La Petite Maison

By staff March 1, 2008

If it weren’t for the tropical foliage, you’d think you were driving up to a French country chateau or Italian lakeside villa as you approach Hillary Steele’s Siesta Key home. The exterior exudes Continental character and charm, and the vista from the home’s perch on the edge of Little Sarasota Bay is astounding.

Indeed, this house is full of surprises, which is exactly the way Steele and designer Bob Bacon of Bacon & Wing would have it. They have collaborated on a design that borders on formal but nonetheless comes off warm and inviting. The French furniture Steele has owned for years has, at Bacon’s hand, become beguilingly fresh and contemporary. The house is quietly elegant and grand, yet the sum of its parts is far greater than the whole.

“It’s the biggest little house you’ve ever seen,” Bacon declares, confiding that during the renovation process his team affectionately dubbed Steele’s home La Petite Maison—(“the little palace,” he translates). At 3,328 square feet under air and another thousand feet under roof, the three-bedroom, four-bath house hardly qualifies as a palace. But in demeanor and spirit, it is as commanding as Gulf-front McMansions two, three, even four times its size.

Steele explains it wasn’t always that way. “Rooms had to be reconfigured; walls had to be removed because the house was so dark,” she recalls. “The small window and door in the kitchen had not been changed since the 1950s; the master bedroom had one tiny jalousie window; that was it. The views were magnificent, but you couldn’t see outside.”

“The house was gloomy,” adds Bacon, not known for mincing words. There were no windows in the front of the house, he says, and the only light source came from the back.

Regardless, Steele was drawn to the home from the first walk-through. “I felt it could be for me. I would come back, watch the views, and started to think I could really have a lot of fun here,” she says. But what she envisioned as a simple cosmetic makeover quickly morphed into a major two-year renovation project. “I didn’t realize how much work would be involved; each time we took something out, we found something else that needed redoing.”

The installation of new air conditioning, for example, led to the discovery of faulty electrical wiring that had to be replaced throughout the home. Removal of one window uncovered previous termite damage, which meant shoring up all the walls, replacing sheet rock and ultimately every window.

“The house called for as much sunlight to come in as possible,” says Bacon, and the new windows in the front entry and stairway vestibule solved the cross-lighting problem. Walls in the kitchen, living room and master bedroom were modernized with expansive glass treatments, and a new color palette of gold, white, green and tomato-red amplified the main floor’s new sun-drenched aura.

The rest of the transformation was cosmetic. “Nothing is new,” Bacon says, explaining that his assignment was to update existing furnishings with new flair. “The style is French, English and Continental; a wonderful travel look,” he says. ‘Hillary’s travels are part of her personality; they’re reflected in collections of Chinese soapstone, Rose Medallion porcelain and many wonderful, old and great pieces, including some from her parents’ home in Sarasota.” 

The living room’s Old World elegance belies its designer’s American origins. Bacon’s secret is his obsession with details. Everything is upholstered in down, because he loves seating that looks “a little on the messy side, like it’s been in a country manor—used and abused.” The silk fabrics, tassels and trim were all custom-designed by Bacon and produced in Europe to his specifications. He uses plaid fabric on the backs of chairs and solid silk on the seating surfaces because that’s an authentic French design trick; and he puddles table skirts and draperies on the floor because that’s very French and English, he says.

The look extends to the kitchen, deliberately designed not to look kitchen-y. Instead, its cream-toned cabinets are painted red inside, curtained like French armoires and illuminated at night to highlight china collections. The marble Steele chose for her countertops and range backsplash is Old World classic but looks refreshingly new in Bacon’s design. “Every home has the same granite counters; I wanted something different,” she explains.

Both designer and homeowner wanted to maximize the kitchen’s sweeping bay views, which are now enjoyed from the breakfast nook’s window seat and from a conversation area created with existing furniture upholstered in the same eye-popping red found in tiny doses in the living room. An exquisite library table from Steele’s childhood home now serves as her breakfast table.

Bacon’s fabric artistry carries through to the master bedroom, where walls are decorated with custom French silk panels on either side of a luxurious bed canopy. In Steele’s upstairs office, a beach cottage mélange of painted furniture, sea foam walls and white bead board ceiling is embellished with a custom botanical shell and coral motif on fabrics and walls. The precisely detailed pattern that appears on draperies and table round was rescaled by Bacon for decoupage to be cut and applied on walls in an adjoining bath by his client.

The European-influenced decoupage is just one more detail to be discovered and enjoyed in this artfully conceived gem of a home. “Detail, detail, detail—it’s what finishes a home and gives it a whole different personality,” Bacon concludes.

All the Trimmings

Old World elegance is in the details.

Make a splash with puddles: Whether English or European, the most elegant table skirts and draperies are cut longer so extra fabric puddles on the floor.

Coordinate rooms with color: Use a single color scheme to tie rooms together, but add differing emphasis on various shades in the palette for interest in each individual room.

Create luxury inside and out: Bacon lines and interlines draperies to achieve an authentic European look; reupholstered pieces are filled with down or horsehair for casual luxury.

Upholster and panel walls: Richness is achieved with fabric panel insets (in this home hand painted on canvas) and fabric-upholstered walls, both classic European design elements.


Interior Design: Bob Bacon, Bacon & Wing, 1555 Fruitville Road, Sarasota (941) 366-0635.

Custom Carpentry: Tim Ludt, Timothy Ludt, Inc., Sarasota (941) 928-8451

Antique chandeliers, lighting fixtures: Al Tomlinson, Las Antiguas, 1525 Fourth St., Sarasota (941) 349-3200.

Fabric, trim, tassels, upholstery and window treatments: Bacon & Wing, (941) 366-0635

Area Rugs: Barry Gorn, Resource Partners, 2416 Constitution Blvd., Sarasota, (800) 322-6157

Landscaping: Erez Beck, Sarasota Secret Gardens and Waterscapes, 2329 Pine Terrace, Sarasota (941) 650-8923

Pool restoration and marble pavers: Tony Garrabrait, 120 Faibel St., Sarasota (941) 923-9332

Powder room wallpaper: Jonathan Slenz, The Interiors/The Wallpaper Store, 7368 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota (941) 924-3640

Majolica wall clock: European Traditions, 5201 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota (941) 921-5616.

Antique garden furniture: Sarasota Architectural Salvage, 1093 Central Ave., Sarasota (941) 363-0803

Mirrors: Miller Insulation and Acoustics, 6720 33rd St. E., Sarasota (941) 751-4991

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