Serenity by design
With her children grown, Neetsy Walker is able to focus her professional design skills on her own home, and she has created a tranquil, elegant retreat with an artful blend of antiques and modern pieces.
On a warm spring day, along a quiet street in Hammond, the white mission-style house where designer Neetsy Walker and her husband, Johnny, a family physician, raised their three children and still live is the picture of an idyllic life. Situated serenely on nearly an acre of land with huge live oaks and lush fuchsia azaleas, the home features the soothing sound of a trickling fountain; a deep, comfortable porch; and a front entrance canopied with a pair of sweet olives in full, fragrant bloom. It only gets better inside.
That’s where you find Neetsy’s strong look –– a clean, casual blend of periods and styles, whites and neutrals, organic materials and sculptural shapes, all illuminated with an abundance of natural light and pleasing from multiple vantage points. It’s easy to see why shelter magazines, local and national, have published her work over the years and why her business is thriving.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Neetsy says, referring to her love of interior decorating, an innate ability that started as a hobby. She honed her skills over the years by taking art and interior design courses; selling Louisiana primitive furniture; and co-owning Layrisson-Walker Antiques, a Ponchatoula store devoted to antiques and vintage decorative wares that she and her former partner, Celeste Layrisson, ran for 10 years.
“I spent a lot of time giving people advice on how to mix different styles and how to incorporate things inherited from their families,” she says. “Then a friend hired me to do what I’d been doing as a favor for family and friends.” She’s been in business as Neetsy Walker Designs ever since.
The Walkers’ house, which they purchased 20 years ago after living in a more rural area, has been a kind of laboratory for Neetsy –– not to mention a great advertisement for her skills. The renovation, which was thoughtfully planned out for a year before it was actually begun, took the interior down to the studs and transformed a dark Arts and Crafts house heavy with Victorian furniture into a spacious, light-filled residence with bleached floors and broad, open views.
The goal of the remodel was to respect the house’s mission architecture while updating it with a lighter modern-day hand and creating functional spaces that would withstand the test of time. “I really think that function is as important as aesthetics,” Neetsy says. To take full advantage of the porch, the Walkers flipped the downstairs floor plan so that the kitchen, one of the most lived-in rooms of any house, overlooks and opens onto the porch. Neetsy made the kitchen “less kitcheny” by creating a 10-foot frosted-glass-front cabinet that looks like it’s free-standing instead of using overhead cabinets and by including a seating area at one end of the room. She removed doorways and enlarged and aligned passageways so that spaces flow openly and views of the outdoors can be seen from more than one room. And she created a livable environment by using durable materials such as hardwood floors, FLOR rug tiles and bleachable white denim. Because she easily tires of the more changeable, inexpensive elements of a room, she often adds, subtracts and moves things around to give a fresh take to her surroundings, an inclination made possible by the fact that she used a unifying palette of flexible, neutral colors and that she knows what things work for her.
“I prefer to add interest not with a lot of pattern and color but with contrasting shapes, scale, textures, materials and periods of furniture: a rough honed stone and a smooth lacquered desk, light and dark, silk and sisal,” she says. “I also like to use large, sculptural, tropical plantings from my yard and white flower garden. The oversize leaves in a vase are a simple way to vary the scale and height in a space.”
A French photographer once told her, “You should never buy anything you don’t love to look at or touch,” and Neetsy, who appreciates the lines and tactile qualities of such everyday objects as bowls, baskets and vases as much as she does big-ticket items such as furniture and lighting, wholeheartedly agrees. She is fond of grouping such things to give them importance, and in another life, she says, she might like to design them.
Evidence that good design can be found in every era and at every price point exists throughout the house. There are antiques handed down from Neetsy’s family and pieces found at favorite local resources such as Interior Designs Inc., Bush Antiques, Tara Shaw and UDwell in New Orleans; the former Villa Vici and Home and Garden, A Plant Gallery Store, in Covington; and Fireside Antiques in Baton Rouge blended with items from high-end designer names such as Donghia and Holly Hunt and selections from internationally known retail giants such as IKEA, the Conran Shop, Design Within Reach and West Elm.
“I also go to the Houston and Dallas showrooms a lot, and I spend a lot of time in New York City because two of my children live there,” Neetsy says. “And I am constantly looking at design Web sites. I have a long list of favorites.”
At the same time, Neetsy strongly believes in helping clients find ways to use what they already have, whether that means painting a piece, waxing it to bring out the patina of the wood, shifting it to another spot or pairing it with something completely unexpected, and she says that successfully updating a space doesn’t always require buying a lot of new things.
The effect is clean and simple but also evolved over time and presented with a stylist’s detail-oriented eye. “I don’t buy impulsively,” Neetsy says. “Most people don’t have the patience to do that. If it’s something I’ve loved forever, it’s a sure purchase, but otherwise I don’t want to make a mistake. I want things to stay interesting and relevant to me over time.”
The approach, a combination of investing in pieces that have longevity while also reworking things when she grows restless, has worked. Although the Walker residence has evolved from a busy family home with three children to a quiet empty nest, Neetsy still enjoys the views that lead from one room to the next, the way that patches of sunshine are reflected across the floor and the vignettes she’s artfully arranged.
“That’s what I love about this house,” Neetsy says. “After 20 years, it still works.”
Neetsy’s Top 10 tips for updating a room/home without having to buy much:
1. Clean up the space, declutter and organize closets and cabinets. Give away what you do not love or use. Combine like objects on bookcases, windowsills, etc.
2. Hide ugly wiring behind file cabinets or baskets that can hold office supplies. Use inexpensive but attractive containers such as boxes, baskets and ottomans with storage to organize piles or children’s toys. There are tons of good choices in discount stores. Put the ugliest items behind closed doors.
3. Repair and maintain existing furniture. A client had an awesome walnut bed that had not been waxed in 15 years. I spent an hour rubbing on Briwax in a dark stain that hid all of the nicks and scratches and brought out the wood and shape of the bed. It looked 10,000 percent better.
4. Create a new function for a space or furniture that is not being used to its full potential. I will make an unused dining room into a study, library or office, or I bring outdoor furniture inside or vice versa. I pull furniture away from the walls, and arrange it on the diagonal to update a room.
5. Create architecture where there isn’t any by painting or wallpapering differently one wall, bookcase or fireplace wall to create a focal point and add depth to space, or use different tones of one paint color. I never “match” anything perfectly. It’s too static.
6. Mix types of furniture, styles, scale, texture, shapes, contrasting materials, finishes, hard/soft to the touch, etc. You can do this with inexpensive everyday objects such as pillows, flowers, artwork, rocks, branches, throws, vases and fruit.
7. If the room is too busy, put away or rotate objects to give more visual impact to a few favorites. Visually strong shapes and pieces from other cultures add interest. Make every piece count. Less is more.
8. Vary the heights and scale of furniture and accessories in a space so that they play against one another.
9. Move seating areas, eating areas or desks closest to the natural light, and vary the types of lighting. A rheostat allows you to alter lighting for a warm or cool effect.
10. A well-designed home should look great as well as help you move efficiently through your day. It should not cause you stress over maintaining the look. So be realistic about what style of home will work best for you.