Custom builder and remodeler Frank Gusmus was already renovating the charming 1950 cottage when interior designer Cameron Howell spotted his construction company’s sign in the East Memphis home’s front yard.
Cameron, who lived one street over, was pregnant with her second child and trying to work out how her family could remain in the neighborhood they loved despite the fact that their house was bursting at its seams. “We were just kind of toying with the idea of moving,” she says. “I really wanted to renovate, and my husband didn’t want to move unless we could stay in the neighborhood.”
Along with his custom work, Frank buys homes mostly in East Memphis and Midtown to renovate and resell. On average, he does 70 percent custom work and 30 percent speculative. Cameron already knew Frank through their mutual design and construction circles, and so she gave him a call to find out more about this particular house.
It turned out the home didn’t yet have a buyer — it was a spec house Frank had purchased because he recognized its potential. “I’ve always liked taking the ugliest house on the street and making it the best house,” says Frank, owner of Gusmus Construction. “That’s what I enjoy doing.” And when Cameron called, Frank recognized instantly that their mutual interests could lead to an exciting project.
After purchasing the property, Frank had worked with Wilson Hunt on the home’s design, planning an expansion that included a new living space and a master suite at the back of the house as well as a new second story. The plans took the house from its former 2,200 square feet to a family-friendly and spacious 3,900 square feet, making it ideally suited to Cameron’s family’s needs.
When Cameron called, Frank had chosen cabinetry but hadn’t yet made decisions on the rest of the home’s finishes, fixtures or materials. So the timing was just right for a collaboration. “The fact that Cameron and I were able to work together, she really brought a huge bonus to the project – making it wonderful,” Frank says.
Cameron and her husband, Duncan, signed a contract, and Cameron got to work on the home’s interiors. The timing, while a bit hectic, was also just right. She was able to remain in place throughout her pregnancy and bring the new baby home to the family’s former house. Meanwhile, she collaborated with Frank and his team to create an ideal move-up home.
As for aesthetics, Frank’s vision for the house aligned perfectly with Cameron’s own dreams for a great space to raise her boys. “What I wanted was an open floor plan that was bright,” Frank says. “And then Cameron came in and made it her own.”
Formerly the house was dark, cramped and dated. In fact, it was one of the street’s original — and smallest — homes. It had shag carpeting throughout, and the vintage kitchen contained original aluminum cabinets. Outside, the backyard’s size was deceptively obscured by wildly overgrown bushes and trees. Frank’s plan included knocking down walls, adding windows and opening up the living spaces to take maximum advantage of the large lot.
“We came in at a great time,” Cameron said. “Like Frank said, he’d picked out cabinets, and they were what I would have picked out anyway. I was able to pick out everything else, and we kept adding new details.” Completing Frank’s vision of bright, airy and open spaces, Cameron chose to coat walls, ceilings and trim throughout the house in Benjamin Moore’s White Dove. The one exception is the formal dining room, which she turned into a jewel box and a showpiece by painting the entire space, trim and all, Chelsea Gray.
The family spends much of their time in the wide open kitchen and den, where a shiplap wall draws attention to a wide fireplace that’s new, but designed to look old. That was one of Frank’s missions for the space — to respect its historic character while bringing it entirely into the 21st century. “That’s one thing I love about it,” Cameron says. “Even though we were able to do so much new stuff, it still has the character of the old house and it’s in keeping with the neighborhood.”
Throughout the main living spaces, hardwood flooring has a subtle gray wash, and the shiplap continues onto the base of a custom island. In the kitchen, black countertops contrast with all-white cabinetry, and brass hardware complements acrylic-and-metal barstools and industrial-inspired island pendants that sport a faceted geometric design.
Frank and Cameron collaborated on the design of one of their mutually favorite elements — the stairway. Positioned right at the heart of the house, the stairs feature a shiplap wall that spans two levels, a hand-built wooden railing and a runner with a graphic, yet subtle print.
Cameron brought much of the home’s furniture from her former house, adding new pieces to fill her newfound square footage. Frank had turned a former sitting porch on a front corner of the house into an enclosed room originally intended as an office. However, Cameron had another use for the space in mind. “We thought a downstairs playroom would be great because we’d had all these toys in our den all the time,” she says. Now, the room features all the elements of a great play space — soft but durable flooring, a kid-sized table and chairs, a big window that brings in loads of light and even a child’s teepee.
The new master suite is down a short hallway from the downstairs bedroom her boys currently share. “Eventually they’ll move upstairs and we’ll bring the guest room down,” she says. For now, their white-walled nursery features colorful Roman shades that block light from the several windows, as well as space for two cribs and a comfy chair and ottoman perfect for nighttime feedings and story reading.
The home’s original bath has now become a standout powder room, with shimmering penny round floor tile, a marble-topped vanity with a contemporary acrylic base, lighting by Robert Abbey and graphic metallic wallpaper by Schumacher. “I love that hall bathroom, my powder room, because it’s funky and fun,” Cameron says.
In the master bedroom, an accent wall features a fun, large-scale pattern of feathery circles – another Schumacher paper, and one of Cameron’s favorite design elements. In the en-suite bath, rectangular floor tiles from Venice Tile & Marble are laid in a herringbone pattern that draws the eye to the freestanding soaker tub, while a large separate shower features marble tile and a frameless glass door. Lighting in this space, as in most of the rest of the house, is by Visual Comfort.
Frank says he and Cameron enjoyed “a great collaboration.”
“A lot of times it falls in my lap to make the decisions, so it’s been nice having someone help with the decision-making and directing what she wants,” he says. “And the good thing is, she’s got great taste. I like all of the shiplap. I like the colors, the clean lines.”
He and Cameron also both love the home’s new curb appeal, with its gabled front porch, dormer windows, flagstone walkway and Colonial blue front door. “It had great architecture to begin with, but we really capitalized on that out front,” Frank says.
Frank and Cameron enjoyed working together on the home so much that they’re now collaborating on another project. Plus, Cameron says, they’ll be working together on the finishing touches for her own home for a long time to come. Along with landscaping out back, she plans to add a custom bar to the sitting area off the den, a Dutch door to the downstairs playroom and built-in bunks for the boys’ future upstairs bedrooms.
“I want him to come back and continue to add to it,” she says. “So he’ll have a long-time customer with me.”
Thank you to George Hancock and Chris Backey of Backey Media Group for the beautiful photography of the Howell home!
Builder & contractor: Frank Gusmus of Gusmus Construction
Interior designer: Cameron Howell
House plan designer: Wilson Hunt, (901) 461-1486, [email protected]
Kitchen range: Tecnogas from Kitchens Unlimited
Master bath flooring: Venice Tile & Marble
Lighting: Visual Comfort
Powder room lighting: Robert Abbey
Powder room and master bedroom wallpaper: Schumacher
Art over living room fireplace: Megan Hurdle
Art over living room console: Stephanie King
Art on living room wall: Don Estes
Stairwell design: Frank Gusmus and Cameron Howell
Want to peek inside some other stylish Memphis homes? Check out StyleBlueprint’s Memphis Home & Decor page.