Nearly nine decades ago, the oil boom brought Houston an embarrassment of wealth, out of which emerged a select group of newly rich millionaires who were the symbol of a new Texas – an even greater Texas. They had great attitudes, threw great parties, and most importantly, lived in big, beautiful homes. And there’s a 1,200-acre place they wanted to live: River Oaks.
Renowned for its mansions erected by architect John Staub in the mid-20th century, this affluent Houston enclave has since become an enduring tribute to the city’s most elegant era. But for a newcomer to the neighborhood, it was a brand new home that stood out along this promenade of historic homes – an 8,000 square foot English-style mansion. “We walked in and kind of knew we belonged there,” says the owner, a top beauty executive who moved in with her husband and four kids in 2018. somehow it still feels comfortable.”
To go with the freshly painted walls and newly laid slate and hardwood floors, the owners brought in a Houston-based designer. Elizabeth Young bring character and antiquity to the new build – a charge not outside the scope of Young’s work, which is described by his client as “chic, eclectic and colorful”. “The house was in a neighborhood rich with stories, but it lacked its own narrative,” says Young. “I had to create a story that didn’t exist.”
Young insisted on taking the project slowly, ready to work on the design while the family of six stayed in the space to get a feel for how they lived. “I’m not interested in decorating a room,” she says. “I’m more interested in building a collection of special pieces that my clients can cherish for a lifetime.” Young and his client enjoyed hunting together, browsing antique fairs and traveling to design events to find the right furniture. “We went to stores that were off the beaten path for most people, and the things we found together became very personal to my client.”
Stepping into this home is like stepping into a vibrant watercolor, awash in delightful contrasts of tones, textures, and eras. These juxtapositions are teased in the first floor spaces of the house. The entrance is overlooked by a tropical Oro chandelier (an extravagant assemblage of aluminum palm leaves and jewel-toned shapes) that plays on a massive figured abstract canvas by Magnus Plessen. Entering the more austere formal living room, dark flooring, a newly installed black fireplace and wooden beams are accented by a 1930s French Art Deco chandelier, details that make the room feel “very living room “, says Young. Glass menagerie pieces by Little John Hogan and ceramics by Reinaldo Sanguino (both from Future Perfect) perch on a side table — playful details that are “scattered throughout,” adds Young.
While neutrals ground the house, playful pops of color can be seen throughout. “The brief was: color, color and more color,” says Young. “We started coming up with all these special names for the colors we were using. It wasn’t ‘blue’ or ‘light blue’, it was ‘powder blue’. Our reds were “cherry red” and “raspberry”. It was like having this giant box of 120 crayons and going through all the colors.
Young’s penchant for color is on full display in the bar next to the lounge. All five walls (ceiling included) are awash in a gray lacquer that contrasts with a shamelessly custom yellow sofa in a Rubelli velvet. Young made up his yen for this specific yellow hue, ordering a custom tiger rug that took about three months to color match and another eight months to arrive. Its self-prescribed specifications were sometimes resolved unexpectedly. “I had this fabulous fabric for this little brass stool, but the yellow was too bright, until we turned the fabric around and realized it was exactly the shade we wanted,” Young says with a laugh. “So the fabric of the saddles is actually the back of the fabric. But no one has to know!
The kitchen opens onto the breathtaking moment of the house: five Italian Renaissance Revival chairs from the 1880s surrounding a chic black and white marble table. “It was one of the very first things I found at this store in Austin,” Young says. “It’s always hard to find a lot of chairs and I found eight, which is rare, so I knew I couldn’t live without them.” Young upholstered the chairs in Moore & Giles leather, a sultry green that pops against the shiny gold frames. She also remodeled the rest of the kitchen, redoing the hood, backsplash and hardware – a herculean task when six people and two dogs are walking through this busy center at the same time. “We became very close and personal,” adds Young. “But seeing how they worked on a day-to-day basis really influenced my designs.”
To the side, a small breakfast nook hosts the real hostess: a vintage ceramic vase that was a fun consignment find. “There’s always a new floral arrangement popping out of her head,” Young says. “The continuing joke between us is that she always has a new hairstyle.”
The house has a marital cohesion, each room speaking to the next in a graceful flow, but with even more unexpected surprises at different times. The master bedroom, a soothing earthy haven with plaster walls and soft linen draperies, is just steps away from the eldest daughter’s glamorous lip room (yes, you read that right). The room has its own hallway, which Young covered in punchy Pop Art lipstick wallpaper by Olivia + Poppy. There is a pop-up TV and a real velvet lip sofa that has Salvador Dali undercurrents, in the manner of Elle Woods. Young’s teenage client brief was based on a photo she shared that had sassy lip decor. “I ran with it, going for pink on pink on pink on glitter,” says Young. “It’s a dream room for a 15-year-old or 50-year-old, for that matter.”
Much like the iconic bastions of its neighboring River Oaks residences, this house is itself a celebration of the everyday. “I strongly believe that homes need to evolve,” says Young. “And that over time, the collections we create reflect who we are and what we value most. Done right, they can sometimes remind us of who we are when we ourselves have forgotten.
Rachel Silva, Associate Digital Editor at ELLE DECOR, covers design, architecture, trends and all things haute couture. She has previously written for Time, The Wall Street Journal and Citywire.