A Stylish Reboot with Zoë Gowen

Designer Zoë Gowen kicks the 1980s to the curb in the renovation of an Alabama home that combines fresh color with décor grounded in tradition.
living room decorated with garland, magnolia and other flowers
In the parlor, cedar boughs, pine cones, and magnolia leaves frame the mantel, with more magnolia and tulips in the flanking pedestals. Floral designer Kappi Naftel created the coffee table arrangement of seasonal greenery and hellebores.

When Bart McCorquodale received an unsolicited offer on his Birmingham, Alabama, home, which he had meticulously renovated to his liking, the veteran mover, who fittingly owns a moving company, barely hesitated. However, this particular move left him unmoored and scouring a competitive real estate market to find a new place to hang his hat. Bart eventually settled on a bit of a white elephant—a behemoth of a house that had formerly been an Alabama Symphony showhouse. “It was originally a well-designed Sprott Long home, but it had been added onto and changed without much consideration for the architecture,” he says. “And because it was a showhouse, every room was different and nothing made sense.”

entry into the foyer with a staircase decorated with garland
Orange and blue ribbons on the stairway garland speak to the floral-patterned runner.

As Bart struggled with where to begin for renovating and decorating the house, a friend suggested bringing in designer Zoë Gowen for direction. After reviewing Zoë’s plans, he felt confident ceding creative control. The designer then rolled up her sleeves and got down to the business of reimaging the mishmash giant.

Christmas tree in living room
An antique silver epergne on the coffee table is filled with red tulips that impart movement. For a novel twist, gilded ferns and palm fronds top the tree.
“I kind of pushed Bart in a less formal direction to lighten, brighten, and open up the home. And then my mission was to make everything really comfortable and inviting because he is always entertaining.”

—Zoë Gowen

As inspiration for the palette, Bart provided Zoë with a piece of Imari china that had a lot of orangey hues. However, the savvy designer noticed that almost every time she met with her client, he was wearing blue. So while she did pay homage to the china pattern’s colors, she also dialed into blue shades in many rooms with injections of yellow and green. Watery blue subway tiles serve as the backsplash in the reworked kitchen, as well as in the bar carved out of a 1980s-era mirrored butler’s pantry. Zoë gave a deeper blue tone to the dining chairs Bart had discovered in New Orleans. And the Chinese Chippendale-style breakfast room chairs, along with the super long banquette in the breakfast room, were covered in paler shades of blue.

Living room designed by Zoe Gowen with Christmas tree
The living room can welcome a crowd to enjoy the holiday season with a mix of generously proportioned seating options and botanical prints in play.

“I also saw that Bart was always very smartly but casually dressed every time we met, so I took cues from that as well,” says Zoë. “I knew he liked antiques and traditional design, but I helped him segue a bit from formal to more comfortably elegant and inviting, especially since he entertains a lot.” The pair took a trip to New York to look at fabrics and wallcoverings, and as Zoë presented options, it was quickly apparent that Bart had a preference for chinoiserie motifs. “Many of the houses where I grew up had décor in this genre, so it reminded me of my childhood in the best way,” says Bart.

sideboard decorated with pine cones, magnolia leaves and paperwhites
Sugar pine cones hang from ribbons over the gold mirror, and magnolia leaves, berries, and paperwhites fill the sideboard alongside a moss-covered crèche.

The designer embraced this ornamentation with hand-painted scenic wallpaper in the dining room and chintz armchairs in the parlor, along with fretwork trim on the window treatments. She also made liberal use of floral and botanical prints that read classic but not stuffy, as seen on the comfortable, sink-in upholstery, as well as in the powder room’s lively wallpaper.

dining room table
The trestle table in the breakfast area is decorated with white pedestal bowls filled with lemons, oranges, and salal (lemon leaf).
“I recognized that Zoë had a different spin on the design, and I liked that. This house reminds me of my childhood homes but in a freshly articulated voice.”

—Bart McCorquodale

Perhaps the foyer best encapsulates the entire approach to the décor while also offering hints of what’s to come from a palette and scale perspective. “It’s essentially the feel of a tuxedo undone with the black-and-white floors and then the beige-and-white wallpaper,” says Zoë. “We also replaced the heavy wooden stair rail with a custom iron one that has brass rosette accents. This immediately lightened up the space.”

kitchen island decorated with citrus and greenery
“I love decorating with citrus for the holidays,” says Brooke McAfee of Lilt Floral. She wired oranges and ribbons to customize the wreath over the stove. Lemons, limes, and clementines nestled in greenery line the island.

The staircase’s bold floral runner, based on an antique Tibetan carpet remnant, speaks to the colors beyond. “A lot of the selections were made during the height of the pandemic, and the more we felt stuck at home, the more we embraced color and comfort,” says the designer. “This house is so large that it could support a stair carpet like this. Anything too small in scale would look like an afterthought.”

powder bathroom decorated with greenery
The powder room, with its graphic L’Espalier wallpaper from Pierre Frey, called for simple decoration—sprigs of greenery hung from satin ribbon over the gold mirror.

All in all, it’s a new/old house that speaks to Bart’s preference for tradition infused with more lighthearted notes, plenty of color, and a less buttoned-up attitude. “I recognized that Zoë had a different spin on the design, and I liked that,” says Bart. “This house reminds me of my childhood homes but in a freshly articulated voice.”

By Alice Welsh Doyle  |  Photography by Hector Sanchez  |  Styling by Amanda Smith Fowler

See more from Zoë Gowen on her website and by following her on Instagram.