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Designing Women

Seven of Charleston's most innovative and prolific interior designers open the doors to the places they call home. The result is a rare visual feast, an all-access tour into private rooms and personal spaces as eclectic and exciting as the visionary women who occupy them.

Their official and professional designation may be interior designers, but the work produced and exhibited by women like the seven Charleston-based tastemakers featured here is nothing if not outward-facing. On a daily basis, their job is to externalize, to create environments that are meant to be seen and experienced by real people and then shared. Every. Single. Day. And in a way that both reflects their clients’ preferences in the moment and also anticipates the way those predilections and spaces will evolve to suit tomorrow’s changing tastes. Their work requires the perfect mixture of subtlety and confidence, flexibility within a fixed mandate. It’s also what makes cultivating a place of one’s own all the more essential—for their own well-being, clarity of perspective and work-life balance. Which is why it’s so interesting to see how these arbiters of taste and vision apply their training and techniques at home, to their own spaces. To be a voyeur looking inward into the houses they’ve transformed into homes, retreats, places for respite, restoration, relaxation, inspiration, family events, solitude. How does someone whose job it is to create uniquely intimate spaces approach the same in their own lives? And what’s more, how does one do that in a place like Charleston, where the complexity of architectural styles, historical references, preservation and governance constraints, landscape variables and modern global influences is felt most acutely by the people who work within those confines on a daily basis? 

Charleston is famous for its charm, stylistic signatures and (often stereotypical) depictions of a uniform environment curtained in Spanish moss and historical importance. And, yet, beneath the city’s modest size and universal appeal, there remains more to its aesthetic potential than meets the eye. 

In this legacy landscape, where one encounters natural and man-made inspiration at every turn, the opportunities are virtually limitless. Beachfront clapboard homes buffered by stilts and smart updates. Historic residences that mix their core with modern references. Low-slung new build bungalows that conjure another coast altogether and refute the supremacy of mile-high ceilings and multi-floor piazzas. Rooms that blend books and unexpected builtins with dining spots and views of less formal lounging areas beyond. The spaces revealed on the following pages prove that in Charleston, there is room for all manner of style perspectives. But more importantly, they prove that home is where we make our strongest mark. It’s where we combine the familiar with the fantasy, maximize modern conveniences while also leveraging uniquely environmental elements, recognize natural beauty and make compromises based on our own terms, to preserve personality without pretension. 

These are the layers that true aesthetes, like these seven women, take particular pleasure in excavating and these are the questions that inform their own stories of what led them here in the first place. Each designer dove headfirst into an untapped reservoir of creativity, approaching her work with vigor while also falling in love with her surroundings on a deeper level via the individual dwellings, rooms, nooks and corners designed for reflection, transcendence and transportive experiences. 

ANGIE HRANOWSKY

Good things come to those who wait—or, in Angie Hranowsky’s case, to those who go into zen mode after finding the perfect plot of land and exercise extreme patience to create their dream home from the ground up. “I bought the lot way before I got the elements together to actually start on the house,” Angie says. “In hindsight, though, it was the only way it could have happened. I grew up in old houses and love old houses,” she continues, “but I had definitely taken a turn toward modernism when I lived in Miami before settling in Charleston, and the way this place evolved gave me time to come around to the idea of a new build.” The result is an Old Windermere bungalow that is unlike its more traditional neighbors, yet completely fits in—a credit to Angie’s strong individual style, which anchors bold forms and bright colors with low-key architecture and natural materials. “This house probably belongs somewhere more remote, like on Johns Island,” she says, “but I’m a people person—half-introvert, half-extrovert— and I wanted to be surrounded.” Her single-story spread manages to hide in plain sight while also maximizing the panorama of its street-facing, mostly glass façade and deep extended porch. Inside, the primary space is awash in natural light and defined by groupings of furniture, smart transitions and intentional nooks for moments of respite. There’s a brilliant kitchen featuring custom tiles in a sunny geometric pattern (shapes are a design hallmark, a creative throwback to her previous career as a graphic designer). An adjacent dining area showcases a light fixture pinned with family photos; beyond that, an airy living space runs the remaining length of the open floor plan. Each “room” flows effortlessly into the next while maintaining its own unique vibe—no walls required. It’s all very public yet also supremely personal. “Everything in this house is special to me,” Angie says. “There are pieces from Morocco, Miami, all my travels, even my front door was inspired by a Luis Barragán house I saw in Mexico. I like sharing that, but at the end of the day, what I really love is that it’s mine.” 

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AMELIA HANDEGAN

Amelia Handegan is a true original and one of our first collaborators. As an interior designer, she has not only pioneered the way for other women to blaze a trail in the industry, but she has also introduced Charleston to the world as more than an historic touchstone by invigorating the Lowcountry aesthetic with a dose of modernism. Along the way, she has inspired us all, and her personal residences reflect her ability to balance inventiveness, technique and quality with individual expression. Her South of Broad flat features, among other unique elements, a bedchamber and a gallery’s worth of art and textiles—all contained in the tweakedjust- right proportions of the downtown space. Farther out, along an oceanfront stretch of Folly Beach, Amelia applies the same personality and detail to the reimagined saltbox she and her husband bought ten years ago: a glassed-in sleeping porch serves as an oceanfront lookout for grandchildren; a screened-in space on the deck overlooking the garden creates an area for totems, talismans and art projects; interior nooks and stairwells house collectibles such as vintage Jantzen bathing suit mannequins; and a reimagined widow’s walk leads to her husband’s home office in the sky like some new age rooftop dog trot. In Amelia’s world, everything is interesting and nothing is off limits. “I’m not fancy,” she says. “People think I’m intimidating, but I’m not. I’m just shy...except at home.” 

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KATE TOWILL

Kate Towill is a long way from her life in New York City, but she has never felt more at home. “You sure needed vision to appreciate it,” she says of the 1960s ranch house she has been renovating for her expanding family for the past year. “It’s two blocks from the beach on the Isle of Palms, tucked back on a great jungle-y lot with a huge winding oak tree covered in fern,” Kate says. “We knew we could create something we would love.” It’s a fitting idyll for recharging from an otherwise jam-packed life. As one half of Basic Projects, the firm she and her chef/restaurateur/hospitality industry veteran husband, Ben, launched a few years ago after relocating to Charleston from New York City, Kate has applied her training as a set designer for the likes of Wes Anderson to interior and commercial design projects on two continents, including restaurants, hotels and two resurrected old school inns anchored by taverns, one in Charleston and the other in Ben’s native Cornwall, England. The kitchen and dining area are the center of life at home, as well. “Heather Wilson, our fantastic architect, said something to me early on that I’ll always remember and that I now pass on to clients: ‘Put your money in the area you spend the most time and let the other parts come later.’ And I’m so happy we listened to her. Being in my kitchen makes me so happy,” Kate continues, “starting when I wake up and the light is intense and bright or at night when I’m cooking with the music going. It’s my little heaven.” 

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ALLISON ABNEY

For Allison Abney it all started with textiles. “My mother made all of my dresses when I was growing up,” she says, “and even then I was selecting the fabrics I wanted her to use.” As she got older, that nascent vision matured into a more holistic approach to design, which spanned from handbags to, eventually, interiors. Now, through her work in the Abney & Morton firm she cofounded with Boo Morton, she focuses on bringing out her clients’ inner eye through spaces that eschew novelty or excess in favor of authentic personality. That streamlined philosophy extends to her own home, as well, which is located on Allan Park, a tucked-away gem just south of the Olmsted-designed Hampton Park that is more redolent of Savannah’s lush squares than Charleston’s greenways lined with live oaks and cobblestones. “When we bought this house in 2006, it was just my husband, me and our dog,” Allison says. “Instead of looking for houses and starting our search that way, we looked for neighborhoods and then watched for houses to become available. Hampton Park Terrace spoke to us immediately for its architectural diversity, which is rare downtown. The homes are a collection of Freedman’s cottages, Craftsman and Prairie-style houses, American Foursquares, Colonial Revivals, bungalows.” Having kids pushed the timeline back for a planned renovation, which they completed in 2018. “I always knew what I wanted—because I always know what I like, which is why I can recognize what my clients are drawn to, even when they don’t see it for themselves right away. We brought that vision to life finally: we shifted the dining, bedroom and guest room layouts; replaced the galley kitchen; and really maximized the communal places where we can all come together to look out on the neighborhood we love and appreciate.” The expanded kitchen is by far her favorite space. “Honestly? It’s everything I ever wanted,” she says. “It’s a little bit crisp black and white, a little bit country and definitely the place we all converge throughout the day.” 

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JEN LANGSTON

Some people have outdoor showers. Jen Langston has an outdoor tub. “It’s my version of a hot tub,” she says, “and my friends and I all treat it as such. We pile in and have a grand old time.” That anecdote pretty much sums up Jen’s approach to design—and life. “I love adventure and experimentation,” Jen declares, “especially in my own home.” Every room in her 2200-square-foot, two-structure compound on Johns Island features pieces from a different country, mementos of her constant trips and travels. Resplendent green Moroccan tiles. Silks from India and the Far East. Relics from a carefree youth spent trolling Bahamian waters with her farmer-fisherman father. “I was the son he never had,” Jen says, “and while I love beautiful things and elegance and sophistication—because, don’t get me wrong, I love luxury—I also think the height of chic is having everything so perfect it comes across as just normal and right.” That’s not to say basic, though, because one look at her signature blend of balanced maximalist minimalism and it’s clear she and her work are anything but. “My greatest fear is that anyone feels like their spaces, or my own, reek of pretense or a lack of authenticity,” Jen says. “Being contrived is the greatest sin.” 

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CORTNEY BISHOP

To paraphrase an old adage, if the kitchen is the heart of the home, then the space adjacent to it is the lifeblood that keeps the family beating. Or, at least, that’s how it feels in Cortney Bishop’s recently renovated communal nook, located within a space just off to the side of an open plan cooking and dining area in her modern home on Sullivan’s Island. “This is where we all inevitably end up at all hours of the day,” Cortney says, “sometimes together and sometimes alone. We catch up on whatever happened during the day or week, pull out a board game, read, eat a meal on our laps or just enjoy the silence.” It’s not a traditional beach house, but it speaks to Cortney’s interpretation of the refined Sullivan’s Island aesthetic, and contains enough winks to the coastal lifestyle to reflect both a sense of the place and the people who live there. In the cozy corner where Cortney prefers to curl up and relax, there’s a fireplace surrounded by custom tiles, a surfboard and Native American treasures. There’s a view of the pool in one direction and the bustle of the kitchen in the other, but it’s also the kind of space that, though small, can absorb plenty of attention on its own. “We don’t just live in this room,” Cortney says. “We live for this room. It’s our spot— and each of us possesses it in our own individual ways.” 

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TAMMY CONNOR

Just across the Ashley River, in The Crescent, Tammy Connor set about gutting and reimagining a patinaed Georgian house that would bring her joy and stand up to the pressure of a full-throttle family. “We moved to Charleston from Birmingham around four and a half years ago,” she explains, “spent two years finding this place and 16 months toppling it down and then building it back up.” The guiding vision behind the renovation was driven by her personal tastes, no doubt, but something deeper and more elemental also factored into the project: her children. “I knew one thing from the beginning,” she says, “and it has informed every decision I’ve made since we moved: This house had to be a place for all of us, not just for me. It had to be home.” In addition to structural work, such as adding a chimney, reworking the electrical and plumbing systems and resizing or replacing each of the original 54 windows and doors, Tammy focused on creating interior spaces that optimized functionality without sacrificing beauty. The dining room doubles as a library to house her collection of design books, plus a few built-in quirks such as a candle shelf for dinner party illumination. (The floor plan of the entire back half of the house was shifted to create an expansive space for gathering, entertaining friends and enjoying the view of the pool and terrace beyond.) The effect is less one of concessions and more a thoughtful nod to edited traditionalism with multigenerational appeal. “It’s about the texture of everyday life,” Tammy says, “and creating a place for everything and everyone in it.” 

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