Ask almost anyone in Dallas to name the preppiest people they know and with surprising frequency Susan Palma and Muffin Lemak come up. Known in the decorating community as The Design Girls, they have every variation of the prep look covered, personally and professionally—from classic Palm Beach pastels and whites to haute Hampton bamboo, tortoiseshell, and contemporary art. Palma revels in all things pink and green and covered in needlepoint, while Lemak has evolved the blue-blood look into a couture statement, combining eclectic art and ambiance with paraphernalia of Nantucket origin.
|(above left) WARM WELCOME: Susan Palma greets guests on her poolside patio in her signature pink sweater set and pearls. Custom-made cushions in black-and-white geometric patterns coordinate with striped awnings and curtains. Teakwood furniture, aged to a salty gray color, surrounds the pool. Bouquets of white lilies add a touch of formality to the Hamptons-style scene. (above right) Palma has converted a small alcove off the kitchen into a warm sitting room. A tole tray is hung with moss green ribbon on toile wallpaper, and handmade ribbon pillows sit on a custom banquette that Palma created to double as a storage unit. A needlepoint Stark carpet covers the hardwood floors.|
“Muffin keeps me from covering everything in toile, and I keep her from doing everything in leopard. At the end of the day, every project is a collaborative effort—sophisticated and traditional or classic with a kick,” says Palma, referring to her decorating partner of 12 years.
For most, the recent craze over vividly colored fabrics, toile wallpaper, monogrammed linens, and wicker accessories signifies the comeback of a familiar, well-worn style. But Design Girls Palma and Lemak believe the core elements of this venerable trend never really went away. “The look isn’t new—it’s just a fresh, younger generation discovering the appeal. They start with a Lacoste shirt or two and then move into home decor. Fabrics and wallpaper are replacing monochromatic tones. I’d call the look prep with a kick,” Palma says.
|(above left) The dining room is dominated by an antique family table and chairs handed down from Palma’s family. The upholstery is pink-and-green Cowtan & Tout. A ceiling-to-floor mirror brings light into the narrow room, and (above right) a vintage brass bar cart is ready to roll into action at cocktail hour.|
Her own Highland Park home could be a primer for aspiring urbane designers. Yet unlike the legendary exclusivity of the cultured preppy club, the mood and decor of Palma’s home are light, festive, and inclusive. Even clad in pastel sweater set, Lilly Pulitzer skirt, and matching flats, Palma appears more whimsically well-heeled than stodgy or standoffish—somewhat beckoning to those who once believed this upper-crust look was for a privileged few. Raised in the Midwest but close to family in New Canaan, Conn. (the renowned county seat of East Coast preppies), Palma grew up in every shade of pink and green, wore espadrilles, and toted Bermuda bags with interchangeable cloth covers. “This was the style when I was in high school,” she admits. “I loved it then, and I love it now.” Her quintessential bent for striped and floral upholstery, latticework, and traditional tole trays and tables is both purposeful and playful. She has remodeled the 70-year-old home with the loving touch of an owner personally vested in every piece of furniture and swatch of fabric. Amidst the numerous family antiques, tortoiseshell boxes, polished silver picture frames, and collection of Limoges miniatures are more than 20 needlepoint pillows and other hand-worked pieces, all created by Palma.
|The espresso-colored living room is filled with family antiques, monogrammed silver picture frames, and both pink-and-green and black-and-white upholstered furniture. A few older pieces have been stripped and lacquered for an updated look. Antique Spode plates are coordinated with vases of pink hydrangea atop the fireplace mantel. Palma has a personal story behind every piece of furniture and accessory in the room.|
Her monogram, a telltale genteel cue, is everywhere, from cotton kitchen and bath towels to pillows, linens, crystal vases, and barware—even guest hand soap in the powder room. Coordinated colorful tassels, trims, and ribbons garnish drum lampshades, club chairs, and window treatments.
Antique Spode rose-covered plates decorate the dining room walls, and Venetian-glass lamps illuminate the sideboard. Pink-and-green striped upholstered chairs flank an antique dining room table, and a Lucite tray filled with crystal vases and flowers throws light around the room. A floor-to-ceiling mirror was built into one wall to add the illusion of space, and a brass, rolling bar cart is squeezed into a corner, reminiscent of the ceremonious cocktail hour that writers such as John Cheever and John Updike immortalized in their books about New England WASPs.
|(above left) As with most spaces in the home, this living room corner is brimming with family heirlooms, needlepoint pillows, china plates, Herend bunnies, and pink-and-green upholstery. (above right) Palma’s collection of Old Paris compotes trimmed in hand-painted gold.|
The living room is a study in browns, floral linens, and antiques. Family portraits in silver frames line end tables, and in one corner, a collection of dozens of Limoges containers covers an entire surface. These are personal gifts from houseguests and friends who’ve experienced Palma’s lively, exuberant hospitality.
Needlepoint rugs and pastel-patterned carpets cover the floors, while coordinating wallpapers and fabrics set a fun but refined tone. Certain antique pieces have been striped, lacquered, and covered with geometric patterns in a deliberate effort to update and add energy to older design.
|(above left) Plaid pink-and-green curtains set the tone for the preppiest room in the house: the master bedroom. Palma has let her love of pastels, floral design, needlepoint, matching cording and trim, and antique china dishes go wild in this private space. (above right) Nestled in the corner of the upstairs master bedroom is a small sitting area where Palma frequently works on her needlepoint. A confident mix of checkered and floral fabrics has been used to cover an antique chair.|
“We bought this home because of its history,” Palma says. “We loved the low ceilings, nooks, and crannies, and, quite frankly, I couldn’t resist a home that presented the opportunity to toile an entire ceiling.” She refers to a bedroom in the guesthouse that looks much more like a New England bed-and-breakfast than a poolside Dallas cabana.
Palma is never far from a glue gun, and she confesses to constant tweaking and refinements. “I am the dinner hostess who is less concerned with the menu than with last-minute accessorizing. Before a party I will focus on all the little details, like hot gluing coordinating ribbons to lampshades in my dining room or throwing a little paint on this or that,” she says. It’s an obsession that Martha Stewart would understand.
|(above left) Palma enthusiastically covered the ceiling and walls of a guest house bedroom in black-and-white toile wallpaper. The patterned paper, black-and-white stripe and polka dotted pillows, and four-poster bed couldn’t be more classic, East Coast prep. (above right) Monogrammed soap and hand towels are offered to guests in the downstairs powder room.|
Aware that her New England apparel doesn’t always play well in Dallas, and that her Dallas look doesn’t favorably impress the Connecticut crowd, she still wears Pappagallo-style (aka frumpy) flats to Mi Cocina in Highland Park Village. But she also risks being considered a vamp by pulling out a pair of heeled mules in New Canaan. The truth is, as long as she’s in pink and green, she doesn’t really care.