The Way Home

A new book by Bobby McAlpine and Susan Ferrier tells the tale behind the making of five very special houses.

Architect Bobby McAlpine allows no ambiguity when defining the difference between a house and a home. The latter is a concept, sentimental and individual; the former is simply a vehicle for taking you there. The title of his newest book, Art of the House: Reflections on Design, was selected on that very principle.
Brimming with conversations between the architect (renowned principal of McAlpine Tankersley Architecture) and noted interior designer Susan Ferrier, with whom he’s collaborated on numerous projects through the years via interior design firm McAlpine Booth & Ferrier, the new Rizzoli tome hits bookshelves in late April, and recounts this pair’s famously emotive and considerate process as they fashioned five modest cabins on Lake Martin in Alabama. A favorite vacation destination of weekenders from Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, Columbus and beyond, Lake Martin remains an increasingly popular refuge for those seeking its still, restorative waters and serene shores.
As a young architect 20 years ago, McAlpine felt that sense of sanctuary in his bones. Swiftly but passionately, he erected an unassuming cabin in a spot now known as The Ridge on Lake Martin. That rustic residence, which has since been sold, became an unshakeable seed of inspiration for seven strikingly similar structures he built in the same vicinity—albeit much later—five of which received the deft touch of Susan Ferrier for their soulful interiors. Affectionately, and appropriately, they’ve dubbed this emerging community “The Camp.”
“These buildings reference the great national parks and recreational structures … the gate houses, ranger houses and barracks that were first built in the teens, then evolved so beautifully throughout the Great Depression,” the architect explains. Likening their façades to scout and brownie uniforms, he notes how they forfeit exterior expression in favor of something greater: honoring the landscape around them. “These houses are not meant to be trophies,” he assures.  “The eye should not shift from the natural beauty. You’re there to witness something larger than yourself.”
It took a special homeowner indeed to identify with that sentiment, to understand what was being gained by giving up the spotlight. As it happened, serendipity struck: A range of empty nesters (all first-time clients) sought McAlpine directly. They recognized the privilege of departing their city homes for the refuge and clarity of the lake, where the pace of life slowed and all eyes were off of them. Here, they could embrace their most authentic selves—then take that back into the world. “In the country, they get to be who they are, rather than who they have to be.” Ferrier explains. “I know what their city lives are like; I think with these lake houses, they feel like they’re finally coming home.”
Though The Camp is first and foremost a place to reconnect and restore, the cabins also act as bait of sorts for the clients’ grown children—young professionals who often must carefully choose where to spend a precious few vacation days per year. So it’s no coincidence that each of these “sleepy houses” (as McAlpine calls them) make room for about a dozen, with bunks ready to receive grandchildren just as soon as they arrive.
Creating such a rich and welcoming atmosphere is a testament to Ferrier’s finesse as a designer. “It’s a very introverted concept,” she notes of the contrast between the homogenous exteriors and highly personalized interiors. “These houses are basically treasure chests,” McAlpine elaborates. “It’s the contents that differ.”
Ferrier’s approach to cosmetic trappings is infamous for playing to the strengths of sound architecture while capturing the essence of those who dwell within. “The fabrics and finishes, the specific tones and colors, even the wood on the insides of the houses are addressed differently,” explains the designer, who is known for her light but skillful hand.
“I like to say that I create the church, but Susan knows exactly how to misbehave in church,” McAlpine adds with a laugh. “She pushes the design just enough so that it is not too sovereign.”
By now, the lives of those who have nested here—strangers at the outset—have become intimately intertwined. They wave to their neighbors across the lake, they join each other for holidays and they’ve turned McAlpine’s camp into a community in the most organic way. As each of them set foot in the other’s houses, their individualities are immediately apparent, made all the more obvious when layered atop nearly lookalike floor plans.
“I think it jump-starts relationships, seeing those differences, because it’s almost a shorthand of the person in front of you,” Ferrier explains. “The clients are the muses, and these houses capture them.”

Art of the House: Reflections on Design (Rizzoli, $55), tells the stories behind architect Bobby McAlpine and interior designer Susan Ferrier’s work on five initial Lake Martin cabins, created for five special sets of clients. Ten inches square, with gilt print and gilded edges, the tome is meant to sit on the very top of the stack. “We wanted it to be a very beautiful, prized object,” McAlpine says. Packed with intimate conversations between him and longtime partner, friend and co-author Ferrier—of McAlpine Booth & Ferrier Interiors (Atlanta, Nashville and New York) —the 208-page book presents 250 full-color photographs by Susan Sully and Adrian Ferrier. Images are beautifully paired to poetic musings by both McAlpine and Ferrier; it’s a revealing look inside this firm’s soulful manner of creating elevated, inviting and highly personal dwellings. And though success is evident in each residence, if you ask McAlpine his favorite, his answer is the two unfinished ones.