Mountain Heir

For the design of his North Carolina mountain house, Atlantan Frank Thomas draws inspiration from his friends and long-time mentors.

Not all lessons are learned from books. Case in point: Frank Thomas’ knowledge of design. It’s a passion he developed early in life, and one that only continues to grow. In fact, although h­­e’s a real estate attorney by trade, Frank says he gets much more excited about trips to Lewis & Sheron than commercial closings. “I thrive on it!” he laughs.

He’s quick, though, to give credit to his various mentors along the way. “The late J. Newton Bell of Griffin started me off. He was a landscape architect, a decorator and a family friend,” Frank says. “By simply being around him, I was always learning something. And I am just a sponge around design mentors!”

Frank’s home in Highlands, North Carolina, proves that he’s learned these design lessons well. His three-bedroom home is beautifully appointed, incorporating concepts gleaned from Bell and other mentors—Toby West, Tom Hayes and the late T. Gordon Little among them.

Walking through the arbor that frames the front door, you’re immediately drawn in by the home’s warm interiors. “For me, a mountain house is more than a bears-and-bows kind of place,” Frank explains. “I tend toward the look of a country house instead of a log cabin. I like to have a lot of light; log cabins are wonderful in the firelight but they’re dark in the daytime.”

And the house is intentionally on the small side—less than 2,000 square feet. “I’ve always liked small houses,” he says, “and there’s no point in having a gigantic house as a retreat; I use it, at best, 25 days a year.”

Like any well-thought-out design, however, the residence lives much bigger than it looks. In the spacious great room, the main conversation group comfortably accommodates seven. And the adjacent dining area takes full advantage of the mountain view through windows that reach to the ceiling. But it’s a grand fireplace, created by Aquone, North Carolina, stonemason Shawn Bryant, that’s the true focal point here.

“I took a picture of a fireplace I saw in Connecticut and asked him to create a similar pattern. But I wanted it to look like he took the rock right out of the river—no stacked stone,” says Frank. The result is everything the owner wanted and more, which he credits to giving the artisan free rein. “I think it’s so important to let artisans like Shawn express themselves. They take such pride in their work!”

Over the mantel, a symmetrical arrangement adds to the room’s sense of calm, including multiple pairs of antlers that are anything but obligatory. Several small sets are evenly spaced on either side of the vertical mirror, and then eventually give way to their larger counterparts. The combination deliberately draws the eye to the top of the vaulted ceiling, making the space seem larger—and giving the fireplace even more importance—in the process.

Each time the owner glances up at the antlers, he can’t help but smile, recalling when his 8-year-old nephew saw them for the first time. “He said, ‘Mom, Uncle Frank sure is a good shot!’ And I don’t even own a gun!” he laughs.

Frank has a preference for painted wood paneling (something learned from Hayes and West), which has been used throughout the main living areas. “It’s a buttermilk color, which is very restful but still gives things a little oomph,” he says. Upon first glance, it seems he’s wrapped the bedrooms with paneling, too. But, the owner reveals, that’s not the case at all. To keep costs down, evenly spaced batten boards were applied to standard drywall, creating a look that reads just like wood. And there’s a bit of fool-the-eye trickery in the home’s floors, too. Although the pine floors appear to be antique, they’re not at all. “An artisan who’s been doing my floors for years,” says Frank, “uses cut flooring nails to simulate the look of weathered ones made by hand.”

This project is by no means the first one Frank has taken on (it’s his 11th since 1994), and it’s a good bet that it won’t be his last. “I love the process; I get passionate about it,” he says. “The last home I built was to be my mountain dream house, but when I found a little better lot, I decided to do it all over again.”

In fact, it’s the setting itself that makes this homeowner treasure each day he spends here at “Swiftwater”; it’s located right on whitewater rapids flowing into Lake Sequoia, known affectionately as “Big Creek” by locals. “It’s the sound of the water, being on the river that draws me,” he says. “The river is a metaphor for life, and even in inclement weather it feeds my soul.”


Design Inspiration – Frank Thomas gives plenty of credit to the design mentors he’s had along the way:

Newton Bell
“He taught me so much about landscape design, Southern plants, English boxwood (the plants are dollops of aristocracy!), porcelain—and the importance of scale.”

Tom Hayes
“From Tom I’ve learned about suitability, majolica, cream-painted wood walls, white flowers and 18th- and 19th-century English furniture.”

Toby West

“From Toby I’ve learned how to balance a room by anchoring it with large pieces.
He’s also taught me that antlers can be very architectural, the importance of quality framing in paintings and prints—and all about tiger maple, twig and Adirondack furniture.”

Lessons from the late T. Gordon Little
“Value isn’t determined by price; a piece doesn’t have to be expensive to look expensive.”

“The best way to edit a room is to empty it and put back only the essential pieces.”

“Good decorating is good housekeeping—maintain your possessions. If something is supposed to shine, polish it!”

“Buy the best you can afford; I’d rather have a small piece of fine porcelain than a large reproduction.”