Tour the grand three-story residence, which was built in the wake of the city’s 1838 fire, has been impeccably preserved
Interior designer Michael Mitchell says that if it’s obvious he designed a project, he didn’t do his job properly. He believes his role as a designer isn’t to bring his aesthetic into a space; rather, it’s to excavate his client’s life view and inject that into the residence by way of furnishings and fabrics, paint colors and curios.
“All of my work is different, and it always has been,” says Michael, who, in addition to leading an interior design group that juggles anywhere from 20 to 30 projects at a time, owns Mitchell Hill, an art, furniture, rug, flooring, and home decor gallery on King Street. “I’m a Gemini, and I don’t want to be pigeonholed—it’s the same way I feel about aesthetics.”
But what happens when the tables are turned and the home he’s designing is, in fact, his own? What does the Michael Mitchell life view look and feel like?
The answer lies in his Charleston single house in Ansonborough, where meaningful art and antiques coalesce with bold walls, a highly functional floor plan, and 36 windows of immaculately tailored drapery. (“I’m a snob about drapes,” he laughs, noting that his grandmother owned a drapery and slipcover workroom on John’s Island and inspired his deep affection for textiles.) It is a soulful, layered home that offers the intrigue of an art gallery, the luxuries of a five-star hotel, and the stories of a lifelong learner with a penchant for travel and a reverence for the Lowcountry—the place where he was born and raised. “This is all a collection of things that I’ve just been grabbing as I walk through life,” he says casually of the spectacular space.
A WARM WELCOME: The grand three-story Charleston single house, which was built in the wake of the city’s 1838 fire, has been impeccably preserved. A pair of Philip Simmons gates and ornate Greek revival moldings welcome visitors to the brick home, which, true to single house fashion, boasts a pair of breezy piazzas. To add square footage and usher in natural light, floor-to-ceiling windows were added to the rear of the property. “This is my next place to start collecting for,” Michael says of the garden.
Michael purchased the circa-1840 property in 2014, instantly charmed by its ornate moldings, original hardwoods, abundance of natural light, and Ansonborough address. “I chose this neighborhood quite deliberately,” he says. “It’s on high ground, and growing up in the path of hurricanes, you always want to make sure you get as high up as you can.” Other perks of the location? Dozens of the city’s—and country’s—best restaurants sit less than a mile from his front door. He’s an easy stroll from his favorite retailers, including M. Dumas & Sons (where he has shopped for decades) and Croghan’s Jewel Box (where “every stitch of silver in this house is from,” he notes). He’s also a 40-minute-max drive from his mother’s house on John’s Island and less than a mile southeast of Mitchell Hill, where he works alongside his team of 18—when he’s not traveling for site visits, installations, or buying trips.
Nostalgia seeps into every room of the home. In his cool, calming kitchen, for example, a pastoral scene by Elizabeth Foster transports Michael back to his childhood on John’s Island. “I would lay in the back of my mother’s Caprice Classic wagon, and I could tell you where we were on Bohicket Road just by looking at the trees,” he says.
In the primary bedroom, his grandmother’s Bible sits next to the monogrammed silver brush set he was gifted for his 18th birthday. A butter churn that his grandmother used for decades rests in the cozy “garden room”—the sunken den at the back of the house where Michael can be found most nights relaxing alongside George, his seven-year-old French bulldog.
Even so, there’s nothing dated about the design—it’s decidedly fresh. Well-paced pops of modern—like a Hable custom sofa in the garden room and Alexa Hampton nightstands in the primary suite—ground rooms in the present. They also speak to Michael’s life experiences as much as the family heirlooms do. “Because of the way my career has gone, I know everyone who’s designed furniture in my house if it’s of this era,” he says.
When you’re putting together a house like this, it’s almost like you’re making a pot of chili from scratch and you don’t have a recipe. You just keep throwing things in there until it tastes good—until it feels right.” —Michael Mitchell
To align the historic home’s floor plan with modern living, Michael teamed with Dufford Young Architects and Tupper Builders. Guided by Michael’s vision, they reconfigured the back part of the house (formerly the servant’s quarters) by relocating the exterior door, moving the stairwell, and adding two stories of bay windows. They renovated the kitchen to improve flow and function, as well as the second-floor’s primary bath and closet. On the third floor, underutilized storage space was reworked to add a fourth bedroom to the property.
“The house is laid out in zones,” Michael explains. Public spaces—one zone—include the drawing room, entrance hall, dining room, kitchen, and butler’s pantry. They boast the most formal design, reminiscent of “an Upper East Side gentleman’s club,” he describes. The back of the house, which includes a den and an utterly cozy guest suite upstairs, offers a more casual, nature-inspired aesthetic, in harmony with its lush garden views.
“The second floor is my private space—the master retreat,” Michael says of the moody library, primary bedroom, bath, and dressing room, which are rife with luxurious touches like marble inlays and a built-in espresso and tea bar. “Then the third floor goes a little feminine, with the blushy pinks and all,” he says.
Michael’s a proud uncle, and his nieces flock to the third floor when they spend the night—a frequent occurrence. And they aren’t the only regulars here. “These bedrooms are filled a lot,” he says. “I don’t have four bedrooms to keep them empty.” Friends from New York, where Michael has lived either full- or part-time for the better part of 15 years, pop in often. As do pals and family from Sullivan’s or Kiawah. “I grew up in a house where my grandmother would cook for 30 knowing that 14 of us would show up. You need to have your doors open, ready to receive,” he says.
Indeed, the house was meant to host. Clients often drop by for lunch, and Michael meets with his assistant every morning at 8. They chat and sip coffee in the drawing room, where dappled light dances across the chartreuse walls, contemporary art, and centuries-old antiques. Last December, 180 people filled the home for a Christmas party, which served as its official unveiling.
WORLDLY TREASURES: In the drawing room, velvet and metallic touches infuse the space with glamour, and contemporary art mingles seamlessly with finds from around the world, including a handmade jug from Peru, an ornamental box from Egypt, and a 1950s coffee table. Above the Baker sofa hangs a large-scale abstract by Jeannie Weissglass. “She’s from Brooklyn, but, of course, being a Southerner I see a magnolia in there,” says Michael.
Why the lag time between the 2014 purchase date and official housewarming fête? As soon as structural renovations wrapped, Michael opened his doors to the 2018 Southern Style Now Showhouse, meaning dozens of the nation’s top interior designers converged on the property, outfitting it in their signature styles. Since then, he has redesigned nearly every inch of the home. He’s taken his time outfitting the space—both in order to achieve an authentic layered aesthetic, and because he prioritized his clients’ homes, until the pandemic. “Part of COVID for me was nesting in my own house,” says Michael. “Not traveling around the country working helped me finish my own space.”
The slow-and-steady approach has paid off. Each room is thoughtfully filled with items he adores. “I like that these things have had lives long before me and have witnessed so much,” he says, gesturing toward the eclectic mix of pieces in his drawing room. “Like this game table from the ’70s—where has she been? Were there beehives and cigarettes and bridge? What’s the rest of her story?” It’s with that kind of curiosity that—over the past two decades—Michael has amassed 4,800-square-feet worth of art and antiques. These pieces tell stories—not just of his life, but of other lives and cultures as well.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate with the influences I had as a child, and that I’ve had as an adult,” he says, noting that his stepmother grew up in the Middle East and his mom’s family has deep ties in Italy. The homes he grew up in (“I was raised by four parents,” he clarifies) were both filled with interesting objects collected from around the world, items that sparked a love of travel.
“There’s no need to walk through life with your eyes closed,” says Michael, who’s been to 14 countries and counting. “You’ve got to be wide open and ready to accept new things.” Whether that’s an evocative piece of art or a spontaneous dinner with friends, Michael—and his home—are ready to receive.
(Left) MORE THAN THINGS: A checkered seagrass rug and custom drapes in a verdant design embrace this guest suite, which overlooks the garden; (Right) INSPIRED DESIGN: “There are three things in every room of this house: something from China, something black, and original art,” notes the designer. That certainly holds true in the second floor’s cozy library.
How to Infuse Your Space with Soul
Michael Mitchell shares tips for curating a true-to-you collection of art and furnishings
Research the artist.
“Creating art is an intimate process—you’re going to end up with part of that person in your house,” says Michael. If you don’t know the artist personally, read their biography, look into their website or social media presence, or chat with the gallery owner to get a sense for their story. “People dump their energy into their work, so you want to make sure you’re bringing people with positive energy into your home,” he says.
Shop during inflection points in your life.
In the mica-adorned powder room, a swirling abstract bears one word: “change.” “I hadn’t had anything there until late 2020,” says Michael. “Then Linwood [the artist] brought down this piece, and see how it says ‘change’? That’s what we were all in the middle of.” Likewise, in the library hangs a large-scale photo of a crumbling New York City brownstone, which Michael acquired in 2010, a year after he left New York City in the wake of the financial crisis. “In 2008, I had moved to New York, established my firm, and was doing amazing. And then all of a sudden, it was like a fire burned through my world—I had nothing to do,” he says. These pieces, and the others in his home, remind him daily of where he’s been and what he’s been through.
Grab what speaks to you.
“If you’re drawn to a piece, don’t think about where it will go—just buy it,” says the designer. “I didn’t know where this would live when I bought it—it just landed here,” he says of a crocodile fossil he found at Liberty of London. “I’m a collector of beautiful things, and I truly believe that everything should be beautiful in its own right.”
Get curious about antiques.
Don’t hesitate to ask dealers questions about an item’s origin story. “I like to know why something was done, why it was created, and how it got there. It can be something as utilitarian as that pickle jar back there, or it could be something as incredible as that box from Egypt,” he says.
When you’re shopping for soulful art—as in pieces that resonate with your unique story—you can’t rush it, notes Michael. “Sometimes you have to wait for it,” he says, referencing the aforementioned piece that came into his life mid-pandemic.