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Cover Story

Extreme Home Makeover

Designers Martha Sweezey and Katie Collins transform a big-box builder’s home into an airy French retreat.
By D Magazine |
LEFT: “The [light] fixture in the breakfast room was just spot on for the space,” Martha Sweezey says. “The wood and tole chandelier [from Dennis & Leen] makes such a statement, and it gives the room a twist.” A simple white French faïence platter fronts an antique French mirror from At My Table. New life was given to Porter’s dining room chairs, which were refinished in a lighter tone. RIGHT: Using simple white vases as a starting point, homeowner Marilyn Porter collected white French faïence, which, when grouped with botanical prints, brings a textured dimension to the family room vignette.

Autumn leaves—the brilliant yellow-orange ones found only in tree-lined neighborhoods like Bluffview — flutter around the wide, stone driveway of Marilyn Porter’s traditional home. With the exception of the pecan trees, one would never guess that the limestone bricks, bronze gas lanterns, and cast iron lions flanking the massive doorway create a misleading façade. The standard features of a cookie-cutter builder’s home, the ones anti-teardown activists object to, end at the front door.

That’s because local interior designer Martha Sweezey and her longtime design partner Katie Collins recently transformed this “builder’s special” into something special. The challenge was to find a way to give the generic looking house some individual personality, Sweezey says. The house had good bones at least—hand-scraped hardwoods, old-world arched doorways, and a serendipitously scrolled-iron door—but it also bore hallmarks of McMansion design. “With builder’s homes, you’ve got high ceilings, oak cabinetry, monochromatic paint color, no wallpaper, basic light fixtures, standard backsplashes in the kitchen; it’s one-stop shopping,” Collins says.

With their expertise in creating comfort—Collins and Sweezey worked together for about 10 years at Wilson & Associates, a luxury hotel design firm—the duo set out to personalize the house and give it a lighter, brighter, French feel. Homeowner Marilyn Porter, whose family relocated from Boston, yearned for a fresh, clean style, a new look befitting her new life in Dallas. Her East Coast home was heavy on jewel tones and dark wood. But there was an added challenge: Porter had to approve a majority of the renovations to her Dallas home long distance.

The stale cream walls were the starting point. Porter flipped through magazines and mailed pages of color schemes she loved. The result was a soft French palette of warm blues and greens. Sweezey, who once held a two-year apprenticeship under the late Marguerite Green, a local design legend known for her use of unexpected color combinations, used her expertise to ensure that, room by room, each hue transitions seamlessly. “We wanted the colors to flow, and not have a jarring effect, when you go from one room to the next,” Sweezey says. “They were such great ones to work with—very soothing and light, and each gave the room its own personality.”

image of stairs image of marilyn porter
LEFT: A scrolled-iron handrail in the entry is softened by a side table draped with Fortuny fabric and topped with a lacquer chinoiserie lamp by Dessin Fournir. RIGHT: Homeowner Marilyn Porter.

The bold, dark oak cabinetry in the expansive kitchen was glazed, producing a lighter, creamy color; kitchen backsplashes were replaced with shimmery Walker Zanger mosaics that complemented the color scheme and added warmth to the room. A custom-made de Gournay wallpaper “Chatsworth” was commissioned to cover the dining room walls. “Many people say you can’t do wallpaper [in spacious rooms],” Sweezey says. “But [here] you’ve got the ceiling height, and it gives it elegance and drama. The scenic, hand-painted panels wrapping the room just make the space come alive.”

The quality of the papers used throughout—a toile “On Point” print in the guest bedroom and a light-blue-and-white Carlton V. print in the powder bath—are matched by the luxurious, color-coordinating Fortuny fabric that elegantly drapes a large skirted table in the entry. “We would send organized packages of fabric selections for each room, which Marilyn would immediately send back, saying it was a go,” Sweezey says. “From that point, we started putting each room’s design together.”

image of dining room image of family room
LEFT: Handpainted de Gournay wallpaper sets the tone for the room. A Dennis & Leen chandelier and antique gold leaf mirror provide refinement. Louis XVI-style chairs from Erika Brunson add an unexpected dimension to a mahogany Dessin Fournir table. RIGHT: Martha Sweezey and Katie Collins take advantage of the ceiling height in the family room by bringing in equally tall curtains, fabricated by Jim Couch. Marilyn Porter’s previously owned sofa is flanked by a three-tier table from Rose Tarlow-Melrose House; the coffee table, at the heart of the room, is from Minton-Spidell.

That meant accessorizing, Sweezey’s favorite part of designing, an aspect lost in hotel room fabrication. “You couldn’t even place coasters in a room unless you glued them down,” she says, laughing. “Otherwise, they’d be stolen.” She honed her scouting talents with Marguerite Green, who also taught her the importance of focusing on the small facets of design. “Her way of putting things together was incredible—she would always have something that was unexpected,” she says. The Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris, which is filled with a rare collection of Louis XVI furniture, is one of her favorite museums. It’s also a great source of inspiration for many of her projects, including Porter’s home. “Every detail in each room is thought out so precisely. Layering is what makes the design so successful.”

image of exterior with garden table image of toile bedroom
LEFT: At night, the Porters’ home is a vision to behold; a garden table is set for an evening dessert party. RIGHT: “If you use toile, use it all over; that’s what makes it successful,” Martha Sweezey says. A collected print embellishes the patterned scheme.

Selecting items from different genres and countries, Sweezey and Collins deliberately mixed and matched both contemporary and antique pieces to create schemes and pretty spaces that are sophisticated without pretension. After all, Porter has Southern proclivities—she bakes cakes and shells pecans from the trees around her home for homemade pies. “We were able to give an entirely different look by adding painted dining room [Louis XVI-style] chairs and the antique French canapé that we found for the living room,” Sweezey says.

A wall in the family room is decorated with French white faïence, and the design team even convinced Porter to start a collection of famille rose Chinese export antique porcelain in the living room, which beckons to be used with its lavish silk curtains, a trumeau mirror, and a baby grand piano. Lighting is what makes a room pretty, Sweezey says, so she and Collins brought in a variety of fixtures to add ambience. The juxtaposition of sconces and acrylic lamps from Allan Knight is just the beginning; sconces were added to the stairway, the powder room, and the master bath.

The remnants of the house’s humble beginning as a builder’s creation are gone. The residence has re-emerged as a classic, singular beauty with subtle French undertones, where each element is properly placed. “Marilyn was willing to re-think her whole design sensibility,” Sweezey says. “That’s what made it so fun.”


image of master bedroom
Master bedroom.

From McMansion to Cottage:

Sweezey and Collins’ tips for personalizing a builder home

Use wallpaper in rooms with tall ceilings, such as the de Gournay print in the dining room, to make the room less cavernous.

Purchase unique light fixtures to bring intimacy to large spaces. “I’d rather have a chandelier than harsh down lights,” Sweezey says. “It’s very French, having ambient lighting.”

Freshen dark-stained cabinetry with a light glaze or wash.

Don’t be afraid to use color—a little goes a long way in giving a room personality.

Hang sconces. “Give a room a layered effect by adding sconces with decorative mirrors.”

Add window treatments to take advantage of ceiling height.

Mix and match—In the entry, famille rose Chinese export porcelain hang above a French barometer. “All of these elements combined give the room meaning and style.”