Meet the Designer: Bobby McAlpine
A renowned architect and author reveals the why behind his insightful designs.
McAlpine grew up in an Alabama sawmill town with a love of architecture that has flourished into the creation of romantic storybook homes. You can almost imagine Juliet leaning from a balcony or Rapunzel gazing down from a turret in the houses pictured in his best selling books, “The Home Within Us” and “Poetry of Place.” But each fanciful design focuses on expressing the client’s inward grace. “So many of them have been in an arduous search for a home and haven’t been able to find it, and I want to be able to give it to them. I’m a storyteller with a pencil.”
With offices in New York, Atlanta, Nashville, and Montgomery, Alabama—designing architecture, interiors and furniture—McAlpine remains a steadfast Southerner. He and his partner, “the most curious person I’ve ever met,” are designing their own dream residence on an Alabama lake, self-described as “a bunch of little buildings, all with thatched roofs.”
What inspired you to design your first house at age five?
The world around me did not look like my own understanding of it, so I felt called to make one that did. It was just a floor plan, but as a child I was most infatuated with plans. I loved how beautifully you can organize something to set it up for three-dimensional execution. I drew it on the back of a Whitman’s candy box lid, the only unprinted surface I could find.
You often place the dining room far away from the kitchen.
I tend to put it in one of the best spots in the property, the spot I want to dine in. In a restaurant I don’t chose to sit near the kitchen; you don’t want a mess hall mentality.
Why is your aim to create homes that are “portraits” of the owner?
If you can find your home, physically in the world, it is essentially a larger, enveloping model of your own heart. And it is you. It allows your heart a larger containment than just your body.
Why do you like to work in contradictions?
The truth seems to reside in the far left and the far right of the swing of a pendulum simultaneously, not in the middle. There is the best love affair going on between them. Take stone and thatch: the stone is a permanent thing that makes it a beautiful ruin and the thatch is the opposite—temporal, tender, vulnerable, a real heartbreaking material—in a good way. The pairing of opposites is perfection to my heart.
What draws you to extremes?
I love the strength of a theatrical gesture, but the minute you do something grand you have to apologize for it too. Humility and modesty have to be in the formula of anything successful.
What is the attraction of imperfection?
Flaws and cracks, the barenness, and ravaged elements comfort people and let them in emotionally.
Why do you call windows the “eyes of the house?”
It’s what’s forthcoming about the house, passing by your very first emotion is, “I bet it’s wonderful in there.” The true measure of anyone’s beauty is the light emitted from us through the eyes. The windows of the house are the same.
One of your favorite rooms is the Women’s Exercise Hall in “the most perfect house to survive from the middle ages,” England’s Haddon Hall. What is its appeal?
There’s a stair sequence and then you go through a little door and pop—you are in a regal, beautiful room. It’s wainscoted about head high, the patina is burnt and gray, pristine powdery plaster, an elaborate ceiling, and all those English windows with leaded divisions. The range of emotions in that space is phenomenal.
You also admire the Great Hall of Prague’s Castle Praha.
Vaulting is usually high overhead but these magnificent vaults spring very low to the floor—ear height—so when you walk into the Great Hall, it’s like entering the attic of a cathedral; you are up in the branches of the trees.
To your Southern sensibility, what is Connecticut’s attraction?
The true American style lives lovingly there, a modesty of materials, a dream made of cotton more than silk. And there are opposite considerations at play. A southern house is taller with more volume because it’s hot; original Connecticut houses were tightly fitted with low ceilings because it’s cold.
The print version of this article appears with the headline: Bobby McAlpine.
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