From Traditional to Transitional
A designer’s challenges in creating her own space
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by Amy Freeman
Apart from the fierce barking of a protective 9-year-old Cockapoo named Gracie, one would never guess that designer Patti Allen’s Greensboro condominium — an oasis of calm, with its soothing palette of creams, blues and neutrals — was borne of chaos. With their three children grown and having left the nest, she and her husband, Ralph, sold their Irving Park home of 14 years a few years ago.
“We decided to downsize, and I had this bright idea that I was going to do this mid-century modern house,” Patti says wryly. But the vicissitudes of life intervened, their parents’ passing, for one, not to mention the demands of the couple’s careers: Ralph works for Glen Raven, selling Sunbrella fabrics to the home furnishings industry, and Patti is one half of the High Point — based interior design business Allen and James (the other half being her longtime colleague from their tenure at Furnitureland South, designer Stephanie James Goldman). “It was just overwhelming,” Patti recalls of the situation.
Since the Allens were renting an apartment for that in-between phase of moving from one permanent residence to another, there was still time to change course. So Patti put in a call to pal and Realtor Katie Redhead of Tyler Redhead & McAlister, to see if there were something more manageable on the market. And it just so happens there was: a newly renovated condominium with a back patio overlooking one of the par-3 holes of Greensboro Country Club’s Donald Ross golf course. “We walked in, and Ralph saw it, and the tension just lifted from his shoulders,” Patti remembers. Where life had once intervened, divine intervention, she notes, now stepped in.
But divine inspiration? Surely it would come easily to a crack designer used to working with clients from all over the world, from Saudi Arabia to Silicon Valley, Vermont to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and points in between. But as Patti allows, “It’s crazy! You make decisions all day for people and you can’t make them for yourself.” Not only that, she says for six months boxes of stuff accumulated over a lifetime, along with boxes of her parents’ belongings, were stacked in the condo’s dining room adjacent to the front hall. She would have to be more ruthless in downsizing than initially anticipated. “Every weekend, I would come home from work, dig in these boxes, get all this stuff out,” she recalls.
The items that stayed were ones that resonated: treasured antiques, such as a massive library table that’s occupied every house the designer has ever lived in; original artwork, from traditional landscapes to frothy abstracts; coffee table books about art and design; travel souvenirs, including a set of distinctive blue-and-white Portuguese tiles, and various shells from beach vacations. And, of course, family mementos stayed. The children’s artwork, photographs of Patti’s parents’ wedding day and two framed paintings of camellias that Ralph’s grandmother painted adorn one of the guest bedrooms done in muted pink and neutral hues that Patti has dubbed “The Shrine.”
Obviously, her decisions were also limited by the space that builder Jim Wolfe of Wolfe Homes had gutted and reimagined before the Allens bought it. “He took it to the studs,” Patti says, motioning toward a narrower hallway just beyond the entrance, to accommodate storage space abutting a central, open kitchen area. Elegantly appointed with white marble countertops, white cabinetry and white subway tile, it is set off by warm, exposed beams over the island that add just a soupçon of rusticity. The adjoining den area is comfortable in scope and appears larger, owing to French doors that open up onto a patio and the sloping par-3 beyond — a sweeping lawn, in effect, without the hassle of yard work. “We don’t even have a rake!” Patti laughs. Upstairs are the two guest bedrooms and a master, and above that, a bright, cozy loft area punctuated with skylights.
In addition to paring down contents of her life, Patti wanted to create an environment that wouldn’t assault her visual sensibility after working with paint colors, fabric swatches, furnishings and accents day after day. “When I come in, I just want it to be more relaxed,” she admits. “No fuss.” The main thing, she emphasizes, was scale. “I wanted to have a certain amount of seating. I’ve got three kids, nobody’s married yet, but I wanted, when they are home, to have places. And Ralph and I like to entertain,” she adds. So she offloaded her larger upholstered pieces to her children. (My kids were like, ‘Don’t bring me any more. I cannot do any more!’” Patti laughs — though one of her daughters admitted to several satisfying naps on a recently acquired sofa.) She replaced the pieces with a smaller sofa and armchairs — all upholstered in neutral and deep blue fabrics from, where else? Sunbrella. “It’s nice; it doesn’t feel like awning fabric anymore,” she says, patting the arm of the sand-colored sofa, laden with textured throw pillows in similar muted hues. “I knew I had to put Sunbrella fabric on everything since Ralph’s in that business. That’s what brought me to North Carolina — kicking and screaming.”
Growing up in Augusta, Georgia, she developed her mother’s fondness for furniture and design. “I used to watch her. She’d move stuff in a room all over the place,” Patti remembers. It was no surprise, then, that the designer would enroll at University of Georgia’s furnishings and interiors program. While there, she would fuel her other passion: art history. “I love art history and took a lot of art history classes. I’ve always gravitated to that a lot.” For 20 years, working and living in LaGrange, outside Atlanta, with its trove of antiques stores and showrooms, and later at Furnitureland South after her move to the Triad, Patti developed a classic, traditional style.
Timeless pieces are scattered throughout her new nest: a large Oriental rug in hues of pale blue and cream with touches of coral. “This rug, I’ve had forever. It’s a hand-knotted rug. I felt committed to certain things, because I had spent the money on them, and I liked them,” Patti says. It’s also practical. Because they’re 100 percent wool, hand-knotted rugs wear well and are easily cleaned. The rug served as a starting point for designing the new space, as did some of those antique pieces, such as the large library table, situated against a corner wall behind the sofa. “I had all these darker wood pieces. I just kind of let those be the spotlight,” the designer explains.
They also provide contrast to striking blue-and-white Chinese vases. And to a sprinkling of bright gold accents, some painted, some metallic, that appear throughout: in the interiors of the pendulum lamps suspended over the kitchen island; in the gilt frame of an antique barometer by the front door; and in various gold frames for some of Patti’s favorite pieces of artwork, such as the French Impressionist-style landscape she found in an Atlanta antique store 30-odd years ago and even in a seascape she picked up in Carmel, California.
The latter hangs in the dining room, painted in a bold shade of teal. “I wanted a little color,” Patti notes. “Of course, all these rooms blend; you couldn’t stop and start with paint in here. I actually wanted to paper that space, and I could never pull the trigger on a paper that I loved. So I said, ‘You know what? I’ve always loved blues and greens.’” She opted for a clay-based paint from the English line, Farrow and Ball, because it creates depth. And indeed, the hue seems to shift and shimmer as sunlight streams through the floor-to-ceiling bay windows of the room. “That color changes all day long is based on the lighting,” Patti affirms. “And at night. At night that room I really love.” With brighter accents — a chandelier with metallic spires resembling antlers, a leopard print accent chair, ornate wall sconces and yes, the Carmel seascape in a new, simpler gold frame with a wide cream mat, so the image almost seems three-dimensional — the room sings. The darker teal backdrop makes the relatively small room “more dramatic,” Patti observes.
It also adds a subtle contemporary vibe, which permeates the condominium, as evidenced in the relaxed loft upstairs, with its blocky ottoman and comfy sofa for watching TV; a funky geometric lamp in the downstairs hallway; playful curios, like the ceramic sardine, another souvenir from Portugal; or the Lucite coffee table with a wood inlay from Century. “You’re seeing more and more of it today,” says Patti of the transparent material, which she has also used in the matching lamps in the creamy, monochrome master bedroom, in little boxes for mounting curios, such as shells or pieces of coral. Lucite and its sister, acrylic, create “a little bit of an edgy look,” she says.
These slight touches inform Patti’s style, which she says is evolving from traditional to “transitional,” a trend she’s seeing among Allen and James’ clientele. “I have clients well into their 70s and I had a lady in her mid-80s buying a bunch of stuff. And she goes, ‘I’ve got something to live for.’ That made me feel good. I’m like, ‘If this is going to make her happy, I’m happy to help her do it.’”
And happy to continue tweaking the new nest, where there’s plenty for the Allens to live for — visits from children, a trip to Africa in the works. They are making a few final touches to the back patio, which has just enough green space to putter around in while golfers putt out on the nearby green, and will add more room for entertaining visitors heralded by the ever-watchful Gracie . . . when she isn’t sound asleep in the sun on her new home turf. h
Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its flagship, O.Henry.