The exterior of Steve and Suzanne Dumez's century-old center hall cottage gives no hint of the modernist renovation that lies within. Built in a simple, Greek Revival style with a columned porch, manicured hedges and iron fence, it's a classic architectural example of its era (circa 1910) and its Uptown address.
The first hint of the Dumez's love for modernism comes as you enter. There, the contrast between the ebonized floors and white walls makes an immediate impact, and as you travel toward the rear, the house reveals a thoroughly contemporary design scheme rooted firmly in modernism.
The Dumez's previous home, a triangular, brick warehouse in the Lower Garden District they'd renovated with a sleek, minimalist interior, was not designed for kids. When Suzanne found the cottage, she and Steve knew it was better suited to their growing family.
"Basically, it had good bones and was something we knew we would eventually renovate," says Suzanne, the vice president of business development for AOS, the local Knoll furniture dealer. "Steve thought that a center hall would be the perfect house."
"I always loved the way a center hall tends to flow, the arrangement of the rooms," says Steve, director of design with Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, a local architecture firm best known for large-scale civic and institutional projects. "In this house, the front had the characteristics of a center hall, but the back had been chopped up, and it was non-historic enough that you didn't feel guilty gutting it. The kitchen was from the '70s and the bathrooms needed updating."
With their second child on the way, the couple had little time to remodel. So they used the next five years to explore their design options. According to Suzanne, Steve drew something near 35 variations of plans for the house, and in 2011 the family moved out so the transformation they agreed on could finally be made.
"Living in the house was important because it allowed us to understand what worked and what didn't, what we wanted to change," Steve says.
The result is a house with a wide-open feel, views of the backyard and pool and plenty of natural light and clean surfaces — a perfect backdrop for the couples' collection of modern furniture and art. "In almost every house we have visited in New Orleans, everyone lives in the back, no one lives in the whole thing," Suzanne says. "We wanted to create a house where we used every square inch of living space."
Downstairs, the footprint changed only minimally. A portion of the driveway was used to add a rear entrance and utility room, and a small amount of the back yard was incorporated into a large, spa-inspired master bath. The entire ground floor was reconfigured, however, and careful consideration was given to the way the house progressed from traditional to modern.
"We kept the front of the house very much the way we found it," Steve says. "The proportion of the front rooms is similar to how they were when we bought the house, and we used the original trim and doors. As you move through the center hall, that forms the transition to the back. From that point the house opens up and connects to the backyard."
In addition to being visually connected to the back yard, the house is literally connected to the pool as well. Dumez designed the master bath so that by opening a glass door, you can step directly from the tub into a pool built at the same level. It is one of the house's unique features.
The staircase that leads from the front hall toward the house's rear guides the flow toward the kitchen and central living area and to the second floor, which overlooks them. Sided with horizontal sapele hardwood slats, it forms a kind of bridge, from which the kids — Andre, 9, and Coco, 6 — love to call down to their parents. Coco uses the bridge as an elevated fashion runway for impromptu dress-up parties. The remainder of the first floor includes a master suite with a his-and-hers dressing room, an office and a guest room with a private bath. Most of the new square footage was gained by creating a modified camelback, which is home to the kids' rooms and bath, a second laundry room and a play area where the family gathers to
The process of collecting furniture and art began a decade ago when the couple married. "We decided early on that we have to agree on things," says Suzanne, who shares with her husband an appreciation for modern design and contemporary art by local artists. "We've been pretty deliberate over the years. We buy pieces that we love now and hopefully in 10 or 20 years, we'll still love."
Iconic modernist furnishings in the Dumez home include Eero Saarinen's dining chairs, womb chair and dining table, two Knoll Barcelona chairs, an Eames lounge chair and ottoman, and a set of vintage Series 7 chairs by Arne Jacobsen. Steve designed the master bedroom's built-in bed with wall-to-wall headboard, the living room's steel hearth that doubles as guest seating and the dining room's teak table.
"There's still plenty we have in our heads," Steve says. "You fill the space, then you realize there's this chair you love and you have to find a space for that."
"Eventually, we're going to have to rotate things out," Suzanne adds. "We love to collect but we try to do it in a minimal way."
One thing that helps the couple keep house's look minimal — even with two young children — is that the renovation included plenty of storage. Solid wood panels in the living room conceal two doors (one an entryway to the master bedroom and the other storage for the kitchen) while lacquered MDF panels in the kitchen hide rows of cabinets.
"If it's at eye level, I always try to minimize the hardware so it's not part of your main gaze," Steve says. "It helps create the illusion that there's no storage there. The kitchen cabinets go from floor to ceiling and are integrated into a wall that runs all the way into the living room. It looks more like a paneled wall treatment and less like a series of cabinets."
Having completed a major renovation that was years in the making and settled on a plan of patiently collecting over the long term, the homeowners now prefer projects they can enjoy right away, such as entertaining small groups and cooking.
"As an architect, projects take so long to complete," Steve says. "Cooking is instant gratification."