Almost nine decades ago, the oil boom brought Houston an embarrassment of riches, out of which emerged a select group of nouveau riche millionaires who were a symbol of a new Texas—an even bigger Texas. They had big attitudes, threw big parties, and, most important, lived in big, beautiful houses. And there’s one 1,200-acre place they wanted to live: River Oaks.
Renowned for its mansions erected by architect John Staub throughout the mid 20th century, this affluent Houston enclave has since become a lasting tribute to the city’s most elegant era. But for one neighborhood newcomer, it was a brand-new house that stood out along this promenade of historic homes—an 8,000-square-foot English-style manse. “We walked in and kind of just knew we belonged there,” says the homeowner, a high-level beauty executive who moved in with her husband and four kids in 2018. “It has good scale, but somehow still feels cozy.”
To accompany the freshly painted walls and newly laid slate and hardwood flooring, the homeowners enlisted Houston-based designer Elizabeth Young to bring character and antiquity to the new build—a charge not outside of the scope of Young’s work, which is described by her client as “chic, eclectic, and colorful.” “The house was in a storied neighborhood, but it lacked its own narrative,” Young says. “I had to create history that didn’t exist.”
Young insisted on taking the project slowly, willing to work on the design while the family of six remained in the space in order to get a feel for how they lived. “I’m not interested in decorating a room,” she says. “I’m more interested in building a collection of special pieces that my clients can treasure for a lifetime.” Young and her client enjoyed the hunt together, scouring antiques shows and traveling to design events to find the right furnishings. “We went to shops that were off the beaten path to most people, and the things we found together became very personal to my client.”
Stepping into this house is like walking into a vibrant watercolor painting, one that’s awash with delightful contrasts in tones, textures, and eras. Those juxtapositions are teased out in the home’s first-floor spaces. The entryway is overseen by an Oro tropical chandelier (an extravagant assemblage of aluminum palm fronds and jewel-toned shapes) that plays off a massive figured abstract Magnus Plessen canvas. Moving into the more austere formal living room, dark flooring, a newly installed black fireplace, and wooden beams are accentuated by a 1930s French Art Deco chandelier, details that make the room feel “very salon-like,” Young says. Little John Hogan glass menagerie pieces and Reinaldo Sanguino ceramics (both from the Future Perfect) are perched atop a side table—playful details that are “scattered throughout,” Young adds.
While neutrals ground the home, playful pops of color can be seen everywhere. “The brief was: Color, color, and more color,” Young says. “We started coming up with all of these special names for the colors we were using. It wasn’t ‘blue’ or ‘light blue,’ it was ‘powder blue.’ Our reds were ‘cherry red’ and ‘raspberry.’ It was as if we had that jumbo box of 120 crayons and were going through all the colors.”
Young’s penchant for color is on full display in the bar area off the living room. All five walls (ceiling included) are awash in a gray lacquer that contrasts with an unapologetic custom yellow sofa in a Rubelli velvet. Young dialed up her yen for that specific yellow hue, commissioning a custom tiger rug that took about three months to color-match and another eight months to arrive. Her self-prescribed specifications were sometimes solved in unexpected ways. “I had this fabulous fabric for that little brass stool, but the yellow was too bright—until we flipped the fabric over and realized that was just the hue we wanted,” Young says with a laugh. “So the stool fabric is actually the wrong side of the fabric. But nobody has to know!”
The kitchen opens up to the house’s jaw-drop moment: five Italian Renaissance Revival chairs dating back to the 1880s encircling a chic black-and-white marble table. “These were one of the very first things I found, in this store in Austin,” Young says. “It’s always hard to find a lot of chairs and I found eight, which is rare, so I just knew I couldn’t walk away without them.” Young covered the chairs in a Moore & Giles leather, a sultry green that pops against the lustrous gold frames. She gave the rest of the kitchen a face-lift too, redoing the hood, backsplash, and hardware—a herculean task when six people and two dogs are simultaneously milling about in this high-traffic hub. “We got very up close and personal,” Young adds. “But seeing how they functioned in the everyday really informed my designs.”
On the side, a little breakfast nook hosts the true lady of the house: a vintage ceramic vase that was a fun consignment-store find. “There’s always some new floral arrangement coming out of her head,” Young says. “The ongoing joke between us is that she always has a new hairdo.”
The house has a married cohesion to it, with each room speaking to the next in a gracious flow—but with even more unexpected surprises at various turns. The primary bedroom, a soothing earthy haven with plaster walls and soft linen drapery, is just steps from the oldest daughter’s glamorous lip room (yes, you read that right). The room has its own hallway, which Young covered in punchy Pop Art lip wallpaper from Olivia + Poppy. There’s a pop-up television and an actual velvet lip couch that has Salvador Dalí undercurrents, the Elle Woods way. The brief from Young’s teenage client was based on a photo she shared that had a sassy piece of lip decor. “I ran with it, going for pink on pink on pink on glitter,” Young says. “It’s a dream room for a 15-year-old—or a 50-year-old, for that matter.”
Much like the mythical strongholds of its neighboring River Oaks residences, this house is itself a celebration of the everyday. “I’m a firm believer that houses have to evolve,” Young says. “And that with time, the collections we create reflect who we are and what we value most. If done right, they can sometimes remind us of who we are when we ourselves have forgotten.”
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