PHOTOGRAPHY & TEXT HANS FONK

The house sits high above a bend in the Colorado River, just outside Austin, Texas. Your first impression is that the Mayans had been here, leaving behind a fine example of their architectural skills. On further inspection, you discover that architect Paul Lamb was indeed inspired by that ancient Mexican civilisation, whose culture fascinates the client. Inside the house, Art Deco prevails – of which lady of the house is a fan. As the building process progressed, interior designer Fern Santini succeeded – working closely with the architect and the house owners – in fusing together those two divergent cultures into a logical totality. The unusual style of construction is arresting: huge pieces of stone have been integrated seamlessly in cantilevered walls. David Escobedo is responsible for construction, demonstrating, in the building carcass as well as the finish, the skills of a true master craftsman.

The house is massive in all respects: external dimensions, interior spaces and building materials. Yet all the proportions harmonise fittingly, so the actual size is less apparent. As soon as you enter the house, you are struck by the precise, mortarless coursing of the stone – a method which typifies Mayan construction. This style did not just ‘happen’. The client is particularly fond of the old culture of those peoples from Guatemala and southern Mexico, and in particular the Yucatan peninsula. He took the entire team, including culture experts, on various expeditions to the centres of Mayan culture for inspiration. Looking back, every trip led to adaptations and new ideas concerning furnishings and decoration. Hardly surprising, as the ancient Mayan culture was one of the most exceptional in the world. It came about around 2000 BC and peaked in 250 AD. The Mayans had a fully developed written language, and their art, architecture, mathematics and astronomy were so sophisticated that they are still highly respected today.

Architect Paul Lamb found more than enough ideas for his house design in that culture. “Before the house acquired its present form, I’d already made two earlier designs. Admittedly based on the same L-shape, but the trips to Guatemala and Mexico produced more and more new ideas. We started with the space in the lowest part of the house, making a really heavy porch at the edge of the rock. At some stage someone suggested it looked like a Mayan cave and in fact that turned out to be the basis for the entire house. I was familiar with the Mayan culture out of books, but our trips supplied ever-more ideas, which in turn were also incorporated. Accordingly, the house was built layer by layer, starting from the porch – as the Mayans would have done. The brief remained unchanged, but the form altered during the process. It became far more ‘muscular’ with lots of stone.”

“I like the feeling of the house. It resonates with the surroundings. The landscape here resembles that of the Yucatan to some extent. The house seems to rise up out of the ground. As building work progressed, more and more details were added – thanks to the contractor, David Escobedo, who worked with us. He succeeded in implementing many of the far-fetched ideas – for instance, seamlessly shaping the large chunks of stone into smooth walls, the spiral staircase comprising cantilevered stairs virtually hanging in space and the self-supporting stone arches. The project would never have succeeded without his expertise. Although the house acquired its final form step by step, the end result is a well-proportioned, pleasing whole”, as Paul put it.

The exterior architecture took shape gradually, as did the interior design. That was primarily Fern Santini’s job, though it was a joint effort with Paul Lamb and the lady of the house. The latter has a predilection for Art Deco and that style proved to combine amazingly well with the Mayan-style architecture.Fern Santini studied accounting and political science and, almost by chance, ended up in the interior design world. As the manager of a high-end fashion store, she frequently met up with with leading fashion designers in big cities in the United States and soon began to appreciate their taste and style. She’d always enjoyed interior decoration and was already designing interiors for clients of the fashion store. Her breakthrough came when she was invited to fit out and appoint a large house. It encouraged her to make a U-turn and open her own design studio. As she put it: “I was working on major houses but not with major architects.” All that changed when Paul Lamb involved her
in this project.

Fern: “In fact Paul introduced me to the clients and the project has changed my life. Together Paul and I decided what to put in the house. To start with, I didn’t know much about Art Deco, what was right and what not. I didn’t want to go over the top with the style, but to create a complete picture in which all the elements would come into their own. I learnt so much during the six years the
project lasted. Antique dealers in New York introduced me to the world of Art Deco. I went with them to major auctions in Paris with genuine Ruhlmann items and was gradually able to acquire objects like the Giacometti fixtures, which go so well in the house. I was lucky to have been involved in this project and to work with people like Paul, David and, of course, the clients, to create such an imposing totality.”
Even at the construction stage, the project was attracting attention from architects and students of architecture, who, as Fern put it, flew in from all over the United States to look at the house. She has meanwhile made a name for herself as a designer specialising in residential projects.
“I invest a lot in every project, emotionally. It’s great if you can work with clients who are very much involved themselves, and particularly if you have the opportunity to work with someone like Paul Lamb”, in Fern Santini’s words.