The Script: Classic Elegance
Photography By Alise O’Brien
“The client is the script,” according to interior designer Marshall Watson. He may not live in St. Louis, but his connections have deep roots, and bring him to the area monthly. A Kansas City native, he’s worked in more than 20 St. Louis homes, including a stunning Ladue home, built originally in the 1920s by the esteemed architect George Hellmuth.
The homeowner says it was intended to be a country home for duck hunting, and was the first Hellmuth home to be built outside of the Central West End. She is the third owner since then. “We’ve all kind of done our little things with it although the house is just about exactly the same as when it was built. So we’ve added some light fixtures and upgraded the bathrooms but really we’ve been keeping with the style of the 1920s.”
Watson adds, “I tried to get out of the way of decorating. The house was so beautiful in and of itself. It was just all you needed in that house was to reveal the bones- you didn’t want to clutter it up too much.”
Despite being surrounded present day by suburbia, the property itself is still very much a countryside. Even though trees were moved to help create a front entrance and terrace designed by the late Brooks Critchfield, there are still foxes, raccoons, even geese across the eight acres, but also a pool and pool house, tennis court, extensive gardens by Rand Rosenthal Design, and then of course the classical elegance of the living space: 9,000 square feet total, including the 3,000 in the basement.
The living room is where the homeowner enjoys entertaining, reading, holding meetings and relaxing. Watson says, “These were originally called living rooms and they’re meant to be lived in. We had this beautiful oak paneling that we restored and we actually added on to some of the paneling in there and it has a warm cozy wintery feel to it. It’s a room that you can really snuggle up in.”
The kitchen’s breakfast room was also converted into a cozy area with creative refrigeration built into the cabinets. It was originally a kitchen and two bedrooms for the housekeepers, but the previous homeowners changed it into a rectangular shaped kitchen and an office and a breakfast room. Watson says, “A lot of people think if you have a big family you have to have lots and lots of space but I find that people really gravitate toward smaller cozier spaces, they don’t want big enormous rooms that they can’t feel comfortable and burrowed into- they want to sit down and read a book.”
Watson has a passion for researching the homes he designs in terms of how the owners live, the architecture where the project is and the location and culture surrounding the area.
“Marshall has a style that’s all his own, he loves symmetry and his forte is sense of proportion and scale and historical reference, and he takes that with him wherever he goes. So if he’s in St. Louis, he’s in St. Louis, if he’s in Mexico he is tapping into Mexican culture and design ideas. It’s not like you have the same looking house wherever you go- you have a house that is in keeping with its area and its culture.”
Watson brought in Judy Mulligan from New York for stenciling in the entryway, along with a curtain maker who has worked with him for 30 years. Mulligan’s husband was commissioned to do a mural of Lake Como in the homeowner’s bedroom which also features a Trumeau mirror over the French fireplace.
The homeowner first met Watson at an arts and antiques show in the 90s, and now calls him one of her dearest friends. Watson says he has been fortunate in his career of more than 30 years, having worked with clients in Sweden, California, Hawaii, New York, Kansas City, Palm Beach and Mexico. He has a furniture collection and his own outdoor rug line. He lists nearby Moehsmer Upholstering as the best in the country, along with Theiss Plating and iron monger Don Asbee who replicated lanterns and the iron within the Ladue home. He also loves working with contractor Steve McMillan.
Trained in theater and theater design, Watson states, “You don’t design a Neil Simon comedy like a Chekhov play, you’re taught that you have to really understand the period of the location, the script of your client, you have to understand the locale: I have to understand St. Louis, I have to know what kind of craftsmanship went into it before in order to realize and expand on that. The client is the script.”
Marshall Watson, author of The Art of Elegance: Classic Interiors, designs without a personal signature. He says, “I absent myself in the greatest possible extent so that each project is about realizing and refining my client’s most heartfelt fantasy.”