Formal Meets Function

Little Rock builder Richard Harp creates a forever home for a family whose aesthetic is equal parts rustic and refined



He really wants me to see the outdoor fireplace.

We’re standing in his clients’ window-wrapped living room, taking in the reclaimed-wood wall and the unobstructed views of the formal-meets-functional kitchen and the dining space beyond, but builder Richard Harp keeps circling back to that fireplace outside. Not that I blame him—the house is situated in such a way that the pine-carpeted foothills loom large beyond the sculptural whitewashed brick of the fireplace and the rich ipe wood that ripples out from it, and I’m falling victim to the siren song.

RP_arlife_150701_6741_TAnd then, as I hear that fireplace’s back story—how it started out as this, but then evolved into that, with a bit of “Hey, why don’t we try this?” thrown in for good measure—and we take our chat outside to the covered deck, I start to understand his fixation. The fireplace in front of us? It pretty well embodies the ethos governing the form and function of this west-Little Rock home. For starters, it’s got that rustic-formal juxtaposition down pat, with its rough-hewn wooden mantel, its sophisticated painted brick, its haphazard stacks of logs at the ready. But it was also, Harp tells me, “sketched, studied, built and rebuilt.” Painstakingly planned. Considered, then reconsidered.

As I’m studying the fireplace’s graceful composition, which reminds me of something you might see in a European country house, interior designer Laurie McFarland comes out to join us.

“We were talking about how hard you and the homeowners worked on this,” Harp says.

McFarland nods and shrugs in one of those demurring, “Well, of course we did” ways. In this house, I’ll soon learn, everything was deliberate, because when you’re designing a client’s forever home, nothing’s left to chance.

There are clients who play it safe for resale, Harp and McFarland tell me, and there are clients who get caught up in the trends and fads of the here and now. The family who owns this home—outdoorsy native Arkansans who are “equally at home in jeans as they are in cocktail attire,” and their two busy teens—are the kind of clients who know they’re planning on sticking around for a while, and are, well, planners. The kind who come to design meetings with manila folders brimming with Elle Decor tears, bookmarked Houzz files and Pinterest boards. The kind who know that putting in extra attention to detail now is sure to pay off in the long haul.

“They wanted to focus on the permanent things,” McFarland says, eyeing the fireplace. “They wanted those things—the doors, the windows, the walls, the fixtures, the floors—to be most of the decoration, as opposed to something that’s there for the sake of being there. To decorate with purpose.”

As I look around the home’s kitchen- slash-dining-slash-living space—which is completely open, room-to-room—I can’t help but notice that the home’s minimalist decor does indeed feel very much “on purpose.” I’m struck first and foremost by the barn-wood-and-precast-concrete fireplace surround (yep, yet another stop-and-stare fireplace), which stretches to the ceiling. It’s a striking marriage of backwoods charm and modern elegance, and sets the tone for the rest of the interior finishes. My eye then turns to the slate-gray shaker cabinets with their modern, almost midcentury-leaning polished-chrome pulls, then to the cornflower-blue-and-cream granite topping the dual kitchen islands. Taken together, it’s formal—but it’s not fussy. It’s functional, but it looks pretty darn good.

There are clients who play it safe for resale, and there are clients who get caught up in the trends and fads of the here and now. The family who owns this home are the kind of clients who know they’re planning on sticking around for a while, and are, well, planners

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“Everything here is everyday life,” Harp says. “Instead of keeping everything formal and then, Bam!, all of a sudden you’ve got a rustic deck, they went with sanded-finish floors, understated light fixtures, flat walls—heck, we even applied a treatment to the doors so they wouldn’t be too shiny. Nothing’s flashy.”

SidebarAnd nothing’s trendy, either. Even though the couple used social tools such as Houzz and Pinterest, design decisions were ultimately governed by what they loved—finishes that really spoke to them—and not what was popular.

“The blessing and curse of those tools is whatever is popular is everywhere in 14 seconds,” McFarland says. “[The homeowner] had done her research and knew she wanted a white-on-white kitchen, but when it came time to choose finishes, months had passed, and she’d seen it replicated enough that she thought, Oh, wow, everyone has that. And ultimately, what kept catching her eye was this.” She runs her hand across that cream-colored granite topping the “family center” kitchen island, where we’ve perched—as people tend to do when they come over—to chat. “And I said, ‘Fads come and go, but if you really love something? That’s always going to work.’”

And that’s the beauty of building your forever home from the ground up, says Harp, who throughout our tour of the house has been identifying a laundry list of amenities added to make the home not only efficient (Comfort 365 glass, Tyvek home wrap) and intelligent (a Control4 smart-home automation system), but also elegant and beautiful. Tailor-made. Deliberate and full of purpose.

“Even when there wasn’t any furniture in here, it was a pretty house,” McFarland says. “You don’t have to dress it up too much because the doors are beautiful, the fireplace is beautiful, the windows are beautiful. When you spend a lot of time making sure that the things that belong to the house are nice, it pretty much decorates itself.”