A Light Touch
The juxtaposition of refined and rustic in subdued colors imparts an easy elegance in this Hendersonville home.
Wicker plantation chairs from Lloyd Flanders invite guests to linger at the custom farmhouse table, fashioned from re-purposed antique wormy chestnut by Chip Worrell of Little River Woodshop. Faux painting on the fireplace mantel is by Chris Barron of Sundance Interiors. The Scandinavian style chandelier is from Paul Ferrante.
By David Dietrich
“Vision” is an interesting concept. Good vision is often defined as the ability to recognize what is present in the environment — traffic signs, text on a page. But in rare cases, vision can allow one to see what isn’t apparent — to intuit the possibilities that lie beneath the superficial. In that context, Susan Portman may well be considered a visionary.
Standing in the great room of her home in Hendersonville’s “Rhododendron Gardens,” one has the sense that the composed, airy space has ever been so. Subdued and fresh, it has the refined yet relaxed sensibility one would expect to find in a European pied-à-terre; infused with a soft, clear light that would have delighted Johannes Vermeer.
So it’s difficult to envision that this exquisitely understated home was, until recently, a Man Cave. It was classic clubhouse — massive, tufted leather furniture, eight-person bar with helmsman’s chairs, big-screen TV, pool table and green shag carpet.
“My late husband built the house in 1984 as a mountain getaway cabin,” Susan explains. “It was a very budget-conscious construction — rustic, but structurally well thought out.” Susan’s first inclination was simply to make some minor improvements. “It started with a few pocket doors. Then I ripped out the carpeting. I still didn’t know that I was going to remodel the house — I was just going to tweak it. I thought I would fix it up a bit and put it on the market.”
But something began to stir — a creative urge that had been with her since childhood. “I’ve always loved architecture and interior design,” Susan notes. “As a child, I liked nothing better than creating vignettes with my dollhouse furniture. My parents were professional people, and they would often come home from work to find I had rearranged the household furniture.”
Susan’s eye for detail and design carried forward into her professional life as a textile expert and conservator (she was instrumental in the restoration of the tapestries at Biltmore Estate). Once she began working on the house she found that “it kind of snowballed.” One improvement led to another, and soon Susan found herself immersed in re-inventing the structure and giving it a new life.
Architect Wayland Shamburger came on board initially to design a pergola and walkway to remedy the home’s gangplank style entryway. “It was a progressive design. She didn’t come in saying. ‘I want to redo the entire house.’ It really started out as ‘the house doesn’t have a natural front door’,” Shamburger recalls. But soon they were remodeling the exterior and dressing it with copper gutters by Old World Masters, installing a new drive and landscaping by Cosgrove Landscaping, replacing the sliding doors with French doors and installing European style push-out windows with hinged screens and shutters.
“It was basically a contemporary salt-box,” says Shamburger. “We did a full millwork design package to take the house from looking boxy, square and standard to looking elegant. We left the plywood wainscoting in place in the great room, but painted it to make it fall back. It’s normally a very masculine material, but in her space, Susan redefined it into something very stylish.”
Once she had committed to the project, Susan decided to manage the renovations herself, acting as her own general contractor, hiring qualified professionals to deal with specific aspects ranging from plumbing and HVAC systems to finishes. She approached each facet with complete focus, trusting her research skills, innate aesthetic sensibility and uncommon good sense. “The wonderful thing about Susan is that she understands how every part relates to the whole,” says Shamburger. “She’s very consistent with that. Her underlying theme is a clean, straight line, sophisticated feel.
Quality materials and workmanship. Every detail we came up with had a relationship to that original concept. She has incredible instincts and taste.”
To facilitate an uncluttered environment, the interiors feature abundant built-ins fashioned by Duane Scholz of Scholz Home Works. “Duane was my right-hand man,” Susan notes. “He was with me from the start, when it was just ‘a few pocket doors’.” Scholz’s skills are evident in the fine finish carpentry throughout the streamlined home, where there are no embellishments to hide behind. “Minimalism is harder,” observes Susan. “You have to be so aware of the fine points.”
With the backdrop in place, Susan turned her discriminating eye to the furnishings. “My favorite aesthetic is Belgian-Swedish design,” she says. “I wanted to achieve a juxtaposition of the refined with the rough. So you have fine, simple, country French antiques, but then you have tables with rustic paint finishes. It’s all about no color. I’m not a person who likes strong color — I love taupe, warm grey…pale colors.”
Her gift for nuance — in the color palette, the interplay of texture and the subtle integration of nature images — creates an atmosphere that has a sense of serenity and of vitality. “I find, in design and decorating, it’s necessary to repeat a theme throughout the house. That doesn’t mean that everything has to match, but if you have silver here somewhere else in the room you need to have a touch of silver. You need to create continuity.”
The connecting touch is apparent everywhere in this handsome home — tidy and precise, yet comfortable, warm and welcoming. The transformation is complete — seamless in its integrity. With a deft hand, Susan Portman has re-imagined and reinvented a rough and tumble country cabin as an exquisite, elegant jewel. A beautiful vision.