Life's transitions can be difficult. But they can also peel away layers of individuality to reveal amazing inner strengths. As Abita Mullen was recovering from breast cancer, going through a divorce and relocating from Philadelphia to Sarasota, she decided to throw caution to the winds and decorate her new home in Three Oaks, an east Sarasota County subdivision, exactly as she wished. Her no-rules result is a happy mix of Puerto Rican art, Chinese painting and Mexican pottery in brilliant, living color.
The house was barely completed when Mullen first walked in, and the interior still smelled of fresh paint and new carpet. Somehow she saw past the generic lighting fixtures, white ceiling fans and blah-beige color scheme to a place with potential, where she could feel comfortable raising her teenage daughter. The size was right, and her existing furniture worked. "It was like trying on a wedding dress," smiles Mullen. "It just fit."
Interior designer Cheryl Elsbree helped Mullen move in, placing couches and coffee tables and, most importantly, listening to her client. "Abita is a survivor, and she is filled with laughter and joy," notes Elsbree. "The interior of the home was not a reflection of her personality when she arrived, so we started a list of things to change."
The first item on that list was the ugly drywalled hole in the family room, left unfinished by the builder so that the homeowner could opt for a fireplace or built-ins. Mullen selected cabinets custom-designed in rich, warm maple to house the television and conceal storage space for DVDs, stereo equipment and photo albums. A shelf above the cabinetry showcases an art collection from around the world.
Next, Elsbree tackled the monochromatic color scheme of kitchen and family room. She faux-painted the walls in caramel and gold and replaced the boring kitchen backsplash with shimmering glass tiles in amber, topaz, copper and bronze. "The glass reflects light and looks completely different when bathed in morning sun or evening candlelight," says Mullen. "I love the way it changes the look of the room." Builder-grade fixtures and a white ceiling fan were removed to make way for handsome iron and glass chandeliers, alabaster sconces, recessed ceiling lights and a heavy bronze fan.
Window treatments were an important element since the rooms have large expanses of glass windows and doors that face the pool and patio. Elsbree dressed the breakfast nook in a lined silk valance of bold blue, gold and russet squares in a colorful fabric, called "Confetti." The glass doors in the family room were framed with sumptuous velvet and silk panels in a rich stripe of salmon, russet and gold. "Typically, you hang window treatments a few inches above the window or door," explains Elsbree. "But we took these all the way to the ceiling because the high vault and sharp angles needed softening. The finished effect makes the room look much more airy and spacious."
At last, accessories were placed. Mullen's impressive art collection was the starting point. "She has some collectable porcelain, primitive painting on bark, interesting pottery and Asian painting on linen," explains Elsbree. She even mixed Mullen's own original pieces in with the décor. Mullen calls her work "therapy art"; it includes ceramic baskets, pots thrown on the wheel, painted candlesticks, clay masks and intricate mosaics of pebbles, sea glass and shells framed inside old windows.
"When I wished to place my Asian Buddha next to Mexican jugs, Cheryl did not bat an eye," laughs Mullen. "She even took me on a shopping adventure to find more. We came home with a miniature painted horse, a Tiffany-inspired lamp and a carload of wooden baskets. Everything means something to me, and I love it all."
Even Mullen's existing furniture settled easily into the new house, and according to Elsbree, that isn't usually the case. "It is always a design challenge when your client wants to keep all the old furniture," she explains. "When the sofa is shabby and the chairs and tables are outdated and worn, this can be a real downer." Happily, Mullen's things were classic in design and in excellent condition. And even though she left a four-story Colonial house in Philadelphia for her new Sarasota pool home, everything worked.
Elsbree says Mullen is the only client she ever had who selected colors and fabrics because they made her feel happy. And Mullen is convinced her emotional choices have improved her quality of life. "I transplanted myself and my daughter to Sarasota for healing, and I surrounded myself with beauty and color," she says. "It does make a difference. I look around and I love what I see."
Design by Cheryl Elsbree Interior Design; faux painting by Monica & Marco; cabinets by John Dalton Custom Cabinetry; light fixtures by Lighting Gallery; florals by Garden Creation.