Mar 12, 2023

Natural Balance

Neil and Helene Johnson first met while attending Ole Miss, but it wasn't until they bumped into each other in New Orleans eight years later that they started dating. At the time, Neil was in his final year of law school at Tulane University, and Helene was living in Austin (where Neil had accepted a job). "We dated my final year, and then I moved to Austin," Neil says. "Later that year, we got married."

In 2003, the couple moved to Meridian, Mississippi, where Neil took over a family business, John O’Neil Johnson Toyota, and, in 2009, he added John O’Neil Johnson Hyundai. He and Helene raised their children (one daughter, Kendall, and two sons, John O’Neil and Hammett) in Meridian, but they visited New Orleans often.

"About six years ago, I fired myself as general manager of the dealerships, hired someone to replace me and moved to Telluride, Colorado, where we currently live," Neil says. "Nature is medicine for my soul, and I love the mountain-town lifestyle. One of my summer hobbies is fly-fishing, which I also do in Louisiana."

As a bona fide outdoorsman, Neil also has enjoyed running since his days at Tulane University, when he would run in Audubon Park. "From the first time I entered the park, I fell in love with the live oaks, the shade and all of the green," he says. "In the fall of 2021, I was in New Orleans with my sons and another family. On my last day there, I saw an open house as I finished my run at the park. I walked in, took a look and made an offer."

Following a referral from a friend, the Johnsons turned to Penny D. Francis, principal designer and owner at Eclectic Home to redesign the interiors. The 1,200-square-foot renovated Victorian cottage, which faces Audubon Park, features a primary bedroom and bathroom, a kitchen, two parlor rooms (one of which Francis redesigned as a hybrid parlor room and bedroom) and another full bath.

While the Johnsons’ vacation home may be bijou, it now packs a big design punch within its charming walls. "We created the entire scope and management of the project, from selecting all the materials and finishes for a cohesive design to managing the necessary trades," Francis says. "We also provided turnkey execution by providing the small kitchen appliances and barware to flatware and linens — and everything in between. They valued the time it takes to execute, and they trusted us with accommodating their wishes and needs."

When it came to the color palette, Neil wanted the home to reflect Audubon Park and colors found in nature (such as green, blue and white). He and Helene also wanted pattern, and for both the fun and the funkiness of New Orleans to be apparent. "We suggested natural colors as our theme, and then we let Penny run with it," Neil says.

"They wanted to explore color and wanted a happy space to enjoy," Francis adds. "The wall covering in the kitchen features a wall with clouds and cranes, which was the inspiration for color. We design for the client, and this client was not afraid to push the envelope by adding bold moments that are unexpected and beautiful. The crane wallpaper is one of those moments. The kitchen backsplash, which resembles the shape of feathers, speaks back to that mural as well as the colors. The pop of tangerine in the crane's beak is repeated in the accent pillows on the living sofa as well as the round ottomans that also serve as extra seating for guests."

The powder room continues the celebration of the outdoors with a mystical Fornasetti motif featuring dense leaves concealing golden antique keys. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, Francis salvaged a door from Ricca's Architectural Sales to create a screen partition to shield the view to a hallway. "We left it unfinished, which was the charm and character that the room needed," Francis says. "The star of the show is the custom mural of a serene park scene by Charlotte Terrell."

In addition to natural colors and patterns, the Johnsons also wanted Francis to create a comfortable retreat. "By each sofa, there is a surface for drinks, but, most importantly, a place to kick back and rest your feet," Francis says. "The fabrics are all high performance, and, whether on the sofa or chairs, you can put your feet up and relax."

The biggest challenge for Francis was carving out specific spaces for working, dining and visiting guests. "Smaller spaces are always the most challenging, and the scale and form of what is selected is critical to have multifunctional spaces," Francis says. "It has great ceiling height and two connected parlors — both with fireplaces — that are visible upon entry. To have space for guests, the front parlor, which has pocket doors, has a sofa bed and an easily movable accent chair and table to allow the bed to open. Additionally, in that room near the window where there is an abundance of light, we placed a great writing desk to accommodate the need for a workspace."

Because the spaces within the home are open to each other, yet another challenge was to give each space its own identity while remaining cohesive. "You see a common thread throughout with the use of color, tone, pattern, texture and contrast," Francis says.

For example, the living space — anchored by a fireplace with original tile and surround details — now features a grass cloth wall covering for added depth and color. Meanwhile, the kitchen, which was well-appointed, had no space for dining. Francis solved this challenge by placing a custom table set parallel to the living space with stools for dining. "The reclaimed wood and iron are a great contrast to the lacquered laminate of the cabinets," she says.

Also, to add warmth to the existing industrial kitchen, Francis removed several stainless steel shelves, added a beautiful ceramic tile inspired by the wallpaper, added the softness of a linen window treatment and updated the lighting. "The addition of lighting makes a great statement," Francis says. "For example, the living room fixture is inspired by a musical instrument, while the vintage-inspired pendants over the dining space contrast in color and finish, drawing the eye upward."

While this home is not the Johnsons’ primary residence, they now have a cozy sanctuary in a city they love. "It reflects them and the environment," Francis says. "It was important for this to be a home-away-from-home that included great design, and provided comfort and tranquility, and I believe we accomplished that. It really is a happy, joyful space."

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