Breathe Design Studio Creates Mid-Century Magic in the Hill Country
How owner Christine Turknett put together a head-turning modern home near Lake Travis
By Bryan C. Parker
Photos by Chase Daniel
Breathe Design Studio owner Christine Turknett loves sparking conversation. For her, that means not only fostering discussion around her gorgeous designs but also creating a dialogue between various theories and eras of design. With a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, Turknett has an affinity for academic research and has been working as an interior designer for half a decade. Her work on the Atomic Ranch property just outside of Austin is an apt illustration of her talent for provoking discourse.
Nestled in a quiet neighborhood among the gently rolling hills around Lake Travis, the Atomic Ranch project emerged as a collaboration between Austin-based builders MidCentury Custom Homes, who constructed the home as a spec house, and Atomic Ranch magazine, which planned to feature the project in an upcoming issue.
For the interior design of the home, Atomic Ranch hired Turknett last November. The question posed to her for the project wasn’t an easy one: “How do we create a mid-century modern home in the context of a new build in Central Texas?” Conceptual ideas from classic design periods would need to inform an entirely contemporary space.
With access to popular trends among Atomic Ranch readers but without specific homeowners to please, Turknett found herself staring at a blank slate open for interpretation — a dynamic that was both freeing and challenging.
“There were a lot of interesting tiles and finishes I’ve always loved and kept in the back of my mind that weren’t the right fit for other projects,” she says. “Sometimes I’m limited by a client’s parameters.” Now, she had the ability to put that vast encyclopedia of elements to use. Her mind raced with possibilities.
To address the task, Turknett applied her love of photography by visualizing each space in the house as a cohesive vignette — “imagining the project through the lens of the photographer,” she says. Since the finished project would be showcased in magazine images, it didn’t make sense to use the same element — a tile, paint color or wall application, for example — in two separate rooms, no matter how elegant or striking. Each space was a chance to show off, and Turknett took that opportunity to experiment and have fun.
“I was able to use a lot of bold patterns and bright colors,” she says. “We wanted to make art with this project.” In the bar area of the butler’s pantry, dark teal cabinetry pairs with an intricate geometric tile. In one bathroom, a vibrant orange pendant light hangs above a pale pink vanity.
Turknett also wanted to emphasize the interplay between mid-century modern and Scandinavian modern design, to place elements from each in conversation with one another in harmony. For an epitomizing example, she points out the PH-5 pendant lights in the kitchen, a piece first introduced by Danish designer Poul Henningsen in 1925. Though Scandinavian in origin, the fixture shares features with mid-century modern design — an emphasis on elegant curves, clean angles and stunning geometry. Turknett is also well-read on another like-minded school of thought, the German Bauhaus movement, which she says influenced the house’s design.
“There’s a Bauhaus reference probably somewhere in every room,” she says with a laugh. However, Turknett says her favorite feature of the house is the hearth in the living room. She used a textured, three-dimensional tile in a blue shade from Heath Ceramics on the fireplace column. From the hearth, you can gaze out of the wall of glass windows to scan the bright green splashes of scrubby vegetation in the hill country landscape.
An airy, modern casita sits adjacent to the Atomic Ranch main house. Bold, espresso stained wooden beams stretch the length of the main room and draw in the lines provided by steel beams on the structure’s exterior. Like the main house, floor to ceiling windows let in an abundance of light and create harmony between the interior and the natural world outside. For the kitchenette backsplash, Turknett personally designed a custom tile — a sunburst pattern of navy, coral and turquoise. Sourced through Austin-based business Clay Imports, the company liked the tile design so much that they made it permanently available to their customers.
Ultimately, Turknett says that each room tells its own story, even as consistent motifs unite the residence and ground it to the core mid-century modern aesthetic on which it’s built. The finished work is whimsical and joyful but also takes dramatic risks that make the home a visual spectacle.
“On a certain level, this house is something you walk through and experience, and that’s also what you do at an art museum,” Turknett says.