Designer Ellen Kavanaugh gave CQ the inside scoop on the playful Florida home she designed for a recently relocated New York family.
Am I getting a Wes Anderson vibe from this 1926 Mediterranean Revival home in Palm Beach?
You are! The client, who’s a former art teacher, wanted the quirkiness and retro-nostalgic pastels of an Anderson movie. Luckily, Wes is one of my favorite filmmakers, so we were in sync from the get-go! What’s cool about his cinematography is how it nods to childhood the way it’s remembered, not the way it was lived, so the visual style is singular and very fun. It’s the same with these rooms. They are elegant and playful and don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a vintagey, collected-over-time feel, as if the homeowners have always lived there. It’s not an eccentric look—that isn’t the client—but it’s layered and eclectic, with nothing matchy-matchy whatsoever.
How did you give the rooms character on such a tight turnaround?
It’s crazy, but we had only eight months to renovate the entire place. The family was newly relocated from Manhattan, and this was going to be their primary residence, not a vacation retreat, so we were in a time crunch. Untouched for decades, the house was dark and dated, and some period details, like the pecky-cypress ceilings, had been removed or covered up. While the builders restored the 1920s charm and created an open layout, I was hitting the local antiques stores for anything soulful and unique. It was such a fast timeline that I just had to trust my instincts that it would all work together. For example, at a Worth Avenue shop, I spotted matching chairs on casters. They were 1970s gorgeous, with sleek chrome and blush-pink velvet upholstery probably added in the ’80s. I knew they’d be perfect as is in the living room along with the vintage Lucite-and-brass coffee table, the 1920s Persian rug, and the second, custom coffee table in walnut and iron.
Did you intend to have so many distinctive chairs in the living room, or was that a happy accident?
I wanted to bring a lightness to the space—because of the foliage and the home’s position on the lot, the room is often in shadows—with no heavy furniture weighing it down. Another goal was to create two seating areas, since there’s a lot of square footage. Chairs are nimble and versatile, and I zeroed in on those that hit the sweet spot between old and new, formal and informal, modern and not modern. To me, the 1950s French Provincial tête-à-tête seats absolutely make the room. Would you believe I bought the pair at a Florida antiques mall for a grand total of $200? Refinished and reupholstered in white linen, they’re Hollywood Regency stunning.
That’s a vivacious den!
Credit the wallpaper. It has a zoo’s worth of exotic animals and blooming flowers, and the colors—lilac, bunny-nose pink, cobalt—repeat the hues used throughout the house. The choice did take a bit of convincing, but the room needed it. There’s lots of texture happening with the cypress ceiling and the new terra-cotta-tile floor, and the wallpaper’s exuberance balances that. The vintage split-rattan coffee table also delivers personality. It’s a sculptural scroll shape, and it morphed into an ottoman with padding and trippy zebra-stripe upholstery. With the deep custom sofa you can literally sink into, as well as windows surrounding you on three sides, it’s a comfy space tailor-made for curling up and relaxing. It’s the Palm Beach version of New England cozy.
Why did you detail the ceilings with paint?
It’s a historical callback. When the home was built, there was stenciling overhead. Some of it was still visible, but in terrible condition and not in our palette. So we pecan-blasted the ceilings—it’s an eco-friendly stripping method, similar to sandblasting, but with pecan shells—to reveal the original wood. Then, in the dining and living rooms, an artist hand-painted a tiny little chain-link design in a soft celadon green or outlined the rafters in lavender. It’s whimsical, and it echoes a border of small glazed tiles—in milky shades such as turquoise, earth, lagoon, and iridescent purple—that we added to
the terra-cotta floors.
Any concerns that more clients will ask you to do their homes in the style of a famous film director?
Not at all! Unless they want interiors inspired by that other moviemaker named Wes—Wes Craven, who did those Nightmare on Elm Street horror flicks. Freddy Krueger is pretty scary!