served it with sauerkraut, carrots, and greens — all very simple.” In keeping with Dorsey’s surf shack, the custom walnut cabinets are bleached, and the marble countertops are midnight blue with splashes of white veining that resemble waves crashing at sea.

“I’ve been designing houses for myself for 15 years,” Dorsey says, “and this is the most livable one yet.”

“My style is relaxed luxury,” he says. “It’s also bespoke, timeless and handcrafted, all of which embody the furnishings in this house. Many are pieces that have been with me a long time and found furniture that I’ve reupholstered or refinished.”

In the living room, a pair of black-leather and wood armchairs were gifted to him 30 years ago by his uncle, an architect. A Herman Miller sideboard in the dining room was part of a set given to him by his mother while he was still in college.

“These have gone with me everywhere I’ve moved,” he says.]

Dorsey purchased the living room’s wood-slab coffee table at a sample sale 15 years ago. “It has a huge crack down the center, but the fracture is what makes it cool. It’s rugged, like something out on your deck in Malibu.”

Much of Dorsey’s aesthetic involves using natural materials with simple, textural finishes. The living-room bookshelves, which he designed, are made from thin, raw steel; gorgeous cork panels cover the TV-room walls, and a stylish drinks station in the kitchen is clad in unsealed copper, which is already beginning to patinate beautifully. He has a collection of Brutalist pottery lamps and vessels made from turned wood, wire, and resin. The vintage game table in his bedroom was chosen for its exquisite birdseye maple, and the draperies throughout the house are ultra-thin New Zealand-made Mokum linen, known for its subtle hues.

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Dorsey designed the thin raw-steel shelving, which holds his collection of vessels. Reinhard Ziegler photograph from Conduit Gallery.

While Dorsey used the surf-shack idea as an inspiration, he wasn’t heavy-handed with the beach theme. The dining room stands on its own as a masterful contemporary composition, with particular focus on a dramatic Flos chandelier.

“I loved the elegance and the whimsy of it,” he says of the fixture. “You can do whatever you want with it, point it in any direction. But you can’t plan it on paper — you just have to play with it. It’s fun.”

He bought the dining-room table for its curved, dimpled-brass base and replaced the plain black-lacquer top with a custom one of his design in black Nero Marquina marble from Spain. No surprise here: This room took top honors at the recent PaperCity Design Awards in the category singular-space, dining. (The house also garnered two first-place recognitions.)

Chad Dorsey
The mud-room graffiti wall is by muralist Joe Skilz. “Buy Mum a House” artwork is by Thomas Langley. (Courtesy of Chad Dorsey Design)

Still, as refined as the house is, it wouldn’t be a surf shack without a little graffiti on the walls.

“I’ve worked with local graffiti artist Joe Skilz on two or three other projects for clients, and I’ve always wanted him to do something for me,” Dorsey says. “So I asked him to do a graffiti wall in this house. He usually does a lot of figures with a lot of color, but for me he did text and letters in tonal colors like grays and white, with a little pink.”

The artwork, which is painted directly onto the sheetrock, covers one wall in the mudroom/office and can be seen from the kitchen.

“I was terrified how it might turn out, but when I walked into the house, I loved it. I’ve been here 18 months, and it’s the perfect fit for this house,” Dorsey says.

He placed another word-based artwork, “Buy Mum a House” by emerging British artist Thomas Langley, on top of the graffiti to provide another layer of dimension. “That room embodies everything I wanted this house to be about — it’s relaxed, interesting, even elegant in a way,” he says.

Whoever buys the house after Dorsey will inherit the graffiti wall, but he’s not worried about it affecting resale value. In fact, the wall — along with all the other personal touches he made to the house — just make it more appealing.

“I’ve learned you just have to take risks,” he says. “It’s the emotional factor that sells the house.”

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