Kelly Gale Amen

Premium Interior & Furniture Design

“Style with a Smile”

by Liz Seymour
Photographed by Fran BrennanTraditional Home, May 1998

tradhome_may1998_kgaBy combining classic elements with bits of caprice, Houston interior designer Kelly Gale Amen creates marvelous, memorable decorating schemes.

tradhome_may1998_coverRooms designed by Kelly Gale Amen are as fun and friendly as the man himself. Blessed with an abundance of joie de vivre, this Houston-based decorator and award-winning furniture designer sums up his credo this way: “I believe that the best elements of design are the beautiful mistakes. The process is always one of jumping in and going where the project leads you.”

The Houston house that Amen put together for his client and good friend Cullen Simmons exhibits a particularly happy blend of styles and cultures. Using a combination of family pieces, antiques, and much-loved souvenirs of Cullen’s travels, he created spaces that sparkle with originality. “People worry too much about matching,” he says. “I don’t think you can ever match-you can only blend. If you pick the best, you can integrate any period or style.”

tradhome_may1998_01When Cullen returned to Houston after living for several years in Africa, a relative suggested she work with Amen. Nostalgic for the sunny climate of South Africa, she asked the designer to create a typical African indoor-outdoor feeling in her new home. “Part of the fun of this project was working with a client whose experience was so eclectic and so global,” says Amen. “It was wonderful to watch the house fill with energy and come alive.”

From the first, Amen was on a tight schedule: although Cullen wanted to be moved in by Thanksgiving, she and Amen were not able to find a satisfactory house until July, and the one they finally chose was only half completed. “It was an advantage in a way,” says Amen. “It had a comfortable, classical feeling to it, but it wasn’t so finished that we were stuck with what was there.”

tradhome_may1998_02The first steps were to rework the electrical system, replace much of the stonework (including adding a dramatic black-and-gold marble surround to the living room fireplace), put up ceiling fans-painted to blend in with the ceiling color-and add porches and balconies. First-floor windows were replaced with French doors; a built-in alarm system allows them to stand open even at night during Houston’s long, temperate spring and fall.

Amen used the soft, earthy colors of the African bush-tones of stone, sand, dusty green, pale apricot, and blue-as background to the vivid fabrics and accessories that enliven the rooms. But neutral doesn’t mean plain vanilla: “We used twenty-eight different paints throughout the house, but you don’t really feel the color variations,” he says. “The impact is stronger for being subliminal.”

Even the reflective quality of the paint was thought through. All the trim was painted in a high-gloss off-white that captures and reflects the colors around it. Walls were softened with a low-sheen eggshell finish, and ceilings were painted in flat, unreflective colors. The only exceptions are the living and dining rooms, where the ceilings got a dressier glazed finish.

tradhome-1Each room has its own visual surprise. In the dining room, for instance, an oversized canvas by Elizabeth Chandler at first appears to be the room’s only artwork. But closer inspection reveals that each chair back and seat is also decorated with an original painting.

“I wanted the option of a lot of chairs in the dining room, but I didn’t want a matched set of twelve,” explains Amen. His solution was to create his own set out of six matching chairs and three pairs of different chairs. The twelve became an instant family when he covered them all in canvas and commissioned Texas artist Nancy Ruby to embellish each with a different design of native Texas flora. “It’s another way to pull the garden into the house and take the inside out,” he says.

The living room color scheme is inspired by the saturated blues, greens, reds, and yellows of traditional kente cloth, an African fabric that is woven in strips that are then sewn together. Cullen showed her favorites to Amen shortly after they met, saying, “This is everything I love about Africa.” Amen’s unconventional decision to use the cloth as covering for a traditional European-style chaise takes the lively colors and syncopated pattern into a new dimension. Then he finished the sides and back with shirred denim.

tradhome-2The handmade, earthy quality that runs through the house’s design is also very much an Amen signature. His eclectic mix often includes natural materials like leather, wicker, seagrass, and weathered wood. His own furniture, executed in aluminum, iron, and bronze, is invitingly tactile, designed to gain a pleasing patina as it ages. Whenever he can, he leaves windows undressed or barely dressed so natural light can become a design element-and then he doubles the light with well-placed mirrors.

“If you can stick with the laws of nature-light, the colors of the earth-you can’t go wrong,” he says. “And remember that there will always be surprises.” It is that spirit of endless possibility, plus some well-placed splurges, that gives the serene house its sense of deep luxury.

tradhome_may1998_07In the living room, the rough texture of African baskets and handmade pottery (some of it made by Cullen, an English-trained master potter) is reflected in a dramatic 48-inch bull’s-eye mirror. In both the dining and living rooms, the filmy folds of sheer draperies are four lengths across and long enough to puddle on the floor. (“When you’re working with unsized, unlined curtains, it doesn’t do to skimp,” Amen notes.) As an added fillip, the iron curtain rods are wrapped in light-hearted bronze ribbons.

The secret to making it all work is in the almost instinctual blend that the designer calls “logical irreverence”-a fresh juxtaposition of colors, textures, and styles that creates its own kind of energy. “After all,” says Amen, “who makes the rules? We do, don’t we? I believe that we should never forget that.”


May 1998 Issue
Architects featured:
Nancy Leslie
Lawrence W. Speck
Richard Becker
Interior designers featured:
Elizabeth Gibson Wakeman
Joanna Lyon and Virginia Hagerman
Patricia Bonis
Leslie Tuttle and Elizabeth Bradley
Susan Blissit Douglas
Ann Kaplan
Marie Christine Peterson
Linda Wiley
Sue Ellen Rothery
Susan Fredman and Lani Myron
Dana Goodman
Suzanne Tucker and Timothy Marks
Jessie Dell and Patricia Hogue
Mark Christofi
Kelly Gale Amen
Eric Cohler
Herbert Wells
Pamela Copeman and Jennifer Bardsley
Janes Essary and Bill Murphy
Albert Janz and Sherry Stein
Carol Burstein
Sarah Boyer Jenkins
Ann Jones
Elizabeth Uhll-Hunt and William Uhll
Rhea Crenshaw
Jennifer Garrigues
Mary Fahey (kitchen designer)
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