A recent escape to Palm Beach reminded me what a refreshing and unique place it is, especially when the thermostat is dipping here in New York. A visit to my clients’ recently finished home perfectly exemplified the Palm Beach spirit: effortlessly cheeky and stylish. I discovered this to be the modus operandi while working on my clients’ house, but I must add that there is a difference between cheekiness and frivolity, which became an important distinction for the design direction of this project and was dramatically evidenced by the recent fête hosted by my friends.
The clients had purchased a Louis XVI-style residence in St. Louis, a house that was beautiful and grand but conveyed a sense of seriousness. For their Palm Beach home, they wanted precisely the opposite: something formal but fresh feeling, a house that derived its esprit from a wide-ranging design intelligence, married to a tongue-in-cheek flare and suited to entertaining and having fun—Noel Coward updated to the 21st century.
For inspiration, one can mine Palm Beach history simply by strolling down Worth Avenue to see the North African-style latticework windows carved from marble and designed by the seminal South Florida architect Addison Mizner, whose Mediterranean revival works give the city its indelible character. Bone inlaid tables and colorful, patterned fabrics look wonderful in this town. Palm Beach style invites animal-skin-print fabrics such as faux zebra or leopard skin on their walls and carpets. Hand-painted Chinese wallpapers and white plaster sconces in the shape of horseshoe crabs are quite stunning especially against cool blues that feel as refreshing as a dip in the pool.
As you enter my clients’ home, you are greeted by a front door encased in a diagonal lattice of creeping Jasmine that displays a wonderful sense of formality along with a rich scent as you walk in. The entryway immediately establishes the tone with minimal elements. The space has a certain inherent drama, with the stairs sweeping up to the second floor and a large portal that opens into the living room. The staircase railing, once a serious blackened iron, is painted pure white—a flip touch that one can get away with only in Palm Beach! By hanging a white plaster Giacometti-style chandelier and flanking the portal with Klismos chairs covered in snakeskin, the mood swings to cocktail hour readiness.
The house has minimal outdoor space. So when throwing a very special birthday party, my hostess decided that she had to have something quite unique placed over the swimming pool that would allow for more seating for her guests. She called a company that provides party rentals and asked if they had ever covered a pool before. They replied casually, “Of course, madam, we do it all the time. In fact we usually cover pools with acrylic plexiglass so that you actually float above the pool.” Well this was the perfect solution for this spectacular celebration. Her invitations for the party simply said, “Dinner on the pool, please come at 6:30.”
With dozens of candlelit lanterns and hundreds of votive candles placed all about the pool top tables, the mesmerized diners feasted on canapés and caviar and champagne. Our hostess decided to go one step even further and chose a series of Louis XVI acrylic chairs, Philippe Stark’s ghost chairs, which seem to disappear above the glittering water. The guests were charmed and hypnotized by the fact that they could walk on the turquoise water and dance the night away after the midnight supper. The entire effect was magical. Ah, Palm Beach style, you just can’t keep them down.
How can you not embrace the wonderfully cheeky ostentation of Palm Beach? With enormous manicured hedges surrounding French châteaux and Italian palazzi, there is a disorienting juxtaposition of over-the-top formality with an informal climate. Similarly, the residents really put on the dog, but there’s a sense of humor to it, a chic, Slim Aarons-style lightness to go with all the Lilly Pulitzer. This duality carries over into the decorative milieu, which can swing from an elevated northern elegance dipped in white to colors that were not made by God. It is a land unto itself. And it always feels like a celebration.