Austin-based interior designer Fern Santini on reinventing the spec house with her wildly successful full-house project Meadowbank—plus, lessons on the power of creative collaboration and the simple pleasure of a sublime soufflé.
First off, Meadowbank…wow! What a project!
My God it was so fun. Talk about a labor of love. Meadowbank was a total passion project, and I hope I do a whole bunch more like it. That’s the plan, at least.
Was that always the plan? Even before you knew Meadowbank was going to be such a success?
Well, no...yes? I guess I just wasn’t ever sure enough or brave enough to expect it to be what I thought it would be, or could be. I mean, about halfway through I told my sister, ‘Have I just bought my own bullshit? Or is this actually as great as I think it is?’ Because you always run that risk, right? I totally believed in it, and I could see it in my head. But then when it truly came together, even as I was trying to wrap a whole bunch of things and people into one uncharted business model, it was pretty wild. People in our world don't normally do it like we did; they go build a house and then they sell it. Now, obviously, Meadowbank wasn’t the traditional spec house, but from the standpoint of its not being built for any one individual, it kind of was. And yet, even though it was being built to sell on spec, we didn’t build it that way. Instead, we approached it like we would for a client—only we were the clients.
So what spawned the idea for you? Where did the inspiration for this new kind of model come from?
I thought it was an opportunity to put our moral, business and life philosophies all together in one package. I worked at the high end of the design market for my entire career, thank heavens, but I’ve never had a project where someone told me to just do my own thing. And so on Meadowbank, if we had gone to a client and said, ‘You know, we think we want this double ellipses staircase with a catwalk on the second floor and that’s how you get from one side to the other,’ I seriously doubt anyone would have said, “Sure, okay. Go for it.” It's just too hard for most people to visualize operating that way. And because it’s not something people are used to, or how projects happen normally, a lot of times you miss things that you so wish you could have done, or lose opportunities due to budget constraints or because, honestly, someone just couldn’t see the big picture.
And Meadowbank was a way to circumvent that.
Right. It was an opportunity for us to just go crazy creatively while still being mindful of the budget. We spent a lot of money, but we had to spend it wisely—most of it was my own investment so I was really conscious of that. And because we were building Meadowbank to have long legs, and focusing heavily on integrity, we spent a lot on things that you can't see. For instance, we had the HVAC mechanically engineered by [in my opinion] the best company in the United States. They believe in clean air quality, so it's a state-of-the-art Mitsubishi system with dehumidifiers built-in and all that. It's just the kind of thing that people don't do when they're selling something, right?
So how did you create a business model that supported those high standards and your own overall design goals?
Our approach was really this: What would you do if you were trying to come up with a model that would allow you to put something out there that everybody could understand and see value in, but also run it as a business. Because this is not a charity. We’re most definitely trying to make money, and this is my living—I mortgaged my office to buy the furniture. And I’m almost 65, so if this went south I knew I’d be in big trouble. And then last year, when COVID-19 hit and I had to send everybody home, we had to adjust to working on this from home for a year. Plus, the week before everything shut down, I had been in Houston with one of my favorite antique dealers and bought that Gio Ponti desk for the home office, which was 16 grand. My sister was like, “What are you doing!” And I’m like, “What am I doing?’ But it just had to be in there and even though circumstances changed, I knew we couldn’t just quit—we were too far in. So we sat there on pins and needles, moving forward and hoping for the best, and it just so happened that the real estate market everywhere went berserk. And Austin, in particular, went berserk. So we were fine, and I think we'll be fine on all the rest of them.
But, to answer your initial question, what we were trying to do was come up with a concept where we could show people a new way to approach this whole concept. Yes, this is a business, but it’s not the normal way business is done, and that’s ok. Let’s use this to create a new dialogue around how we do business. Can we think about it differently? Can we have a generosity of spirit and a focus on collaboration and quality and still have it be a win-win for every person involved and all make money? And what I realized is that, yes, it is possible, especially if you're willing to spend the extra time on the partner aspect to bring in the right people and ensure everyone gets credit and acknowledgement for their contributions.
You are uncommonly generous when it comes to creative collaboration and sharing credit. Where does that come from?
It’s kind of a three-prong approach for me: You put a team together, and because those people are great at what they do and share your general philosophies, you also know they want and deserve a higher wage. Then, you respect all of those great players—landscape architects, architect, builder, us, everybody—and ensure they get paid and credited for their work. Again, this was a hobby and an experiment for me—nobody did this because they owed me a favor. The second part was bringing in project partners that were part-national and part-local to us here in Austin. Urban Electric was a big part of this, 1stdibs, Kyle Bunting, Janus et Cie, Ann Sacks, so many great partners. So there were major players on the national stage but also major players in our local market. The third part was really channeling everyone’s creativity. I’ve always said that you can’t sit around and imagine you’re the only one with great taste. That’s really boring, and magic doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You have to bounce ideas off of other people. And that doesn’t always happen in our industry.
What accounts for that, do you think?
Well, it’s not hard to be totally honest with clients about what things cost, especially when you’re working with high standards and wanting to bring in like-minded project partners. The second part is that people don't want to give away their resources because then those vendors and/or pieces become harder to get to and cost more money as a result. For me, I'm like, ‘That's exactly the way it should be. That's the American dream, right?’
I charge more today than I did thirty years ago. Why should the American dream be for me, the designer, or you, the homeowner, but not for the person who made the desk upstairs, you know? Sure, it costs more to operate that way, but it’s worth every dime. And every artist that worked on that building has gotten work off of the project, and some of them have gotten numerous commissions off of whatever piece they had in there.
What about the philanthropic part of the project? Why was it so important to support musicians?
I truly believe in paying it forward. I started out with nothing and I've built my business over thirty years, but I've been incredibly lucky and had so many breaks. So it was always important to incorporate a non-profit beneficiary into the business model for each Meadowbank-type project. That way, you not only raise money and awareness for artists and a new kind of business model, but also support groups that need the attention we can bring—especially given that we’re often inundated with new people moving into town in our industry. Most people want to be part of the community. They want to contribute and they don't necessarily know about all the groups that are out there that need us, so education is definitely part of our goal.
And the music angle—was that inspired by Austin in general, or something more personal?
This whole house was about music but it was not music-themed. My mom loves music, so it was always on level 10 in the house when I was growing up, no matter what we were doing. She was a music nut, and I'm so grateful for that exposure. With Meadowbank, we were trying to show people that music is a big part of living in this town. It feeds your soul and it makes you intellectually curious. When it came time to choose a cause-based organization, we loved Health Alliance for Austin, which provides affordable health insurance to musicians. We gave them $200,000 off the proceeds of the sale of the house. We also raised $15,000 in one day when we had the open house.
We are all in this together and we all do better when we all do better, you know? That’s why I truly want and hope that other people will take this model and apply it to their work in other cities. Meadowbank was just the inaugural project—hopefully we're all going to be doing more of this for a long time to come.
If you could eat one thing from a restaurant for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Oh, easy! Soufflé! Any kind of soufflé.
What color can you not stand?
Probably pale peach. That goes back to my childhood, when my mom went through this whole pale peach and aqua phase in the early seventies.
On the flip side, is there one color that you can’t live without?
It seems like I always have some version of an olive green—in my own house, in my wardrobe and, also in everyone else's that I’ve done. Some have more brown in them, some have more gray, but I love complex colors like that. The media room at Meadowbank is a great example, too—all the walls are in dark tones with a damask pattern. And the paint color that we put with that is called Dragon's Breath from Benjamin Moore. I used the same color in the kitchen during another project. It changes color with the light throughout the day.
What about a signature pattern or texture?
I love leopard silk velvet. It never goes out of style. I had an architect once tell me that it was “too trendy.” And I'm like, ‘Um, it wasn't trendy when Chanel covered her sofas in it in Paris in the early-1930s. It wasn't trendy when Jackie Kennedy covered a White House sofa in it with Billy Baldwin in 1961.’ It just kind of reinvents itself every time. Total neutral.
I love big ones, as big as you can find.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer?
I love this. I think my secondary calling would be working for an auction house, specializing in old classic cars. I could spend all of my life at car auctions.
If you were running from the law where would you go?
Oh my gosh. A bunch of places keep coming to mind, but I always come back to Austin. There’s just nowhere else.