Bringing a Home Back to Life
Big Sky Design’s personal and unique approach pushes aesthetic boundaries while honoring a home’s history
By CHRISTINE HENNESSEY » Photos by MARK STEELMAN
Brad Howard’s parents bought the house on Hewletts Creek in the 1990s, right after Hurricane Fran. Built in the 70s and designed by Wilmington architect Haywood Newkirk, it had sustained quite a bit of damage during the storm.
“When they bought it, my dad was like, ‘Don’t look at the house itself. Look at where it is,’” Howard recounts. The house, located on a cul-de-sac, looks out over Masonboro Inlet. When Howard, a waterman and surfer, gazed out over that view, he understood immediately what his father meant. “I was like, yeah, good grief. This is the best spot in Wilmington.”
For years the Howard family vacationed at the home, filling it with memories. Then, in 2012, Howard’s father passed away unexpectedly. “It was really hard on my mom, and she lost interest in coming down,” Howard says. After realizing the house needed someone to take care of it, she told Howard it was his if he wanted it. “There was no way I was going to part ways with this house,” Howard says. “I jumped at the opportunity to save it.”
The house still had beautiful bones and a phenomenal view, but it was in need of some updates and a major refresh. Howard was adamant about remodeling the house, rather than knocking it down and starting over. “It still had a lot of great memories of my parents, and I didn’t want to lose that,” he says.
The first step was working with Chip Hemingway, a local artist and architect, to update and modernize the space, while preserving the original style. The team accomplished this by vaulting the ceiling and opening up the living room, kitchen, and dining room. Some elements, such as the original ship ladder up to the third floor, remained untouched, honoring the history and spirit of the home.
Once the house had been renovated—“We gutted that thing down to the studs,” Howard laughs—it was time to turn it back into a home. That’s where Big Sky Design came in.
Pushing the Boundaries of Design
Big Sky Design is an interior design firm with more than 20 years in the business. A pioneering team of women led by owner Jennifer Cramer, the firm is the talent behind many of Wilmington’s iconic locations, including the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, TheaterNOW, and Wrightsville Beach Town Hall. If these venues seem very different, it’s because they are. Big Sky Design doesn’t adhere to a specific style or look. Instead, their clients guide their work, inspiring them to unearth the unique stories each space seeks to tell.
In addition to commercial interiors, such as schools, hospitals, hotels, and private offices, Big Sky Design also transforms select residential homes. Jo Howell, lead residential designer, is a North Carolinian who studied interior design at Appalachian State and architecture in London. She’s been practicing interior design in Wilmington for fourteen years, and has been at Big Sky Design for almost five. “I really love what I do,” she says, “tapping into those personal elements with my clients and bringing their homes to life.”
When designing a new space, Howell and the Big Sky team take a collaborative approach throughout the process, working with the architect, the builder, and various tradesmen at the beginning, and helping with tile selection, paint colors, and furniture choices at the end.
“That’s Big Sky in a nutshell,” Howell says. “We run the gamut, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s all about pushing the boundaries of the client and making the process exciting. If you think about it, I’m basically invading their home—it can get very personal, and a little overwhelming.”
A Family Affair
Howard’s house was no different, though the process included some unique elements. While Howard had strong opinions about what the house would look like, he also wanted his mother to have some input, in order to preserve and honor her memories of the space. It was a balance Howell was careful to strike.
“My mom was excited to help pick stuff out,” Howard says, “but at the same time she was careful not to overstep her boundaries. Jo was a great mediator. She even made multiple trips to Raleigh so my mom could be involved, since it was hard for her to travel.”
The ability to talk to both Howard and his mother in person was an integral part of Howell’s design process, which begins with a simple conversation. Sometimes her clients have a vision or an idea of what they want, and other times the only thing they know for sure is that they need help. “They might have a Pinterest board or magazines,” Howell says, “and for me that’s crucial. It’s a little window into their soul.”
After an initial conversation, she and the client work together to hone in on what their overall needs are. Howell acknowledges that the process can be overwhelming, which is why she starts with the kernel of an idea, instead of diving directly into the big picture.
“If it’s a full renovation, we put together a concept after the initial interview. This is a visual and verbal representation of what the project will feel like. Oftentimes these are images we’ve cultivated and pulled together, along with physical samples of fabric, flooring, and tile.” Many of these samples come from the firm’s new retail shop, Big Sky Collaborative, which helps clients visualize their future home. “It’s more of a hands-on approach and gives them a chance to feel and see what the end concept is going to be.”
Howard, for the most part, was crystal clear about what he wanted to avoid. “I didn’t want it to look too ‘old lady by the sea’, or like Coastal Living threw up in my living room,” he says. This was helpful for Howell, who tries to tap into the client’s lifestyle, hobbies, and routines, and pull out everything that might be useful in designing their home.
“Every client has a personal story, and we want to emphasize that, whether it’s residential or a business brand, understated coastal or high style modern,” she says. “We have so many resources, so it’s really about bringing those unexpected elements to their personal project. It’s about them.”
Embracing a “Baja” Vibe
“Bringing the finishes together, that was the exciting part,” Howell says. “It was very collaborative with Chip and the builder Mark Schmidt, and Brad.”
Early in the design process, Howell found inspiration in Howard’s collection of paddleboards and surfboards. She was drawn to one paddleboard in particular, crafted by a world-renowned carver Hobie Alter. “It’s a very soft, sage green with sea stone colors,” she says, “and it has a masculine, organic, Baja vibe. That really resonated with me.”
Howell took a photo of the surfboard and as she chose finishes, fabrics, and other design elements, she related it all back to the board. This object, a deeply personal item, embodied the unique story she wanted Howard’s home to tell. “He’s a surfer, a waterman, and he didn’t want anything shabby chic or delicate. Instead we brought in these rich steel structures and cable railing, a leather sectional and wooden carved back chairs in the living room.” There’s even a steer, given to him by his grandfather, which Howell hung over the front door. Each element honors the home’s coastal location, Howard’s love for the ocean, and the house’s history. “It’s me, it’s quirky, and it’s unique,” Howard says. “Jo did a great job picking everything out.”
It’s no surprise that the outdoor living area is Howard’s favorite part of the home. “It’s a dining area attached to the house, and I spend a ton of time there, even in the winter. The sun basically sets in my backyard, and I’ve got an amazing view. It’s my favorite spot to hang out in the whole place.”
Three years later, Howard’s appreciation for the home has only deepened. One aspect of the project that brings him the most pleasure is the deep roots it has in Wilmington’s history. “Haywood Newkirk, one of Wilmington’s oldest and most successful and celebrated architects was the original architect,” he says. “Chip Hemingway is wildly talented, and it was great to have him work on the remodel. And as Jo and I got to know each other, she understood what we were doing—take a family property, keeping in mind the original footprint and memories, and putting my spin on it.” By staying connected to the past while looking toward the future, Howard’s home is now the perfect place to honor old memories while making new ones.
Interior Design: Big Sky Design, 910-793-3992, bigskydesignonline.com
Architect: Chip Hemingway, 910-612-0089, hemingwayartstudio.com
Builder: Schmidt Custom Builders, 910-620-1835, schmidtcustombuilders.com