Houston’s Lucas-Eilers new design book, a lesson in classic style

The secret to beautiful home design isn’t a secret at all — it’s about thorough planning and understanding principles of scale and proportion, color and light.

Of course, that’s easily stated but much harder to execute, at least in the way longtime friends — they met as sorority sisters in college — business partners and interior designers Sandra Lucas and Sarah Eilers do it.

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Founders of Lucas/Eilers Design Associates in Houston, the two women have made homes all over the metropolitan area — actually, all over the country — more beautiful with their classic take on design. They’ve documented some of their favorite projects, as well as their own homes, in their new book, “Expressive Interiors: Designing an Inviting Home” (Rizzoli, 240 pages, $45).

Earlier in her career when Lucas was a young mother, she taught classes at the Art Institute of Houston and imagined that someday she would write a textbook for students and others wanting a more professional take on the topic of home design.

Eilers, too, had been contemplating a book, considering concepts and ideas for at least a decade, she said.

Many years later, both Lucas and Eilers became acquainted with a friend’s literary agent, who encouraged them to write a book that would appeal to a broader audience. The result is “Expressive Interiors,” which imparts lessons on design through nearly 20 of their favorite projects.

The two are taking turns working from their office in Decorative Center Houston, and the day an advanced copy of their book arrived, Eilers opened it and screamed out loud. Through a Zoom call in which they pivoted their laptop back and forth between socially distanced chairs, the two women answered questions as if every answer belonged to them both.

“Sarah and I are so passionate about design. It’s what we eat, breathe, sleep. Design runs through our veins,” Lucas said. “We love sharing it with our clients and with anyone who will listen, basically.”

Both are women of good taste and unfailing instincts, but their style is based in classical training in the principles and elements of design, which shows in the fact that one of the featured projects dates back 18 years. (Good luck spotting which one it is.)

Lucas and Eilers made lists of favorite projects and gathered photos, noting the lessons that would be told with every image. Some made the cut, and others didn’t. Some were photographed again, with most of the photography by Dallas-based Stephen Karlisch, though a good deal is by Houston-based Julie Soefer.

The women — Houston natives who graduated from the University of Texas — divided their book into three parts. First, they teach the fundamentals of design and their own process, from scale and proportion to the importance of art and collecting, and show how each works through images from a number of their own projects.

“One thing that is so important to me and to Sarah is that each of our projects really just portrays the person who lives there. It may not be our favorite color or style of furniture or things that I like,” Lucas said. “It is a pure reflection of our client. Our projects are all different because our clients are so different.”

One wide photo tells a lesson of scale. The very large living room was added in a remodel of a 1970s home, and because of its size, the furniture needed to be large as well. A pair of sofas, each more than 100 inches long, are grouped with an oversized console that holds a hidden large-screen TV.

Several rooms from a historical home in Houston’s Shadow Lawn neighborhood are included, and one is the kitchen — part of an addition designed by Dillon Kyle — with a ceiling covered in V-groove planks and cabinets painted a handsome sage green. The mix here is of old and new since the new space had to be in sync with the rest, which was built more than 90 years ago.

If you want to have an interesting conversation with the two women, mention large-screen TVs. Lucas works hard to persuade every client to conceal them. Their glossy black screens aren’t artwork and simply bring a big dark void to a wall, she believes.

When clients turned a guest bedroom into a sitting room for their primary bedroom, a wallpaper mural was installed to serve as a focal point as well as art for the TV cabinet doors that would simply be opened.

For a home in the mountains of South Carolina, context and suitability meant using regional craftsmen and artists, allowing windows to let in the beautiful view. Scale and proportion can mean raising the back of chairs or a settee in even a small niche when the ceilings are extra tall.

Color and light are important to every designer, and Lucas and Eilers embrace both. You’ll see plenty of neutral tones, but they’re not afraid to paint cabinets green or blue or to add bold colors to furnishings or art. Sometimes softer colors are called for, though, as in bedrooms where a more restful or serene mood is desired.

In the middle are “The Houses,” five specific projects that include a new home in Houston; a vacation home in Park City, Utah, decorated with a Western flair that reflects its mountainous setting; and a Galveston beach house that taps into “sun, sand, sea and sky.”

The ending is their “Design Laboratory,” a visual narrative of their personal homes with insight into their own family lives and their taste in art and collectibles. Both are avid collectors, but Eilers got a head start on her friend and has a variety of collections, some of which include things handed down from parents and grandparents.

Lucas and her husband live in a 1970s-era home designed by architect Lucian T. Hood Jr. They opened up space on the first floor to eliminate bottlenecks and doorways. Her “practical to a fault” side is shown in her decision to keep a brick floor even though she didn’t like it. The bricks were once in a home owned by Houston wildcatter Glenn McCarthy, so their sense of local history outweighed her dislike for them. Her compromise was to alter their color to a softer gray with lime washes.

Her living room is a collection of beautiful things, including antiques she holds dear: a Persian Malayer, a pair of 19th-century armchairs and a coffee table made from antique balcony railing.

In Eilers’ home, you’ll see her great-grandparents’ Eastlake parlor set, ceramic Palissy plates, lots of fine china and even some of the “tramp art” she started collecting as a teenager. Like Lucas, Eilers has gone through phases of needing things to be durable for young children, then accommodate the wear of pets and finally, getting things the way she always wanted them.

Eilers shared one last story about the photo shoot of her own home. Her living room (pages 232-33) needed to be photographed and, knowing how much her dear friend hated to see TVs in photos, Eilers enlisted someone to take a painting off of one wall and then hold it over the TV to obscure it for the photo. From the photo, you’d never know it wasn’t always that picture perfect.

A visual treat, “Expressive Interiors” will likely prompt you to look around your own home and think about what your surroundings say about you.

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