The inspired and artful life of Winston-Salem’s Reine Cenac
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by Amy Freeman
It would likely escape your notice; in fact, you’d probably pass right by it, zipping down one of Winston-Salem’s busiest thoroughfares. And even if you were aware of this unassuming, postwar Cape Cod, painted a sedate cream color, you’d be hard-pressed to catch a glimpse of it behind a verdant screen of graceful old oak branches. But look beyond the hum of traffic and the leafy veil, and you’ll discover a hidden treasure.
Like a gold nugget that emerges from pay dirt after it’s been sifted and rinsed multiple times, a treasure reveals itself only if someone has a keen enough eye and the patience to mine it. That person was Reine Cenac, who immediately saw its possibilities. “The first thing that drew me to the house was when I walked in the front door and you could see the trees all the way in the back,” he says. The backyard, an Edenic treasure within the treasure, was overgrown, its loving attendant of 50-plus years having moved on. The front porch and the roof were in disrepair. The house, which had been languishing on the market for a few years, was facing demolition. But Cenac knew its bones were good. “I thought about it, and thought about it, and I just couldn’t let it be torn down,” he says softly. He made an offer, taking up residence in January 2015, and set about reviving the place by applying a design aesthetic developed over a lifetime.
A native of New Orleans, or “N’awlins” as he would say, Reine Cenac is the great-great-grandson of Jean-Pierre Cenac, a Frenchman who emigrated to the Louisiana Gulf area from Bordeaux in the 19th century and started a successful oyster business. In time, the concern morphed from oysters to tugboats and barges, and as Cenac Towing, became a player in the gas and oil industry. As for “Reine” (pronounced “Rennie”), Cenac admits it’s an unusual spelling. Though it translates to “queen” in French, many, as Cenac has often heard, accept a broader meaning as “king.” “My mother has said when she saw it in her Bible when she was pregnant, it was spelled R-E-I-N-E. So that’s why she chose it,” Cenac clarifies. “I’m glad it’s French,” he adds, proudly producing a coffee table book about his grandfather and family, Eyes of an Eagle. Among its glossy pages, filled with sepia-tone photos of boats and barges is a full-plate portrait of the serious-looking arrière-arrière-grand-père, his dark coloring and animated blue eyes so similar to his great-great-grandson’s.
Ancestral calling aside, the French aesthetic of his surroundings left an indelible impression on Cenac. “I grew up loving those big old houses,” he says, and the rich history of New Orleans, not to mention its unapologetically ornate style. Think: wrought iron balustrades and gates opening into tidy brick courtyards spilling over with plants and lit with big square lanterns, dark furniture, gilt frames and crystal chandeliers adorning interiors. He remembers “playing around with Christmas garlands” as a child, creative talents further encouraged by his grandmother. He keeps a black-and-white photograph of her as a smiling young matron alongside another of his late father, dressed up for his role as a duke in a Mardi Gras krewe. “My grandmother had great taste. She had impeccable taste,” Cenac recalls. Entertaining frequently for the family’s tugboat business, she began enlisting her grandson’s help with luncheons and dinners. “So we would spend the evening setting tables and doing flowers. And so it became a thing. Then I started decorating seasonally. It just kind of evolved.”
Learning by osmosis would become Cenac’s modus operandi. He says he tried not to “pattern himself” too strictly, but invoking his seafaring forebears, “let [life] take its course, then steer a little bit, let it take its course, then steer a little bit.” He started out in visual merchandising for Dillard’s department store, and then felt compelled to explore another city as beautiful as his hometown. So he moved to San Francisco, where he worked in the buying department of Expressions Furniture. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to go feel this city out.’ And I did. Eight years. It was incredible.” He says that he walked everywhere: “So great just absorbing everything.” He returned home for a bit with plans of working at a showroom that some friends were opening in St. Louis when he got a call from Lee Industries, the furniture manufacturer based in Conover, N.C. Could Cenac come to High Point and design their showroom for High Point Market? “It was 30,000 square feet,” the designer says. So he obliged, and was asked to return the following two years. “Then they brought me on full time.” And that’s how, 13 years ago, Cenac came to North Carolina, settling in the Twin City because of its deep history, the beauty of its gracious old neighborhoods and strong arts community, not to mention easy access to High Point and Piedmont Triad International Airport. He can easily catch a flight to, say, New York (particularly convenient when he designed a master suite and outside terrace for Traditional Home’s designer showhouse in the Hamptons last year).
Most days Cenac makes the westward, hourlong commute to Conover. In his role as Lee Industries’ creative director, he says, “I kind of create the look for the company.” He sees himself metaphorically as sort of an umbrella — coordinating marketing, product development and fabric. “Watching to see, like I’ve always done, which direction are we going.” He extols the company, not only for its Earth-friendly product line, but also for the way it has navigated the ups and downs of the furniture industry: by establishing collegial relationships with dealers and emphasizing buying local and engaging area artisans through its “Lee Loves Local” forum.
Living and working in North Carolina’s furniture industry has given added dimension to Cenac’s aesthetic. Fused with the lushness of his New Orleans heritage are understated notes, both styles blending together in his renovated Cape Cod.
Locals knew it as “the barn-red house,” says Cenac, referring to his dwelling’s former dark crimson exterior and gray trim. Though it was built in the early 1950s for a physician, it was the Kelly family — J. Patrick Kelly, former executive news editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, his wife, Jane, and their three children — who occupied the house starting in 1960. After the children left the nest and her husband died, Jane Kelly stayed on, planting the spectacular backyard garden — with its winding path among a profusion of hostas, hydrangeas, hollies and ground cover under the canopy of oak that, for Reine Cenac, was love at first sight.
Little had been done to the house over the years, as the roof and dilapidated front stoop indicated. And there were many midcentury details that were well past their shelf-life: carpeting in the downstairs, “Pepto-Bismol pink” bedrooms, as Cenac describes them, mint-green closets and fireplace trim, and some compressed spaces that needed to breathe.
“I tore this wall out,” he says indicating the now open space between the front entry hall and stairwell to the living room. “So the front door seems a little bigger” and opens up the stunning view to the back. He pulled up the carpets and refinished the hardwood floors downstairs. “It was so dark with age,” he says. His base was a dark walnut stain, enhanced by adding a third Jacobean stain: “When I hit the third of the Jacobean on it, when we were testing the floor, it pulled the grain up. Now you can see the beautiful pattern.”
Other major changes included the front porch, the kitchen, “an entire gut job” and opening a cabinet wall to the breakfast room that overlooks the lush backyard. To this, he added pea gravel on the muddy winding path, tamed the overgrown areas, and put in a patio of antique brick — a New Orleans–style courtyard, in effect — cordoned off with a hedge of boxwoods. Eventually he’d like to add pieces of sculpture to the backyard, maybe a large, metal eagle he spotted at a garden center. “It was huge. I can see him sitting in the middle with a spotlight on him — which could be fun.”
He created a master suite with an added entrance to the hall bath, (divesting the latter of its pink tile), sealed off an odd stairway between his clothes closets to the old upstairs master and “Then I did the double hung suite doors [opening to the main hallway] And I found these old brass knobs from N’awlins, to keep with the age of the house.” He did little to the upstairs, save painting the walls off-white, even keeping what was obviously a child’s built-in desk and shelves in one of the rooms. (On a similar whimsical note, he kept an old black-and-white poster of Bob Dylan in the basement, the Kelly children’s former rec room.) “The house kind of grows as you walk through it,” Cenac observes. “What I love about this upstairs is, you do feel like you’re in this tight little cottage when you’re in these rooms.” They are sparsely appointed, with just enough for guests to be comfortable — and a decided contrast to the downstairs.
For, after applying the rich walnut-and-Jacobean stains to its floors, Cenac “filled it with furniture.”
The upholstered pieces are, as you would expect, all from Lee — a sofa upholstered in a soft, taupe Italian velvet, another adjacent in cream forming a conversation area. In the adjoining dining room, small, upholstered chairs are also in cream. These are the understated counterpoints to the more dramatic ones, such as the massive round dining room table from Italy, and a tall wooden cabinet in the far corner of the living room, also Italian. Its glass panels with pointed gothic arches were once church windows. Inside, elegant stemware glistens under an accent light and brightens up the wood encasement. “I like a risk,” says Cenac, recounting the dubious workmen from his office who moved the piece. “They said, ‘Reine, that is never going to fit in here. What are you thinkin’?’ I said, ‘No. It’s fine. Bring it in, lay it on its back, and then we’re going to flip it up slowly.’ And then we pushed it up and moved it into the corner — right under the crown [molding],” he says with a grin.
There are vaguely religious artifacts scattered here and there, a nod to the catholic traditions of his hometown: A “cathedral piece” says Cenac, likely once used to hold a basin of holy water, now contains a large, fat candle. A wooden cherub lying on his back peers puckishly underneath a glass-topped coffee table, its spindly metal legs with the Tuscan finish inspired by a Giacometti sculpture. Resting atop the table are several glass spheres, one of which, fashioned in jagged pieces of quartz, glows from the lit votive inside it (a similar quartz piece echoes in a table lamp by one of the sofas). “I remember years and years ago there was an Architectural Digest shot of Elizabeth Taylor’s house,” Cenac says. “Her coffee table was full of amethysts. She loved amethysts. So she bought tons of it and she filled the whole table with just amethyst rocks.”
The overall effect of the downstairs is warm, and earthy. Masculine, perhaps, but not overbearing.
“I wanted things to feel pleasantly fun, but not overdone,” the designer explains. “I do have a lot of art. But the art was instinct, and I love every single piece that I have. I mean, I saw it, I loved it, I bought it.” As a backdrop to the cathedral piece are several abstracts, one by Greensboro’s Kevin Rutan, another pops with vibrant streaks of orange and red; desert scenes on canvases placed above one of the sofas — a swashbuckling sheik on horseback, another quieter scene of palm trees and a camel — recall Lawrence of Arabia. Over the mantel, flanked by two handsome Tuscan chests is a quiet, moody waterscape Cenac bought from Trouvaille Home in Winston-Salem — could it be the Mississippi, perhaps? Beneath it are charming terra cotta figures from Bergamo, Italy, each fashioned in exquisite detail, and a little “pocket mouse” with mischievous sapphire eyes given to the designer by an artist colleague. Custom-made mirrors with metallic frames — the work of a Miami artisan — hang over each of the Tuscan chests, on which Cenac has arranged vignettes, one containing the whimsical figures with serene bisque heads and industrial paintbrush bodies, by New Orleans artist Cathy Rose. “These are called Finishing Touches,” he explains. “They are quite artsy, but I love what she does.” So much so that he used some of the artist’s sculptures in the Hamptons showhouse.
Working with a broker for the Lee showroom has introduced Cenac to many local artists, as well — Quaintance-Weaver’s artist-in-residence Chip Holton, for example, and a favorite, Greensboro’s Eric Knight, whose layered paintings tell stories within stories. The designer waxes poetic about a bluish-green work depicting “an Old N’awlins guitar player.” Pointing out tiny illustrations within the painting — buildings, people walking about, Cenac observes, “The more you go into the art, the more you see.”
He has more of Knight’s pieces, one in the master, another in the hall bath, next to an enormous mirror, a castoff from New Orleans’ Windsor Court Hotel when it was undergoing a renovation. It’s a handsome complement to the ornate dresser used as a vanity, with a gray African granite top, its ornamentation standing in contrast to another crisp, understated detail. In place of the old pink tile in the shower, Cenac used subway tile, partially to keep renovation costs down, but what’s striking is, it’s delineated with charcoal-colored grout, a trick he learned from a fellow designer in New Orleans. “It was the easiest and the cleanest-looking. It really looks good. I was like, ‘OK. I’m doing that in the kitchen next to the stove.’”
The kitchen is a textbook example of efficiency, with prep and cooking areas within reach, and a coffee/bar area at the end of the space — a boon for cooking quick and easy meals when Cenac is putting in long hours. A closet was outfitted with shelves and converted to a pantry. Cenac had a rustic set of shelves built for storing dishes and other accouterments next to the stainless steel Kitchen-Aid refrigerator. He picks up the rustic vibe with an oversized lantern that looks as if it were plucked right from the French Quarter. Beside it, a series of sparkling gilt floral sculptures arranged neatly in Lucite boxes, the handiwork of Chapel Hill metalsmith Tommy Mitchell.
There is a coziness to the kitchen, perhaps from older pieces, such as the brass antique pharmacy scale, weighted with lemons, the brass kettle, still-life prints of fish and game, a photograph of the designer as a child, giving a comical eye-roll, as he stands alongside a cousin at a family wedding. Cenac says guests like to congregate around the slab of white Carrera marble of the pass-through, enlarged to increase the view of the breakfast room, with its whimsical light fixture made of twigs, resembling a bird’s nest — a find at the Habitat ReStore. “I wanted something kind of different in the breakfast room, Cenac explains. “And I was like, ‘You know what? I could drape all these old crystals on it and make it look super fun. Like quirky glamour.” So with a friend’s help, over a bottle of wine, they adorned the piece, now glistening with prisms that catch the morning light. “The next morning I got up and I was like, ‘That’s damn good! We did a good job!’” he says eliciting a hearty laugh.
There have been plenty of laughs in the five years that Cenac has lived here. Visits from family. Good times around the dining room table, replete with wine stains — part of its character and provenance, he would argue — and long conversations on the adjoining screen porch, overlooking his brick patio. You’ll likely find him there after long days preparing for the next Fall Market, enjoying his little corner of paradise in the company of friends gathered around the red glow of the firepit, and the softer glow from the house lit from within . . . the simplest, and perhaps greatest treasures of all. h
Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its flagship, O.Henry.