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Real Estate / Houses

The Blue Bloods’ Decorator

Historic 1931 Home Revamp Shows Off an Exclusive Designer’s Magic

BY // 09.15.15
photography Chris Plavidal

New Orleans-bred Paul Garzotto is part of that long tradition of Southern society decorators in which the question “Who is your decorator?” is rarely ever asked of his blue-chip clients. That’s because Garzotto’s rooms have an effortlessly chic appeal, as if they were pulled together by the equally insouciant and stylish lady of the house.

Garzotto, of the Dallas-based design firm Green Garzotto, was business partner with the late Marguerite Green, who was considered the Sister Parish of Dallas society. Like Parish and Green, Garzotto is hired through word-of-mouth referrals (he has no website and rarely publishes his work). Clients tend to be civic-minded, old Dallas families — the likes of Nancy and Jeremy Halbreich, Charles and Dee Wyly, and the late Raymond and Patsy Nasher. With top-drawer art and furnishings handed down through the generations, these deep-rooted scions of the city require homes that function well and live beautifully. Comfort and usefulness reign, and repurposed inherited furniture holds sway over new. Garzotto’s houses are bespoke in the best sense of the word, tailor-made to perfection for the families living in them.

“Billy Baldwin used to say that designing a house is like being a portrait painter,” Garzotto says. “But I think it’s more like helping people execute their own self-portrait.”

Nothing could illustrate this rather humble declaration on decorating better than the glamorous Depression-era house he recently completed for clients in the lush Northern Hills neighborhood near Highland Park. When the homeowners purchased the rambling, 1931 Colonial Revival house more than 10 years ago, it had already been renovated by one of the city’s leading modernist architects for previous owners, a pair of contemporary art collectors. Much of the original classic appeal of the interiors — done post-war by legendary architect and designer John Astin Perkins — had been stripped away, save for the ornate plaster moldings and the marble fireplace in the library and formal living room, plus the house’s original doors. But the pseudo white-box renovation had an upside: The formerly closed-in kitchen and dining room were opened up and stepped down into a newly built, glassed-in porch. Narrow with low ceilings and a steep descent, the porch’s awkwardness was balanced by the glorious views it presented of the vast backyard, which slopes down into a creek.

The library’s peacock lacquered walls and ceiling were hand-painted by Barry A. Martin Painting Contractors. The 1948 Finn Juhl chairs in walnut and new saddle leather belonged to the husband’s parents in New Orleans. The distressed vintage leather club chairs were restored by Marcelena Racatune of Larru Leathers. The Barn Owls is an original John James Audubon painting purchased at a Louisiana plantation estate sale. Photographs of Japanese fetish dolls by David Levinthal.
Well-lived wonder: The library’s peacock lacquered walls and ceiling were hand-painted by Barry A. Martin Painting Contractors. The 1948 Finn Juhl chairs in walnut and new saddle leather belonged to the husband’s parents in New Orleans. The distressed vintage leather club chairs were restored by Marcelena Racatune of Larru Leathers. The Barn Owls is an original John James Audubon painting purchased at a Louisiana plantation estate sale. Photographs of Japanese fetish dolls by David Levinthal.

The setting, plus the house’s close proximity to Knox-Henderson’s bustling stores and restaurants, had the homeowners hooked. “We heard the house was coming on the market, and we had always wanted to live on this street,” says the wife, who grew up nearby in a John Astin Perkins-designed house on Armstrong Avenue but also spent many years living and working in New York City and London, where street life is prominent. Her husband, a local entrepreneur and New Orleans native, was also accustomed to walking everywhere and had lived in the neighborhood previously. “We missed the urban vibe of big cities, and the house’s location provides for a place to walk to dinner, or to coffee or to the store. That’s unique in Dallas. Not a day goes by that we don’t walk somewhere in the evening,” she says.

The couple lived in the house for a number of years, still undecided whether this would be a house for the long term. When they were expecting their first child – about 10 years ago – and wanted to decorate the nursery, good friends recommended Garzotto. “It began with consulting on colors, then grew from there,” he says. Then a fire broke out in the dryer four years ago, sending damaging smoke throughout the house. The couple was faced with the decision to either completely renovate or demolish and start over. “Several people advised us to tear the house down,” the wife says. “But after living in it, we had developed a deep response to the old bones and the old soul. We also wanted to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood. While others were telling us to tear it down, Paul told us, ‘It’s a deeply domestic house,’ and we are deeply domestic people. That struck a chord.”

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They opted to renovate, and Garzotto began tackling challenges that included merging the couple’s disparate styles — her taste is traditional, while his is modern. By then, the couple had had two young children, with a third on the way, and Garzotto was also tasked with turning the family house into an elegant residence appropriate for entertaining large groups of people. “[The husband] is very New Orleans, so there is always a party over there with lots of food, drinks and fun,” he says. The biggest challenge, however, was how to blend the original old architecture and interiors with the newer, more contemporary additions.

“It took a bit of tugging to make it work,” says Garzotto, who enlisted help from a fleet of top-flight local artisans and talent, including Brent Hull of Hull Historical in Fort Worth, a national authority on historic design who restored and supplemented the original wood details. General contractor Clay Snelling of Manning McIlyar Snelling worked closely with everyone involved, including architect J. Mark Barry of Barry Bull Ballas Design. Changes involved enlarging the glassed-in porch area, raising the ceilings and converting the family room into an ample enough space to host large groups of friends on game night. Barry also designed a master suite upstairs with a magnificent balcony view of the back gardens and added a stylish glassed-in study off the first-floor library for the husband. With so much focus now on the back exterior, landscape architect Mary Ellen Cowan of Mesa Design Group made the most of the rolling, verdant topography by relocating the pool and pool house to a lower terrace and cultivating a lush expanse of green for the children to play. Marroquin Custom Upholstery, a family-owned business whose work can be seen in the White House and grand estates across the country, breathed new luxury into the couple’s existing furniture and heirlooms. And, the legendary Barry A. Martin Painting Contractors, brothers who have painted grand homes and charming cottages in the Park Cities for more than 65 years, lacquered the house’s ceilings, walls and doors by hand in a painstaking process that took many weeks, dozens of coats of paint and plenty of patience.

An informal dining area is separated from the family room by a 10-foot buffet that belonged to the husband’s parents in New Orleans. Tables Warren Platner for Knoll. Kartell kid-proof chairs.
An informal dining area is separated from the family room by a 10-foot buffet that belonged to the husband’s parents in New Orleans. Tables Warren Platner for Knoll. Kartell kid-proof chairs.

It was a team effort that naturally included the homeowners. “Both the husband and wife have very cosmopolitan backgrounds to bring to the project,” says Garzotto. The couple, who had lived in London and fallen in love with the city’s high-gloss black doors, asked Garzotto to have their own doors at home painted similarly. The Martin brothers responded with a custom color called New Orleans Plumb. The hue, which has more richness of depth than black, helped launch the look for the entire house.

“We did a whole Noel Coward thing — dark floors, dark lacquered doors,” Garzotto says. The husband, who had grown up in a sophisticated contemporary mid-century house, has a preference for clean lines and lots of natural wood, which is reflected in the kitchen’s sleek, book-matched European walnut paneling, cabinetry and floors. Leftover walnut was also used in the ceiling of his study. “The wife had always lived in traditional houses and wanted something full-bodied,” Garzotto says. The couple found common ground in art.

“We met through the museum, and we both have appreciation for contemporary art,” the wife says. “Where Paul was most helpful was in establishing bridges between our two styles. Before, the house was like a high-end tag sale, with all our pieces thrown in together. I adore the way he repurposed all the inherited pieces. He made them feel even more personal.” The husband, who had renovated and lived in a defunct power station during his bachelor days, had amassed a collection of modern furniture that includes a monumental mid-century iron-and-glass chandelier from the Petroleum Club of Houston and an 8-foot Holly Hunt sofa.

Inherited pieces from his parents, such as a pair of 1948 walnut-and-leather Finn Juhl chairs, a 10-foot mid-century buffet and a Dunbar double rolltop desk designed by Edward Wormley, had all survived Hurricane Katrina. In the modern mix were the wife’s antiques, including a genteel Louis XV fauteuil that had belonged to her grandmother. “There was definitely a leather-and-lace kind of thing going on,” says Garzotto, who was charged with refinishing, reupholstering and merging as many of the couple’s existing pieces as possible. “This house is a design story, not a shopping story. Even Elsie de Wolfe talked about that, how some houses are really just a transfer of merchandise from the store to home. This is not that house.”

For direction, Garzotto turned to the Philip Johnson-designed Menil House in Houston, whose interiors were done by Charles James, the great mid-century couturier. In defiance of the prescribed devout modernism of the day, James built furniture for the de Menil family that was voluptuous, sculptural and derivative of 19th-century designs. Johnson may have been outraged, but the result was a house the Dominique and John de Menil loved. “That house played a lot in our thinking,” Garzotto says. “The tension between the high mid-century architecture and the high-19th-century interiors is what makes it sexy.”

Garzotto, like Charles James, is also known as a brilliant colorist. The Menil House, with its muddy gray and tobacco hues — enlivened with vivid pinks, crimson and chartreuse — was a catalyst for the colors Garzotto helped define for his clients. The dramatic palette includes muddy neutrals such as the grayed-out olives of the dining room’s Holly Hunt velvet-wrapped walls and high-gloss chalk-gray ceilings in the dining and family rooms. A muted backdrop allows for vibrant hits of oranges, blues and purples in art and upholstery. Other rooms are totally enveloped in color: The living room and master bedroom are a play on lavender and violet, while the library is lacquered in masculine, brooding teal.

The study has European walnut ceilings and a rare double roll top desk designed by designer Edward Wormley for Dunbar, which belonged to the husband’s father in New Orleans.
The study has European walnut ceilings and a rare double roll top desk designed by designer Edward Wormley for Dunbar, which belonged to the husband’s father in New Orleans.

Finding the right colors took time. Despite the wife’s passion for lively hues, she’d drenched the living room walls in gray. “Paul brought in several combinations, including ivory and aqua,” she says. “None of them were right. One day, he showed up with all lilac and orange, and I loved it. He had noticed I wore the same lilac workout shirt all the time, and I mentioned I’d have a whole house in lilac if I could. The next thing I knew, I had almost a whole house in lilac. It turned out [my husband’s] favorite color is purple, and I had no idea. Thank God it is, because there’s a lot of it. It’s a spiritual color for me, so I never tire of it.”

Not everyone wants to live in a house with purple rooms, she admits, but isn’t that beside the point? Like the de Menil residence, hers is an intensely personal house. “It really feels like us,” she says, remembering a dinner party she hosted earlier this year. After looking around and soaking it all in, a guest turned to her and asked, “Did you do all the work on the house yourself? It’s so you!”

For a decorator who prefers to fade into the background so that his clients can shine through, Garzotto could not have been paid a bigger compliment.

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