While interior designers usually encourage clients to provide them with some inspiration for an upcoming project, New York–based Alison Downey received more of a deluge from hers. “The client definitely knew what she wanted,” says Downey. “The initial process was like an excavation, reviewing the piles and pulling out reoccurring themes, styles, and colors.” Eventually, the touchstones started to reveal themselves: “Nuanced color and pattern; foliage, such as palm fronds; natural finishes like raffia and limestone; and textured fabrics and wallcoverings with a sense of stylish warmth.”
While the clients had traveled extensively around the world (in fact, the wife runs a bespoke travel consulting firm), an experience closer to home made the most lasting impression. “After their wedding in New Orleans, the couple took a honeymoon road trip around the South, which shaped their love for the architecture and design they encountered along the way,” explains Downey. The designer was tasked with including some Southern motifs in the mix while still making the townhouse feel suitable for a young family; this was not to be an ode a particular vernacular. “It’s a bit challenging to do classic Southern style in a New York home, so there’s an edgy thread throughout to keep it from reading too fussy or ‘saccharine,’ a word my client brought up throughout the process,” Downey says. To that end, the designer paired a traditional panoramic mural wallcovering with a clean-lined custom black pedestal table in the kitchen breakfast area and sheer hanging bed panels and antique pineapple table lamps with sleek bedside tables and contemporary photography from Wolfgang Tillmans for the primary bedroom.
The project wasn’t without its challenges: While the previous owner had already converted the multi-family home into a single, it was, in a word, lackluster, with skimpy moldings and an unsuitably modern kitchen. “The renovation lacked the quality and character that a turn-of-the-century townhouse called for. The exterior was a complete disconnect from the interiors,” says Downey. “So we embarked on a holistic approach that addressed these concerns along with creating engaging and well-thought-out interior design across all five floors.”
A rethinking of the existing floorplan was in order given the clients’ desire to have maximum space for entertaining. The living room and dining room swapped places, which allowed for the creation of hotel-like lounge area next to the dining table— a decidedly glamourous spot for after-dinner cocktails or coffee with its channeled armless settee and large Arteriors sconces with dripping brass tassels. The new layout also allowed the dining room to connect to the back patio, increasing the house’s entertaining footprint.
In an intimate vestibule adjacent to the dining room, Downey created a show-stopping wet bar, with rich burgundy lacquered cabinets, chocolate-brown walls and ceiling, Calacatta marble, and brass lighting, hardware, and fixtures. On the back wall, “we added a cheeky snake-patterned Schumacher wallcovering that reminds you to pick your poison,” says Downey.
When it came to the furnishings, Downey took a floor-by-floor approach and focused on how each would be used. “Every floor has north- and south-facing rooms separated by the stairs and loggia, so we used the loggia to set the tone for each,” says Downey. “For example, on the children’s floor, we used this space to create a common play area with the children’s bedrooms off of it.”
Across each level, a studied pastiche of curated references with the desired overlay of Southern charm creates a connecting thread. “Every room has its own identity yet connects with the overall program of the house,” says Downey. “It was a lot to keep top of mind as we were designing five stories!” Clearly, though, the clients loved the result: Downey is now working on additional homes for the family. “It was a such a journey getting to know each other, and we’ve become personal friends,” she says. “They even came to my wedding!”