A Modernist Restoration, Texas Style
Emily Summers is a champion of modern design, past and present. With a Dallas firm known for interiors that are crisp and edited, yet equally comfortable, she has become one of Texas’s most prominent designers. But as a preservationist appointed to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation by former president George W. Bush, she also has a soft spot for maintaining the work of modernists who preceded her.
Twenty years ago, when her daughter, Caroline, a real estate agent, saw a listing for a low-slung 1962 house designed by the architect Robert Johnson Perry in the affluent Dallas suburb of Highland Park, Ms. Summers and her husband, Steve Summers, who worked in finance before retiring, decided they should have a look.
“From the moment we saw it, it seemed like the perfect thing,” Ms. Summers said. “Perry was an MIT-trained architect who brought beautiful midcentury projects to Dallas — but not a lot of them.”
She was especially excited to see that the original structure hadn’t been damaged by any ham-handed renovations.
“The house was like it had been put under a bell jar. It was in pristine historic condition,” said Ms. Summers, who was impressed with the way Mr. Perry had designed the house around a series of courtyards that provided nearly every room with light and views. “It has a very Bauhaus, thin-roof profile, but it’s done in a beautiful adobe brick, which has more regional character.”
With three grown children who had recently moved out, the couple, now in their early 70s, saw the single-story house as an appealing way to downsize — never mind that it would mean moving out of a house they had built for themselves from the ground up.
Of course, a house that has never been updated often needs a little help. “It included all of the funky things you might not necessarily want” in the 21st century, Ms. Summers noted, like acoustic panels covering the wood ceiling in the living room, woodwork sealer that had turned a greenish hue and a tiny pass-through window with shutters between the kitchen and family room.
But she feared that if they didn’t buy it, someone else might knock it down to make way for a McMansion. “We came through an era when so many of these great regional midcentury homes were torn down,” she said, and replaced by overwrought “pastiches of Tudor.”
So they bought it in 1999 for $1.3 million and embarked on a yearlong flurry of renovation and restoration, with help from Russell Buchanan, an architect, before moving in and beginning more gradual fine-tuning — two decades’ worth — for an additional cost of about $1.5 million.
In the first year, they removed the acoustic panels, stripped and refinished woodwork throughout the house, expanded the opening between the kitchen and family room, renovated the kitchen and bathrooms, and reduced the number of bedrooms from four to two, converting one into a home office and another into an exercise room.
The landscaping resisted such a quick fix. “That’s an ongoing situation,” Ms. Summers said. “We’re constantly editing and adding. There are so many trees in the backyard it’s impossible to grow anything, so we’re adding different layers of mondo grass in a very Japanese aesthetic.”
The furniture and art inside the house have continued to evolve as well. “You’re talking to a decorator, so the combination of furniture in my house is an accumulation, a collection, a lot of things,” she said.
Just inside the entrance, for instance, is a black lacquer Art Deco console table by Jean Dunand, the first collectible piece of designer furniture Ms. Summers bought for herself, in the early 1970s. Last year, she topped the console with a pair of vintage brass-and-pyrite lamps by Georges Mathias, flanking a contemporary artwork by Evan Nesbit.
Farther in, the décor is just as eclectic. One sitting area in the living room mixes a whimsical, 11-legged, bronze-and-glass table by the Paris-based provocateurs Garouste and Bonetti with 19th-century side chairs from Italy. In another area, a set of upholstered 1960s Italian seating is punctuated by a Cow Chair, from the Dutch designer Niels van Eijk for Droog, made out of a hardened cowhide.
Now finally ready for a close-up, the house has a starring role in Ms. Summers’s new book, “Distinctly Modern Interiors,” published by Rizzoli this month. (Two other 1960s modernist houses that the couple bought and restored — one near Palm Springs, Calif., the other in Colorado Springs — are also featured.)
But that doesn’t mean Ms. Summers plans to seal the house under the bell jar. “I’m thinking about making some changes now, to the family room,” she said, before stating the obvious: “Designers are always changing things.”
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