Real Estate / Houses

Strip Tease

This Ex-Beauty Queen’s Sky-High Houston Condo Design Sheds the Clutter for an Electrifyingly Young Vibe

BY // 11.06.15

The sharpest contrasts often make the most exciting design statements, especially in minimalist spaces. There’s no better example than a 14th-floor condominium inside Bayou Bend Towers. French and Italian antiques rub elbows with iconic mid-century furniture. Warm white oak is toughened by gleaming stainless steel. Neutral tones are hit with unexpected fuchsia and red. Exposed concrete contradicts the refined high gloss of a grand piano. And theatrical faux ivy abounds on the terrace, where one would expect to find nature. But all bets are off when the orchestrator of this highly youthful and minimalist residence turns out to be 78-year-old Barbara Hill.

“Most designers in their 70s might be doing things like Ralph Lauren curtains,” says the homeowner, who shares the three-bedroom condo with her husband and 11-year-old daughter. Instead, there are bare windows framed by rough concrete support columns with exposed bolts and braces. “Barbara is just one of a kind. She’s a lot of fun. She was Miss Texas in the 1950s, and she’s maintained a very youthful attitude. She keeps things fresh and up to date.”

The couple, both trial lawyers with a prominent Houston law firm, first met Hill through mutual friends in Marfa, where they have a house. Hill has designed two houses for herself in Marfa, including a converted 1930s dance hall, which she has since sold. The couple hired the designer to redo their Marfa house without even seeing her work.

“I knew I’d like working with them because they had great style and were fun,” Hill says. “You can just kind of tell those things. Maybe it’s all part of the cosmic journey into the unknown … !” Hill later designed a beach house for her clients in Port Aransas and a previous apartment in Bayou Bend Towers. “They both love art and have an artistic way of thinking, so it’s always been easy to work with them. They have it in them to open up and do some fun and unusual things.”

Originally dark with heavy draperies, parquet floors and a warren of small rooms that blocked the views, the unit had been virtually untouched for almost 30 years. “We totally gutted it,” says Hill, who removed multiple walls to allow the kitchen, dining, living and library areas to flow together, transforming the space into an open and airy loft. Walk in the front door now, and you’re greeted with a panoramic skyline view of downtown and Memorial Park’s lush environs and bayou below, thick with magnolias.

When concrete support columns and beams were revealed during demolition, “I got really excited,” says Hill. “I told the workmen not to clean up or paint over them.” Red metal braces and pencil scribbles made by the contractor on the concrete 27 years earlier were treated as art. “It just made the apartment so much more interesting to leave them.”


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It wasn’t the first time the couple had gone minimal. “We’d already been indoctrinated in our previous house with the Barbara Hill lifestyle,” jokes the wife. “She told me I didn’t need so much stuff. So we purged.” Many of their existing pieces of furniture — such as the dazzling vintage fuchsia Womb chair — worked perfectly in their new abode. Other pieces were purchased for the larger apartment, such as a spectacular pair of vintage Italian leather arm chairs in the living room and a rare antique Italian walnut table in the dining room. Metal fabricator George Sacaris built custom stainless-steel shelving, a center island and a bar with a fold-out table for the kitchen, along with other metal furniture pieces for the house. The couple’s extensive contemporary art collection, which focuses on Texas artists, includes works commissioned expressly for the new spaces, such as an iconic Lace painting by Mark Flood over the master bed, an untitled resin work by Paul Fleming that dances along the kitchen wall and a bayou photograph on aluminum by Geoff Winningham in the dining room. Houston photographer Phyllis Hand’s images in the bedroom pay homage to the magnolia trees that bloom along the bayou below.

To keep things clean and uncluttered, much of the couple’s art collection is in storage, and they’ve put a hold on collecting anything new. Such are the sacrifices of a minimalist mindset, but for Hill and her clients, less means more. “It feels really good once you get rid of things,” she says. “It’s peaceful, and without so much stuff piled around, you can finally see how beautiful that one antique chair is.”

[This article originally appeared in the November 2015 Houston edition of PaperCity Magazine.]

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