When Buff Ross’ mother passed away six years ago, his wife and children answered the island call, choosing to make the home of his youth their new family abode. With warm, eclectic décor as soothing as the sun kissed ocean itself, it’s the kind of place you simply do not want to leave. These creatives fancied a home with distinct style to savor in every room, and pulled it off as effortlessly as rocking on their front porch to a setting sun.
Interview ciara bird // Photography evita smith
Tell us a little about yourselves: Leila: I grew up on a farm in north Louisiana and have lived in a lot of unique places like New Orleans and San Francisco. Graduate school brought me to Charleston, S.C. where Buff and I met. Currently, Buff and I are in the process of looking for the perfect warehouse to open up a shared workspace for creatives that allows for collaboration on all kinds of projects. This space will also house an art gallery, as well as a retail component and will host educational events for the public.
Buff: I am currently the head “Pixel Pusher and Duke of Url” at Alloneword Design, a boutique web design company Leila and I co-own. Prior to this endeavor, I served as a Curator at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston. This position allowed me to organize exhibitions, teach in the Arts Management program and have a digital laboratory to hone my design and coding skills. In addition to design work, I dabble in screen printing and just finished my first and only sculptural output, which hangs on our porch ceiling.
Where do you live: Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Right over the Cooper River bridge from Charleston.
How long have you lived there, and what was the condition of the house when you acquired it? Did you make a lot of changes? Leila: Buff actually grew up in this house. It was his childhood home and it belonged to his mother before she died in a tragic car accident. It suddenly fell into our hands, as Buff was an only child. Rose, his mom, would be thrilled that we moved in with her two grandchildren and have made it our own. The island is a magical place to grow up and we’re beyond thankful. We moved here in 2008 and did some renovations to both bathrooms. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 ripped the roof right off and for a quick fix, they used sheetrock for some of the walls that were damaged. Other walls had the lovely old “tongue and groove” bead board that was original to the home built in 1900. We wanted to bring it back to that original look, so we replaced all the bead board and even put it on the ceiling in our bedroom. We did other unsexy things like insulate the entire house with green material and put in a new HVAC and appliances. Buff grew up in it without any air-conditioning or heating, as many, many folks on the island in similar cottages did, so that was a top priority.
Who lives there? Any extra people or animals apart from yourselves? Jack, 8. Barlow, 3, our boys; Etta and Coule, the two dogs; and Nitty Gritty Urban Kitty, a rescue cat from our old neighborhood, downtown Charleston.
Every house has certain unique characteristics and quirks that you don’t notice before moving in and discover later, can you share any? Leila: The squeaky heart of pine floorboards, which are over 100 years old. They have a lot to say when you walk on them. We also have a classic red tin roof, which I think is so fitting for the house. However, during dramatic, heavy rainstorms, you’d think the bass drum section was in our bed. However, during light showers, it’s a heavenly sound.
Buff: The doors and windows in the house were originally part of the Sappho Ferry, which operated between Charleston and Mount Pleasant in the late 1800s. The doors were crafted to accommodate the bow of the ferryboat and had to be shimmed to work in the house by the original builders. They still sit at a slight angle in a kind of Dr. Seuss-like fashion. The windows are truly unique in that they are counterweighted and actually drop down into the walls.
Was there a starting point when you began to decorate your home? Did you have an initial vision of what you wanted it to look like? Leila: Honestly, I had no clear plan or vision but I knew over time, we’d create something special. Like many who love interior design, I had file folders full of ripped out pages from magazines I had been collecting since my college days for inspiration. But the reality was that we just started with the pieces we already had, in addition to those we’d inherited from family members over the years. I put all of them together within the confines of this magical space and luckily, it just worked. The vibe of the place is a very traditional looking beach cottage. I definitely wanted to honor that, but I also wanted to shake it up, funk it out and include some very non-traditional things and make it our own. Being bold with fabric choices and using uncommon looking light fixtures was a must for me.
Buff: We share eclectic tastes. While there was no master plan we certainly have intention with most, if not all, of our decisions. Our biggest issue is that our collecting impetus outstrips our available space. However, if you are “maximalists” like us, there is always a corner, nook or shelf that can be conquered.
How would you describe the space you’ve created? Your favorite room? Leila: I think it’s “eclectic” and “well curated”, and I’ll use those terms even if they’re over-used. It’s a unique place where you won’t find the “typical”. If something I love and have in my home turns into a trend or a fad, it does hurt my heart a teeny, tiny bit, but I just remind myself that it is a very first world kind of problem and promptly let it go. I adore our porch, the first thing you come to upon entering. It has an original wooden ceiling where the paint has chipped and is naturally distressed. It automatically sets the tone for history and lives lived there.
Buff: One of my favorite spaces is the office in our basement. My mother was a potter and this space was her initial studio. My desk chair actually sits on the exact spot as her wheel did in the 1970’s and 80’s. As I was sealing the concrete floors, the outline became apparent. The space now serves as a home workspace when I am not in the office, as well as a Lego zone for our two sons. Some of my favorite moments are when I am working at the computer and they are behind me snapping tiny bricks into their fun creations.
Do you often change your décor or does it stay the same? Leila: I’m constantly hanging new stuff on the walls and enjoy making bizarre little dioramas on our bookshelves in the hallway, but for the most part things have remained the same- for now. I’m still on a hunt for the perfect big, round dining room table for family and friends to gather and connect over delicious meals. I still need a great buffet table- looking for a warm brass one- to serve food on. I’m in the process of making some art to hang above our bed. I think I’ll always continue the search for reasonably priced antique ethnic/tribal rugs to throw around and switch up.
Buff: Our house is organically morphing all of the time. New works are introduced and old ones reorganized. I am huge fan of temporary exhibitions in the art world and like to incorporate some of that in our home. Some of our favorite items are ones found in the refuse piles and other discarded corners.
Your home is filled with so many great pieces of art. Any advice on collecting and places to look? Leila: We’ve been very lucky to have such genuinely talented friends who have either given us many pieces, or sold us work at a “friend’s discount”. So … make friends with artists, especially ones in your local community. They’re the most interesting souls on the planet! Go to local estate sales, buy from local antique and junk shops, use Etsy and Ebay, too.
Buff: Affordable collecting is always a challenge. Shopping in the galleries of SOHO isn’t a plausible option for most folks. My advice would be connect with your local arts community. We are active supporter of several here in Charleston.
Topics of conversation? Those who enter our home have said that it’s got great energy, that it feels like a museum because there’s so much to see and take in, that it’s an excellent “party house” with the layout and that it’s a “happy place”, which was the most meaningful compliment to me.
What’s next? We’ll keep collecting and continue covering any available space with pieces of art. Perhaps when we find the perfect space to open Show and Tell Art and Design, we’ll be able to provide others with that same kind of emotion – the awe one experiences from being surrounded by stellar art that simply blows their mind.
This interview was conducted late 2012.