A Native Son Comes Home
Darryl Willis achieves his dream
A slip-covered white sofa from Julie Neill Designs anchors a deft mix of furnishings. Pillows from Shaun Smith Home; art by David Spiellman; Barcelona chairs, from the owner’s collection
Photographed by Sara Essex Bradley
Darryl Willis grew up in the Gentilly neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park, went to McDonough #35 (his grandmother was also a graduate of McDonogh 35, in 1925). He then attended Louisiana Scholars College at Northwestern University in Natchitoches and graduated with a B.S in Scientific Inquiry with emphasis is Mathematics, Chemistry, and Humanities. He started his career with Amoco Production Company in New Orleans and was transferred to Houston after he completed his Master’s Degree in Geology and Geophysics at the University of New Orleans.
He met his wife Dawnia, a clinical pharmacist from Opelousas in 2002 in Houston.
Fast-forward to Hurricane Katrina. Darryl’s mother was living in his childhood home, now a widow, and lost her home and all its contents. Devastated, she moved to Houston to live with Darryl and Dawnia, and shortly after her cancer came out of remission, she passed away in January 2006, six months after Katrina. She never made it back to New Orleans.
Darryl has dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles in New Orleans, but no living siblings or parents, but he considers New Orleans home. He has lived in Palo Alto, California (where he got his Masters degree in Business at Stanford University), London and Moscow, over his 25-year career with BP. He had been looking for a New Orleans house since his mother’s death, especially after the BP spill. It was at that time, he became the “face of BP” (the man in the orange polo shirt) who BP tagged to handle area claims although his training was as an engineer. Willis had so many recollections of his mother’s travails with insurance companies after Katrina that he approached senior management and said, “We have gotta make this an easier process for people.” He became the national claims spokesperson for BP during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon event, and traveled all around the state to help expedite claims. Not only, did Darryl Willis want a home in New Orleans, but since he was a teenager, he dreamed of one day owning a home, specifically on Audubon Street. He always loved that area near the park.
Willis found his house on Audubon Street in the form of a little Craftsman cottage that needed work. He hired a great contractor, Max Ryan.
Max and Darryl had discussed some very rudimentary fixes to the house, mainly structural in nature (replacing some joists, replacing knob and tube wiring, etc). It was good for the house but hard on the wallet.
Darryl met a neighbor who was walking his dog and mentioned needing help decorating/designing and his new home. The man happened to be the husband of interior designer Donna Maselli, who told Darryl she could probably help. Fifteen minutes later the Masellis’ doorbell rang, and Darryl said, “I think I need some help!”
From that little neighborly conversation in the Maselli’s entry-hall came a full-blown house facelift. They refinished the floors, from dark to bleached; painted the entire home; added carpet; and installed new kitchen counters, along with a Wolf stove, because Darryl loves to cook.
The biggest renovation was a new guesthouse converted from a very dank laundry room behind the house. Maselli also designed the entire back courtyard and turned it into a charming outdoor room joining the main house with the guesthouse.
A great and wonderful friendship developed between neighbors with many cocktails, bowls of gumbo (Darryl’s specialty) and oysters Mosca (Joe Maselli’s specialty).
Darryl and Dawnia wanted the house to reflect their lives and their Louisiana roots. There was a budget to be respected because after all this was a vacation home. Maselli respected this but said, “We must splurge on a few items to give the house gravitas and depth.”
Splurges included a beautiful antique tall cabinet in the dining room from Karla Katz. Maselli explains, “I just had a hunch it would work in the Willis’ dining area because it was narrow but could hold a lot of things.” She also found a beautiful little antique rustic desk/table at Shaun Smith. It cost more than the budget allowed, and Maselli looked at many other tables to try to save a little bit of money. Darryl loved the antique table and said to forget the cheaper alternatives and just get it. Maselli scored a great old pine dining table from a friend who was making a change, and this was the third important piece to anchor the look in the front area of the house. With those nice pieces intact Maselli could mix upholstered pieces from West Elm, a Julie Neill sofa and a sofa purchased online.
The blend continues in the master bedroom with wheat-colored grass cloth on the walls, and a raw silk matching headboard. Maselli has a knack for making the traditional look current. The Willises have a house in Martha’s Vineyard and had brought two black and white photos for the New Orleans home. They looked perfect with the textured grass cloth. Several iconic black and white photos from David Spielman were acquired, one of the giant oak tree at Audubon Park, which was also put in the master over the reading chair so Darryl could read “under a tree.”
A huge map of the world on the guest room wall reflects the many travels of this adventurous and successful family. It came in handy for both the contractor and designer. Shortly after they bought the house the Willises got transferred from Houston to Luanda, Angola (Africa) where BP has one of its largest operations globally. Darryl Willis is now president/general manager of their Angola operations. The world map was used to ascertain where Darryl would be during the renovations. He moved between Lisbon for Portuguese lessons (the language of Angola), and back and forth to the home office in London. Maselli says, “It’s the first time in a while I’ve had a client in so many time zones in the course of a couple of days. I always checked my iPhone to see what time Darryl would be calling me. Typical of his polite nature, it was usually a good time CST for me, but like 3 a.m. wherever he was!”
The light airy beachy feeling weaves a lovely story throughout the house from front to back. Colorful accessories and artwork punctuate a neutral palette. A few well-chosen antiques coexist with contemporary pieces. Darryl has the home on Audubon Street in New Orleans that he dreamed of as a boy.
Splurges included a beautiful antique tall cabinet from Karla Katz that fits the narrow dining room perfectly. Woven reed chairs are from Crate and Barrel. Donna Maselli found the table through a friend. A French-style chandelier and a seagrass rug from Modern Flooring complete the airy look.
Donna Maselli designed the iron bed.
An antique writing table sits in the entryway. Left: The guesthouse features a built-in bed and linens from Sotre, chairs and tables from West Elm, a rug from Modern Flooring and art by David Spielman.
Headboard from Lundy Ryan; pillows from Plum; rug from Dash and Albert; table and lamp from West Elm; ottoman from Haven Custom Furnishings
In the master bedroom, a raw silk custom headboard from Lundy Ryan and walls covered in grass cloth add texture.
The courtyard connects the main house to the guesthouse; both were completely redone and renovated.
The sunroom features a leather ottomon from Haven Custom Furnishings; a sofa from One King’s Lane and custom shutters from Louver Shop. Floral pillows from Katie Koch Home. Chevron pillow from West Elm.
The hallway features an antique chest and a tray with cocktail ingredients. African water vessels are displayed on Lucite pedestals from Bremermann Antiques to keep things looking fresh. Oushack runner from Nola Rugs; lamp from West Elm.