This was the job to die for," interior designer Shawn O'Brien says of her work on retired publishing executive Bill Metcalf's Garden District cottage. "It was really a crazy twist of fate when Bill told me what he wanted, because it just happened to be a favorite look of mine. I do all kinds of looks, and really no one job of mine ever looks anything like any other job. ... But this was such a change of pace that it made every decision, even the itty-bitty, potentially tedious ones, a joy."
Three years ago, when Metcalf bought the property he now shares with fiancee Cindy Chassaniol, he intended to make only cosmetic changes to the 100-year-old house, which had been renovated by the previous owner. But as he and O'Brien began work on the design, he decided to start over almost from scratch.
Having spent 26 years in publishing — he founded New Orleans CityBusiness, New Orleans Publishing Group and MC Media, a publishing company that consisting of five well-known local and regional publications and two radio stations when he sold it in 2007 — Metcalf was newly single, enjoying his retirement and ready to set a new course.
"We started off thinking we were going to do cosmetic things, but Bill would say, 'You know what, let's just gut the kitchen,'" O'Brien says. "So it evolved into a soup-to-nuts renovation."
With the freedom a fresh start allowed, the designer and client used Metcalf's passions for boating, the beach and contemporary art as points on their compass.
"I've always loved the water," Metcalf says. "I wanted to be able to feel like I was in Destin (Fla.) when I'm in New Orleans — a quiet, beachy cottage. I also wanted the house to have an art gallery feel. The art is the hero in this setting. Everything is designed to support the pieces that are around the house. I want the eye on the art."
Having already bought and renovated a vacation home in Utah with a heavy-timbered, mountain look, Metcalf wanted his New Orleans abode to be equally relaxing but entirely different. "I knew I had to find a great decorator," he says. "Shawn is a real jewel. She's got an unbelievable eye. She can conceive of things before they exist, and color is a big part of that. She picked every color in this house. But when you have a project with Shawn, it's still your house and not Shawn's house. I wanted to make my own style, and when I met Shawn that's exactly what she said — 'This is your house, so you tell me what you want.'"
O'Brien echoes the collaboration was easy and in sync, crediting Metcalf with being as decisive as he was enthusiastic. "I would only show him things once, and he inevitably knew every time what he liked," she says. The two agreed about most things and on the rare occasion that they did not, Metcalf generally deferred to her experience.
A designer for 18 years, O'Brien is particularly fond of fabrics. With designer Heidi Friedler, she has amassed a library with tens of thousands of samples. Her refreshing use of fabrics and color runs throughout the house, giving it seamless continuity and an airy serenity that belies the art's exuberance.
"It all works because it flows, and there's the common thread of the blue color," says O'Brien, referring to the watery hues Metcalf requested. "I didn't decorate around the art or pick colors based on art. We created a clean backdrop for whatever Bill collects over the years. We made the rooms look the way we thought they should look and then placed the art once that was done."
O'Brien chose pale neutrals for the walls, trim and floors, which were bleached, then heavily pickled. The bedroom and living/dining room ceilings are painted with pale shades of aqua. Cool casual linens and cottons cover the windows and furnishings, and azure tiles used in the kitchen and master bath reference the sea.
"I chose the tile in the shower because it's the color of the Caribbean," Metcalf says. But there is not a single hackneyed reference to seashells, boats or beaches anywhere in the house. Both the giant, newspaper-wrapped fish perched in the living room and the compass mounted in the foyer's floor are unusual conversation pieces. The fish, is a memento of Metcalf's lengthy publishing career; the compass, a sentimental reminder of what's important in life. A gift from a friend, it faces true north so residents of the house never lose their way. "Every single piece of art in the house has a story behind it," Metcalf says. "I can tell you how each piece was acquired and what it said to me at that time."
At home, Metcalf and Chassaniol, a senior vice president with Merrill Lynch, spend most of their time in the house's front rooms, where abundant natural light helps showcase the art and the organic marine colors. "The natural light is one of the things that attracted me to the house, especially in the mornings," says Metcalf, who finally has time to sit back and enjoy the view. "This is a happy house," he says. " I walk into the house and it makes me smile."