Geneva-based interior designer Alexandra de Garidel-Thoron has decorated numerous residences for the same clients: a Czech banker and his wife. One of the first was a country house in their native land with a futuristic tunnel that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond film. Others have included a chalet in Verbier named Black Bear, after the Xavier Veilhan sculpture that stands near the main entrance. There’s also a villa on Lake Geneva and a historic winery near Cape Town, South Africa.
The couple’s favourite home, however, is the one located on Hilton Head Island in the US state of South Carolina, where they vacation with their four young children. "It’s quite a magical place – a little strange and unique," says Alexandra. "The vegetation is like something out of a Lewis Carroll tale, with astonishing fauna." Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find nature quite so lush; on the one-hour drive from the Savannah airport, the highways are lined with forests.
The 10-bedroom house has the added advantage of being situated directly on the ocean. Measuring almost 11,000sqft, it was designed by local architect C Matthew Taylor, whose initial scheme for the interiors was to focus on just two materials: teak wood and white Corian. "I completely turned the project upside down," recalls Alexandra. "In jest, the construction crew would ask if I was going to arrive in cowboy boots. But, there were lots of really strange things." In the sitting room, for instance, stood a traditional black marble fireplace with a huge TV screen above it. There were also windows between the ground-floor corridor and children’s bathrooms.
The clients asked Alexandra specifically for decor that was more welcoming and relaxed. She explains, "It’s a seaside house – so you’re supposed to be able to hang out in your swimming costume." One of the main complexities she had to deal with was the sheer volume of many of the spaces – the master suite alone measures some 1,000sqft. "We completely reproportioned things, so you now have the impression that everything is on a human scale," she says. Much of the furniture was ordered in custom sizes. The Robert Bristow bar stools in the kitchen, for instance, are twice their normal dimensions.
Many of the artworks are also rather sizable. The focus of the sitting room is a four-metre-wide triptych called 1,000 Platitudes by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The Daniel Buren wall sculpture at the top of the dramatic staircase is another eye-catcher. "As soon as I saw it, I knew it would be perfect for the house," says Alexandra. Meanwhile, she discovered the three masks on the credenza in the dining area on the French Riviera. Serendipitously, it turned out that they were created by South Carolina native Robert Courtright, who had a house nearby and ended up delivering them himself.
For the furniture, Alexandra was keen to work with American designers, too. "For me, the interiors of every house should always have a link to the actual place," she explains. She incorporated ceiling lights by David Weeks, introduced a dining table and chairs by Chris Lehrecke, and hung comic strip images of Batman and Robin on the walls of the bedroom of the couple’s two boys.
Elsewhere, she added even more colour and whimsy. Much of the palette consists of different blues, inspired by the hues of the ocean at different times of the day. "They range from a deeper Persian blue to the oily tone the sea can have when the sun sets on it," she says. Alexandra decorated the bathrooms with playful mosaics and hung three grinning masks made from ceramic and horse teeth in the outdoor sitting area. In the garden, meanwhile, she created a circuit of wooden paths wide enough for the children to drive their electric karts.
Other considerations were a little more serious in order to adapt the structure to the local environment. All the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, for instance, had to be hurricane-proofed. "They are the greatest technical prowess of the house," says Alexandra. "I can’t even begin to tell you how much each one cost." The exterior blinds, meanwhile, couldn’t be too white or reflective. The reason? The area’s indigenous turtles. "There are really strict regulations in place," she explains. "Otherwise, there’s a risk they can be dazzled and completely lose their bearings."