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Publication Date: 2019-03-21

Design Insights

Experience Houston Through the Eyes of its Designers

When we think of the world’s design capitals, Houston, Texas, might not be the first name on the tip of our tongues. Often, however, the most creative aesthetics come from communities outside historically established centers like Paris, London, and New York. For the designers who live and work in Houston, the evolution of the city’s style in recent years has been rapid, as the city’s art and design-centered offerings expand. Events like Texas Design Week Houston (TXDW), a series of talks, parties, and workshops that runs this year from March 25 to 29, have encouraged the growth of the design community and brought together the designers innovating and elaborating on traditional Texan styles.

In anticipation of TXDW, we invited several Houston-based designers, along with Bunny Williams of New York and Jeffrey Dungan of Alabama who are presenting at TXDW, to take us on a tour of their city and help us experience its sense of design.

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A crowd gathers during an event for Texas Design Week Houston in 2018 | Photo Courtesy of PaperCity Magazine

City of Style


Opportunities to experience — and create — great design abound in Texas’s largest city. "At any given week I have an opportunity to attend an art exhibition, a book signing, or an opening of some sort,” says Cindy Witmer, owner of Cindy Witmer Designs, who recently opened a new studio space home goods store in the Spring Branch neighborhood. In the past, Houston has been known for a grand, opulent style characteristic of the south: think European-inspired houses with rigidly formal, traditional interiors. During 22 years in the design industry, Nicole Domercq Zarr of Triangle Interiors has tracked the city’s stylistic changes. “From the days of beige and neutral, I have watched the clientele become way more daring and secure in embracing what they like, not what they think they need to like. Color — thank God — is abundant now, and a more transitional feel has replaced the traditional Old-world feel.”

Courtnay Tartt Elias, principal and creative director at Creative Tonic, is also passionate about fine art, and she serves on the Decorative Arts Acquisition Committee and Rienzi Committee for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. | Photo by Julie Soefer | Design by Creative Tonic

Some aspects of traditional Houston design persist, including its grandeur, especially as the economy continues to grow and attract new residents drawn to the city's lifestyle. “Homes here tend to be much larger than other cities — everything is bigger in Texas, right?” Benjamin Johnston, founder of Benjamin Johnston Design, notes. “So we have more opportunities to create beautiful moments."

Although based in New York City, Bunny Williams is presenting at TXDW. | Photo by Roger Davies | Design by Bunny Williams Inc.

Designers from outside Houston are also drawn to the city for its unique sense of style. Based in New York, renowned interior designer Bunny Williams has visited Houston before, but not for TXDW. This year, Williams will present new projects from her book, Love Affairs with Houses (Abrams), on Tuesday, March 26, during Flower magazine's Design In Bloom VIP event, in coordination with TXDW. "Houstonians are worldly, sophisticated, and stylish, and they put great care into their homes," she says. Author of The Nature of Home: Creating Timeless Houses (Rizzoli), award-winning Alabama-based architect Jeffrey Dungan is also presenting during Design in Bloom. Dungan has been touring for the past six months, experiencing new places and discussing design with aficionados from across the country, and he notes that each place he visits relates to a different style and aesthetic tradition. He adds, "Houston has a variety of styles, and I look forward to learning more about them."

Of working in Houston, Jennifer Barron says, "Designing among some of the top individuals in the industry, I am pushed daily to experiment with new trends and stay relevant." | Photo by Molly Culver Photography | Design by Jennifer Barron Interiors

Generally, diversity in culture leads to diversity in ideas, and Houston is one of the most diverse places in the country. A recent study by WalletHub named Houston the second most diverse city in the United States, based on household, religious, socioeconomic, cultural, and economic diversity; admittedly, the city fares significantly worse in measures like socioeconomic diversity, where it was ranked only 116th. Nonetheless, as Sandy Lucas and Sarah Eilers of Lucas Eilers Design Associates observe, “the design scene is as diverse as the city.” With so many people, and so many kinds of people, it’s almost difficult to stick to one style.

“Houston has always been a city of diversity,” says Randall Powers, founder of J. Randall Powers Interior Decoration. “And it’s very much so in all aspects of interior design. You often see a vast mix of styles from stark contemporary to all-out full-board high English — I find that's one of the great things about the city and its style. Rather than everyone jumping on a trend, people here still decorate to the taste that they love.”

Julie Dodson, creative director of Dodson Interiors, agrees with Powers: “The design sensibility in Houston embraces all styles from contemporary to classical."

"We have some major talent here," says Cindy Witmer, "and are well represented on the national design stage." | Photo by Kerry Kirk Photography | Design by Cindy Witmer Designs

The design community in Houston is an eclectic mix of folks, from “young and up-and-coming designers” to “seasoned veterans of the trade,” says Courtney Hill Fertitta, founder of Courtney Hill Interiors, a design firm specializing in bespoke interiors. No one aesthetic dominates, and no one designer dominates. Designers effuse about the strong commitment to community in the city. According to Jillian O’Neill, owner of Jillian O’Neill Collection, “Community is the biggest strength of the Houston design aesthetic. Their love of home and entertaining can’t be beat. From this derives a special feeling within Houston homes, one that is always inviting and comfortable yet with the perfect amount of formality, so that the guest feels special.”

A strong community also encourages its members to push themselves artistically, as designers innovate and collectively hone their techniques. Of course, if the clientele is shy about challenging their sensibilities, designers would follow suit, but the community of clients is often as open-minded as the community of creatives. “I feel so lucky to be a designer in a community where people care about their homes, and are willing to take risks,” says Jennifer Barron of Jennifer Barron Interiors.

"Houston has so many amazing design resources," says Benjamin Johnston. | Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Johnston Design | Design by Benjamin Johnston Design

Trade resources are also important for a strong design community. The Decorative Center Houston and Houston Design Center provide resources to designers, as do a wealth of artisans. “We have a surprising supply of craftspeople, artisans, furniture workshops, and artists in Houston that makes my job easier,” Johnston emphasizes. “I love supporting these local vendors and keeping these arts alive and well.”

Communities also come together through affirming each other, often in response to hardship. “We all support each other and each others’ design aesthetic in an enthusiastic way,” says Courtnay Tartt Elias, principal and creative director at Creative Tonic. She recallls Hurricane Harvey of 2017, a disaster in which more than 30,000 people were displaced: “Hurricane Harvey really helped bring everyone together, and I hope we all grow even closer in the future.”

Alabama-based architect Jeffrey Dungan is presenting at Texas Design Week Houston. | Photo by Chris Luker | Design by Jeffrey Dungan Architects

Texas Design Week Houston, March 25 – March 29


A biennial event in Houston and Dallas hosted by PaperCity magazine, Texas Design Week gathers designers and industry professionals to connect and celebrate achievement in design. Notable events include Flower magazine’s Design in Bloom, a day-long series featuring talks, book signings, a luncheon, and a mixer, as well as cocktail parties, workshops on social media and kitchen design, and presentations from widely known designers and industry professionals like Martina Mondadori Sartogo of Cabana Magazine and Hutton Wilkinson of Tony Duquette Inc.

While offering opportunities to network and learn, the event also helps raise the star of Texas design. “We operate on the principle that a rising tide raises all boats, so the more attention we bring to Houston’s design scene, the better it is for all of us,” Johnston asserts.

Sandra Drews Lucas and Sarah Brooks Eilers are the design professionals behind Lucas Eilers Design Associates. For TXDW, they're looking forward to the "interesting speakers and fun parties at both new and familiar destinations." | Photo by Julie Soefer Photography | Design by Lucas Eilers Design Associates

On Monday, March 25, PaperCity is hosting a night of Design Awards at the Post Oak Hotel. The magazine asks designers to submit photographed projects and their stories; the strongest submissions are recognized by judges during the evening. For many designers, the event is one of their favorites of Texas Design Week Houston. “It’s an amazing evening of design and friendship, making us an even tighter knit group of creatives and designers in Houston,” says Elias.

On a free Sunday, Julie Dodson prefers to relax on a patio at a Houston restaurant. | Photo by Nathan Schroder | Design by Dodson Interiors

Experience Houston


Creatives may come to Houston for the luxurious interior and exterior designs, but that isn’t enough to keep them. The city also provides a robust shopping experience, with new stores opening constantly, and art and restaurant scenes that captivate those with a taste for the good life.

“There are so many fabulous shops in Houston now,” says Zarr. Zarr, Fertitta, and Johnston all recommend MOXIE for thoughtful furnishings, including antique and vintage finds. Several designers also praised AREA, a mecca for antiques and decorative arts. Other top-rated design spots include Found, Kuhl-Linscomb, and Shabby Slips.

Randall Powers of J. Randall Powers Interior Decoration finds inspiration in Houston's art scene | Photo by Christopher Alexander | Design by J. Randall Powers Interior Decoration

“Houston is an international hub for the arts,” says Powers, “and the museums and galleries are world class. As an avid collector, the constant shows at the Menil Collection [a museum housing a famed private art collection, including works by Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Cy Twombly, Jr.]; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston [the oldest art museum in Texas]; and the art galleries keep me inspired.” Elias singles out the Rienzi, the European Decorative Arts house section of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as a must-see in the city. A board member, she visits the museum for both home and garden inspiration.

Houstonians get outside for their fun, too. Bike paths and walkways through Buffalo Bayou offer more than 125 miles of trails to explore; Lucas and Eilers recommend the recently refurbished Sandy Reed Memorial Trail that runs from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street. Some designers prefer sports. For example, on special occasions, O’Neill takes her four children to Astros games.

"My husband and I are regulars at either Adair Kitchen or Tiny Boxwoods for a giant latte and the best brunch food in town," says Nicole Domercq Zarr of Triangle Interiors. | Photo Courtesy of Triangle Interiors | Design by Triangle Interiors

At the end of the day, like most of us, Houston creatives love a good restaurant, preferably one with an outdoor patio. “There is never a lack of the most amazing restaurants run by diverse and talented chefs who surround themselves with wonderful employees,” says Witmer. In the Upper Kirby neighborhood, Tiny Boxwoods, an upscale-casual cafe with outdoor seating, is family-friendly, as Barron notes, and it's a perennial favorite of many designers. Fertitta loves to spend her Sunday mornings over brunch at Vibrant in Montrose, while Sunday nights, Powers picks up Meyer Lemon Poppy Seed tarts from the same restaurant for dessert.

As the design community expands, Courtney Hill Fertitta hopes opportunities will expand, too. "As the city continues to grow, so will the ability to create new relationships and design ventures." | Photo Courtesy of Courtney Hill Interiors | Design by Courtney Hill Interiors

Future of Design


Houston's future looks bright, if it continues to keep ahead of the curve. “I think, as with everywhere, that Houston is being affected by the change in the online shopping experience and the DIY client," Witmer suggests. "We have to stay on trend and beyond to stay ahead of our savvy clients and prove our value in the design process." While design professionals face a challenge in transitioning to online, social media continues to raise the profiles of app-savvy Houston designers, who are being discovered by clients across the country. "Social media has opened up the eyes of the world to the talent that resides in our city," says Johnston, "and many Houston designers are now working nationally and internationally."

“I love to see that events like TXDW are bringing people together," says O'Neill. "There weren’t quite as many opportunities to do that previously, but year by year that is shifting."

"I love to see that events like TXDW are bringing people together," says Jillian O'Neill. "There weren’t quite as many opportunities to do that previously, but year by year that is shifting." | Photo Courtesy of Jillian O'Neill Collection | Design by Jillian O'Neill Collection

Insider Tips on Houston from Designers


Where to Shop: MOXIE, Skelton Culver, Joyce Horn Antiques, Back Row Home, AREA, Found, Kulh-Linscomb, Shabby Slips, CWD Studio and Home [the new shopping destination for Cindy Witmer Designs], Mecox Gardens, Lam Bespoke, Bill Gardner Antiques, Longoria Collection, M Naeve, Carol Piper Rugs, Hibiscus Linens, Retorra, Paloma & Co., Chateau Domingue, Thompson + Hanson

Where to Eat: UB Preserv, Nancy’s Hustle, Nobie's, Tiny Boxwoods, Bistro Menil, Vibrant, the Pass and Provisions, Adair Kitchen, TRUTH BBQ

Where to Explore Art: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (including the Rienzi), Laura Rathe Fine Art, McClain Gallery, the Menil Collection, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Where to Play: Hermann Park, Buffalo Bayou, Astros ballgame

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