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Risk & Reward

Risk & Reward
November 2011
Interior designer Cortney Bishop turns her love-at-first-sight “impulse buy” into inspired family digs filled with bold pairings and eclectic antiques

"You’ve got to trust me on this,” Cortney Bishop told her husband–rather, implored him—when she called him at work one day while they were living in Knoxville, Tennessee. “We’ve got to get in the car and go to Charleston. I need you to see a house. Today.”

If husbands earn brownie points for honoring wifely intuition, even when that intuition entails a six-and-a-half-hour drive to go long-distance house hunting when you didn’t realize house hunting was on the agenda, then Baker Bishop has earned them in spades.

“Honey, I’m open to exploring options,” he replied calmly, reasonably. “But we’re not buying a house today. You’re crazy.”

Well, 400 hundred miles and a day later, the Bishops were Sullivan’s Island homeowners. And crazy or not, they’ve never looked back. That was seven years ago, and their stylish beach abode today reflects a thoughtful, playful settledness—nothing impulsive or seat-of-your-pants about it. But then again, that whirlwind real estate buy wasn’t quite as impromptu as it sounds.

Cortney had actually become smitten with the circa-1886 home a year before that dramatic phone call to her husband. Her first encounter came when the previous owners hosted a wedding party for a friend of Cortney’s. The two-story classic beach colonial, complete with dormers, a tin roof, and a big welcome mat of a porch, charmed Cortney with its good bones and low-key glamour. Plus, it was one of those perfect Sullivan’s Island evenings: lovely breeze, cocktails on the porch, the yard illuminated with festive lights. “I remember sitting on a joggling board on this fantastic porch, looking out at the lighthouse, and saying to myself, ‘I’m going to live here one day,’” recalls Cortney, an Atlanta native whose fond memories of childhood summers on Kiawah jump-started dreams of raising her own children in the Lowcountry.  

After the wedding weekend, she returned to Knoxville (Baker’s hometown) and got focused back on work and family—her budding interior design business keeping her plenty busy—and didn’t think much more about her Sullivan’s premonition until seeing her newlywed friend again at a baby shower. A month or so later, she awoke one morning with a sense of urgency: I’ll call about the house and just see what the owners’ plans are, she decided. That’s when she found out that another couple was, that very moment, sitting in the living room she dreamed about, with a real estate agent, about to sign a contract.

“If you can get here pronto, we’ll wait,” the owners told her.

So much for driving the speed limit.

“I do believe that if you really want something, it can happen,” Cortney says, as she moves from room to room, pointing out favorite artwork and light fixtures, and picking up toys—energized by her surroundings and unfazed by dog and kid interruptions.

“Can we go to the park?” two-year-old Lucy Kohl interjects.

“Yes, sweetie, as soon as I’m done,” her mom replies, not skipping a beat. “I’m not afraid to take risks; I take a lot of risks with my design work. I’ve learned that if you follow your gut, you’re usually following your gift, too, so just go with it.”

Her own knacks include fortifying traditional good taste with just enough edgy flair to be fresh and interesting, without tipping the scale over to trendy or predictable. She loves cutting-edge fashion and collecting contemporary art but also understands the anchoring power of a timeless, traditional aesthetic. In this case, it was the house: “I love these 15-foot ceilings. I’ve always had this romance with downtown Charleston, those grand South of Broad homes, but the beach is really where my soul is. This was the best of both worlds,” she says.

Other gems that contributed to Cortney’s “this-is-it” intuition include a roomy master bedroom that the previous owners added to the original structure and the big backyard and pool, favorites of son Ryder, six, and Lucy Kohl. Because the ground-floor rooms are grandfathered in under current FEMA regulations, the home boasts five bedrooms and five baths (one bedroom used as Cortney’s home office), rare for such an old beach beauty.

There was little to no renovation needed (another big plus), which allowed Cortney to focus on her forté—adding cozy punch and contemporary suave to a classic abode. A business major in college, she comes by her décor sensibilities naturally. Her mother has run a successful Atlanta design firm for more than 30 years, and her Greek grandmother was an accomplished seamstress. “I inherited my love of textiles and texture from her,” Cortney acknowledges. “My grandmother’s work was incredibly intricate. My style is more minimal, but there are traces of her here for sure.” She runs her fingers over ivory crewel draperies in Lucy Kohl’s bedroom. Timeless and malleable, they once hung in the living room and may end up circling around to yet a different room in the house.

“I like mixing things up, all time periods, colors, and textures,” she says. “The main thing you have to get right is scale.”

The designer uses vintage Rose Tarlow wallpaper to give walls a delicious patina layer throughout the house (“I like the way wallpaper makes me feel,” she says), and ancient Persian rugs are must-haves. “You enter into a relationship with a rug—it’s like art to me. I always start with the rug,” says Cortney, who serves on the board of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

From putting retro 1970s leather chairs around an antique dining table to rearranging art or adding or subtracting pieces in the living room, for Cortney, loving where she lives means balancing homey comfort with elements of subtle surprise. Risk, reward, and surprises galore come with the territory in an active household with young children.

For instance, the doorbell rings just as she’s pointing out the edgy new bronze chandelier in the dining room. It’s a friend of Ryder’s inviting him to come make a lemonade stand in the front yard.

“How about that? I never knew we had a doorbell,” laughs Cortney, and she’s off to find a pitcher and a cooler of ice.

Design Ideas from Cortney
Dress up drapery panels by adding a contrasting band of fabric or trim, like the vintage gold-beaded trim Cortney added near the top of her “Poppy” pattern draperies.

Take risks. Don’t shy away from buying what you love just because it’s wild. “I bought these vintage butterfly stools without a clue where they’d go,” says Cortney. “I just knew they’d make me smile.”

Don’t be afraid of pattern on pattern... on pattern. “I start with the largest one, which is usually in the rug,” says Cortney. “Then I choose a drapery fabric with a smaller scale print, then I find a wallpaper with a still smaller pattern and a soft contrast. This creates a backdrop for the bigger, bolder patterns.”