“I had plans of building a new home … a white, contemporary glass box,” says homeowner and designer Em Lee of DesignWorks by Em Lee. But her vision of a light-filled future in a minimalist residence was interrupted by a different kind of light: her children and grandchildren, who urged her to stay close. Em and her husband gave in and found an intriguing home just five minutes away from her playful brood of seven grandchildren, an arresting, although somewhat dated, residence originally designed by legendary local architect Sprott Long in 1988. Em’s goal with this home renovation was to create “a happy home for family and friends full of color, joy and surprise!”
The original façade was a mustard yellow, ultra-French design gilded in iron flourishes, its entryway obstructed by towering trees.
Em worked with Clarke Bohorfoush of Boho Designs, LLC, to streamline the landscaping, and she painted the exterior white, in keeping with her original vision. Removing the color and overgrown greenery accentuated the façade’s clean architectural lines and added dramatic emphasis to the three arched entryways.
“The house was very French, covered in iron and so froufrou, but I fell in love with some of the core architectural elements — the ‘bones’ — of the house, like the double staircase and the double height dining room with the bridge crossing over it,” says Em. “It just needed ‘de-fussying.’” So she set about a year-long renovation of the home. She knew early on, for example, that she wanted to paint the walls of the entryway black, intermingled with bold, happy colors, including her current color inspiration, “Pink, pink and more pink of all shades, but mixed with black to give it an edge. I’m so thankful that color and whimsy has come back! I was never a fan of the beige or neutral look.”
In addition to a palette of bold, happy colors, Em incorporated contemporary art from artists around the world, including art of her own creation and works by her daughter, artist Wellon Bridgers. “And I’ve always been a fool for cool lamps, quirky sculpture and fantastic contemporary lighting,” she says, adding, “and the most refined and elegant Italian antique furniture — preferably found on a trip to Florence!” Her one unifying requirement when it comes to interior decor: Will it make her and her family happy? She even commissioned a portrait and asked the artist to hide a lizard among the flowers, so that her grandchildren would have to spot the creature among the blossoms, just like the family does together in the Alabama summers.
Before: The original foyer was all-white with a traditional chandelier and more iron flourishes on the staircase’s handrail.
In order to “de-fussy” this space, Em mixed in hide rugs, zebra rugs, contemporary art and a mid-century modern sputnik chandelier. A local artist hand-painted the canvas-upholstered armchairs in black-and-white chevron stripes. “The room was crying out for a center table, and I thought the casual bamboo was a nice foil to complement the more glamorous elements of the room,” says Em.
The pillows are a collection from different fabric houses Em admires. The large canvases on either staircase were commissioned works by California-based artist Allison Cosmos. Em saw her work in Elle and reached out to the artist, with whom she’s since become virtual friends!
She admits that designing her own home was much harder than designing for her clients, but, even though the process can be fraught with difficult decisions, she encourages homeowners to infuse happiness and lightheartedness to the process. “Have fun! Mix it up! Nothing is so sacred that it can’t be mixed with varying levels of style, age, texture and surprise, so it’s never too serious,” she says. “Contemporary art, bold sculpture, natural elements and finishes that make you smile … all of these mixed in with antiques, both quirky and fine, make me happy!”
Now that the year of remodeling is complete, Em and her husband — and often her children and grandchildren — can be found enjoying every room in the home. “I enjoy each and every day the natural light mixes with the stark contrast of the bold colors and edgy black — and the fact that I’m blessed to be in a wonderful home with my dear husband of 42 years.” It is indeed a happy home full of color, joy and surprise, just like Em wanted.
Before: The sitting room to the right of the foyer featured dark hardwood flooring. In the renovation, all hardwood floors were painted white, by David Burch of Alabama Hardwood Floors, “to provide a light feeling from floor up,” says Em.
All of the mantels in the home were remodeled in sleek minimalist designs of burnished steel by Millsap Studios. Gorgeous black McAlpine sofas lend a stately modern presence and are complemented by the mid-century modern ghost chairs and plush sheepskin cushions.
On the far wall, a Zuber “Hindustan” woodblock-printed wallpaper, circa 1807, is one of Em’s most treasured pieces. She remembers getting her first paycheck for her design work, and promptly purchasing it. She’s since turned it into a screen.
Em found this ghost chair with the image of a pink-upholstered French chair on 1st dibs, and was so delighted with it that she had to have it. In the background, another longtime piece she’s always treasured is a 12-foot-long French sideboard cabinet, which was once stained brown wood that she updated with a coat of glossy black paint.
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Before: The living room that connects to the kitchen was cream with red-painted built-in shelving and green-marbleized-painted faux columns.
The only original piece remaining in this room is the original unfinished pine mantel with beautiful carved embellishments. The TV is hidden by an electronic lift in the large burnished steel fireplace. Bright pops of pink, turquoise and yellow-gold complement the black-and-white elements.
Shades of gold and rich yellow hues exude warmth, glamour and, of course, that feeling of happiness that Em is always striving for.
Art is central to Em’s life, being that she is a visual artist herself. There is an element of the artist’s eye in every vignette, from the four turquoise items on the mirrored coffee table to the assortment of gilded frames to the vibrant pink, now-discontinued Clarence House upholstery on the chair at right.
We love the view of the hidden TV from the sofa — how ingenious! Artwork over the mantel is by Dirk Walker. Other art pieces in the room include a collection of oils, a pencil sketch of nudes, Russian vintage oils, Italian engravings, a natural wood sculpture and contemporary paper collages.
Em repainted the built-in shelves in black with white façades. She reupholstered the pair of carved Spanish chairs in a Fortuny fabric purchased on the couple’s 40th Anniversary trip to Venice. The painting at left is by Em herself and is entitled “Free Gift of Grace.”
A closeup of the bookshelves reveals a beautiful arrangement of gilded Bibles, antique books and shell-adorned bookends and boxes.
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Em created an open floor plan between the kitchen and living room, but still had beloved art she wanted to feature, like this piece by John Hyche. So, she came up with the fabulous idea of a suspended frame between the living room and kitchen, which was expertly crafted by McCrary Studio. The textured wooden modern art at right was impossible for Em’s husband to hang straight. He was a bit frustrated, but Em looked at it and said, “Just leave it. I love it hanging crooked!”
Before: The kitchen had a more traditional look featuring tiles of African safari scenes.
“The kitchen was a total re-do. I had our old dining room table raised to serve as the kitchen island with an added marble countertop and cabinet underneath. It was a glossy, minimal, contemporary look with unlacquered brass accents,” says Em.
“The whole thing is somewhere between contemporary and not contemporary, so that you have some sense of history. Antiques bring such warmth and life, your past — you can’t just throw everything out that’s good just to have the glossy, new and abstract.”
Before: A view of the window over the sink reveals the partitioned floor plan. All Mexican tile and slate floors were replaced with China Black marble.
The same vantage point now shows a more open, light-filled kitchen with gorgeous reflective surfaces for optimum natural light. The refrigerator pulls are hand-carved by Matt Lawson of Lawson Woodworking and were gilded locally.
A Picasso-esque wire sculpture sits in the window. “Our favorite restaurant in Florence, Italy, is ‘Cuoco Trippone,’ which means ‘Fat Chef’ — so this piece of art evokes happy memories for us,” says Em. The lovely suspended brass & glass shelving were accomplished by McCrary Studio. The cabinets are high-gloss, black and minimalistic in design with suspended brass-and-glass shelving for spice and china storage.
An artist from Treviso, Italy, created these incredible wire portraits of Em’s grandchildren from pictures.
Before: The sunroom
Em added marble flooring to match the kitchen and curtains for length. The art-forward wicker chair by Arteriors is actually much more comfortable than it looks — Em’s husband relaxes in it every day after work!
Before: A view of the dining room looking into the light-filled foyer
Em commissioned the large botanical painting from Australian artist Diana Watson. She asked her to hide a lizard among the blossoms to delight her grandchildren. The painting above is by Em herself and entitled “Pierced, But Not Broken.”
“I put the figure painting by Meredith Keith, from Gallery 1930, in the mirror, because I thought the frame looked good with it,” says Em. “And the installation above it, I found from an artist named Leslie Green Guilbault on Etsy. It is porcupine quills arranged inside rings of fired, unglazed porcelain.” And what once were china display cabinets with glass doors were repurposed as Em’s husband’s lighted wine racks, which was expertly accomplished by Jeremy Roegner.
Above the table, Em chose to accentuate the height of the room with a stunning arrangement of seven chandeliers, mixing three older, traditional ones with four contemporary ones for an eclectic look. The collection of 16 framed engravings were from a family antique heirloom Bible depicting great Biblical Stories.
The entry nook to the master bedroom features a gorgeous “icon closet.” With its original painted interior, this icon closet is probably from the 1700s, while the religious relic of the Christ child with Mary and Joseph within is probably much older. Icon closets were used in the homes of Catholics for private daily worship. Ages old but masterfully crafted by hand with fantastic attention to detail, the beauty of every minute detail is incredible. Em’s love of art combined with symbols of her faith led to her love of religious art, as displayed here and in her collection of antique oil paintings of Biblical figures displayed in her bedroom and bath.
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Before: The master bedroom had some quirky yellow wallpaper!
Em based this shade of pink off of a pale pink iPad her husband gave her. She even took the iPad to the paint store to match it. Em had custom drapes made locally using this gorgeous fabric by Ellie Cashman Designs.
The large windows and doors leading onto the back patio allow for a light-filled space, while the drapes and fireplace can transform the room into a cozy retreat.
Before: A sunroom adjoining the bedroom was converted to the master bath, and the old master bath was converted into his and hers closets.
Black marble and soft pink mix in this one-of-a-kind bathroom. An antique embossed leather screen provides a regal complement to the central bath.
Thank you to Jean Allsopp for today’s beautiful photography.
Original Architecture: Sprott Long
Renovation design & Interior design: Em Lee of DesignWorks by Em Lee, [email protected]
Landscape architecture: Clarke Bohorfoush of Boho Designs, LLC
Flooring: Alabama Hardwood Floors, (205) 338-6878
Art: Wellon Bridgers, Diana Watson, Allison Cosmos, LGG Creative Art, John Hyche, Dirk Walker, Em Lee
Brass Fabrication: McCrary Studio, (205) 425-6263
Steel Fabrication: Forrest Millsap of Millsap Studios, (205) 317-8561
Other metal fabrication: Justin Cordes of Toro-Cordes Iron Arts, (205) 510-0014
Lighted wine racks: Jeremy Roegner of Artistic Birmingham Iron
Paint: Pierce Taber
Decorative painting: Santiago Rodriguez, Daniel Whitsett of Paintworks Design Studio, Elizabeth Holmes
Fabrics: Met Design Center, Ellie Cashman
Glass: Nelson Glass
Electrical contractor: Bailey Electric Company
Lighting: Daikon Lighting, ADG, DLDesignworks
Hardware & Plumbing: V&W Supply; Brandino Brass; Matt Lawson of Lawson Woodworking
Furniture, Drapery & Upholstery: Daryl McAvoy, Charles Wade, Custom Furniture Creations, Mary Adams, Cynthia Henderson
Special Appreciation: Luis Chavez
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