For Susan Hull Walker, handmade textiles are more than beautiful fabrics. They’re also sacred texts; the places where, throughout human history, women—many of them deprived of education—have spun, woven, and embroidered their life stories into permanence. It was this realization that motivated Walker to found Ibu Movement, an apparel and home-decor nonprofit based in Charleston, South Carolina.
Tucked onto bustling King Street, the Ibu showroom and shop is a luxurious kaleidoscope of bright colors and patterns from every corner of the world. Here, Walker and her small team collaborate with 100 cooperatives in 50 countries to provide grants, work spaces, training, and design help to female artisans around the world, while also bringing their handcrafted wares to an expanded fashion and interiors marketplace. Full of the textiles she cherishes, Walker’s workdays are a visual feast.
But in 2020, when Walker and her husband, trial attorney Trenholm Walker, decided to renovate their weekend house, she had another realization: “I longed to create a rinse for the eyes at the week’s end,” she says. “I needed a respite of natural textures and white where the natural environment would be the inspiring envelope that held us.”
The couple’s weekend retreat is on Wadmalaw Island, one of 34 tidal and barrier Sea Islands strung along the South Carolina coast. The former 19th-century cotton gin house, with two stories, four bedrooms, and two-and-a-half bathrooms, provided plenty of space for Walker to turn her dream into reality. And the natural beauty is boundless. Only thirty minutes from downtown Charleston, Wadmalaw is lush with tropical palmetto trees and magnificent live oaks, and water everywhere you look. The house’s wide wraparound porch is a front-row seat to the tidal marsh and Ole Bess Creek, with views of barges and snowbirds traveling north and south, and the “twice daily show of rising and ebbing tides,” says Walker.
To help realize their vision, Walker enlisted friend and designer Gil Evans. Along with updating the kitchen and baths, they reimagined the layout of the rooms to allow for one-floor living. The primary bedroom was moved down to the first floor; they raised the ceiling and cut through walls to replace the adjoining mudroom with a new bath. Upstairs, guest bedroom floors were painted white. They also added more windows and removed several walls to “allow the light off the water to dance through the whole space,” Walker says.
For the decor, Walker’s first objective was to remove the existing color and replace it with texture. On the kitchen counters and fireplace walls, Walker chose to employ a finish called tadelakt that she had fallen in love with years earlier on a trip to Morocco. Made by combining lime plaster with black olive soap, it creates an all-natural waterproof, mold- and mildew-resistant surface with a seamless, glossy sheen. To contrast it, the walls were covered in limestone plaster, which adds depth while also cooling and dehumidifying the damp Southern air.
As the renovation process went on, Walker found that she couldn’t live without at least a splash of color. So, here and there, she and Evans introduced small pops of rich jewel tones via the occasional lampshade, blanket, and pillow. “Fuchsia-leaning purple is a great foil to nature’s green,” Walker notes of the vibrant hue she chose for seat cushions and throw pillows on the screened porch and deck.
Whenever possible, Walker opted for handcrafted artisanal pieces. “Because I work with women artisans from all over the world designing fashion and accessories for Ibu, and before that dealt in vintage textiles, I value the handmade above all,” says Walker, who is also a weaver herself. For window valances and throws, she used rustic Moroccan Berber wedding shawls. Vintage Indonesian tube skirts and embroidered Chinese pants became pillows. A custom-designed Moroccan-inspired hutch with arched compartments acts as both storage for dishware and as a focal point uniting the living area, dining room, and kitchen.
If you squint, those hand-carved arches in the kitchen—along with the bare wood floors and blank white walls throughout the house—call to mind the simple, streamlined nave of a classic New England church. As it happens, before studying traditional textiles at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Walker spent 18 years as a Harvard-trained Congregational minister in Maine, then California, and finally, South Carolina. Perhaps her vision of an airy, whitewashed weekend retreat was also an unconscious longing for the serenity found in such simplicity. “Trenholm and I both savor a deep exhale at the end of the week,” Walker says. “The openness, the visual silence, the light.”
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This story originally appeared in volume 8 of FREDERIC. Click here to subscribe!