On a High Note

For a music lover's new high-rise residence, a trio of design professionals creates a space that's as elegant as a well-composed sonata

After years of living in a 1920s Tudor house (think chintz and Staffordshire dogs), a newly single businessman found himself taking up residence in unfamiliar territory: a contemporary mid-rise building in Birmingham that boasted amazing city views. Unsure of how he wanted his new home to look—and armed with little more than his vast collection of vintage records—this audiophile turned to the Birmingham architectural firm Bates Corkern Studio for help.

Known for their fresh, updated approach to traditional architecture, Paul Bates and Jeremy Corkern cite design legends like David Adler, an early 20th-century architect noted for making classical forms modern, as inspiration. In fact, the two architects had toured some of Adler’s Lake Forest, Illinois, houses before embarking on this particular project. With Adler’s work fresh on their minds, Bates and Corkern set out to create a gentleman’s apartment for their client, one that combined the warmth of traditional design with the livability of a modern, open floor plan. After gutting the unit back to its shell, the duo created a capacious living-cum-dining room in which walls are sheathed with paneling of old oak, a cozy contrast to the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows.  It was the homeowner himself who suggested that the walls should resemble silvered driftwood, an effect achieved by first painting the wood gray and then bleaching, scrubbing and waxing it.

 Throughout the apartment, Bates and Corkern limited finishes to “time-tested materials,” to give the home an ageless quality. In fact, that same oak reappears in the kitchen, a space Corkern deems their “Jean-Michel Frank moment.” In the spirit of the innovative 1930s French designer, the architects tweaked the look of the wood by having it fluted, ramping up the kitchen’s contemporary feel. And the island—a mere 15 inches wide—and countertops were fabricated from cross-cut limestone that was chosen for its subtle coloration.

With the stage set for this traditional-meets-modern mashup, the homeowner called on Birmingham designer Betsy Brown to conjure up a plan for the home’s furnishings, one in which comfort was of utmost importance. “It couldn’t be too sleek,” Brown says. “He didn’t want to feel like he was living in an affected, pretentious space.” For the living room, that meant dark polished-wood pieces by Christian Liaigre, upholstered in refined linen and buttery leather. This sense of down-to-earth luxury extends to the room’s oak floors and silk Tibetan rugs. As Bates notes, the space is like a “traditional envelope injected with modern pieces.”

“Paul is more modern and likes things pared down. I like to fuss things up,” laughs Corkern. But rather than turning out a home filled with clashing notes, the two architects have managed to achieve a pitch-perfect harmony of old and new. That’s something that must be music to the owner’s ears.


ARCHITECTURE Paul Bates and Jeremy Corkern, Bates Corkern Studio, 2336 20th Avenue Alley S, Birmingham, Alabama 35223. (205) 414-9939; batescorkernstudio.com
INTERIOR DESIGN Betsy Brown, Betsy Brown Inc.; betsybrowninc.net