The Charleston You Haven’t Seen

The South Carolina city is known for its historic homes and traditional Southern charm, but it’s also a place where new design is flourishing.

Charleston’s Creative Side

The Charleston You Haven’t Seen

Margaret Brinson Wright for The New York Times

The Charleston You Haven’t Seen

After years of working in creative industries, Karen Baldwin was intent on engaging the artistic community of Charleston, S.C., when she began planning to make a home there.

“There’s a whole creative side of Charleston that people aren’t even aware of,” said Ms. Baldwin, 59, who previously lived in New York, where she studied fine arts at Parsons School of Design, was a longtime employee of Michael Kors, worked as an interior designer and was a founder of the New York-based fashion accessories brand Fairchild Baldwin.

Visitors to the city “go to the plantations, or go downtown and do a garden tour,” she continued, “but there’s a lot of really young, creative people who have been moving here.”

Impressed with Charleston’s mix of traditional Southern charm and fresh new energy, Ms. Baldwin decided to build a home — or two — there.

The Charleston You Haven’t Seen

Karen Baldwin moved to Charleston from New York, where she worked in fashion and interior design.Credit…Margaret Brinson Wright for The New York Times

In 2015, she began working with Kevan Hoertdoerfer, a Charleston architect with a history of designing provocative contemporary structures, to transform a cinder-block house across from Hampton Park into a modernist gem.

Then, the following year, she bought a 1950s ranch house on a double lot just down the street for $415,000, with plans to demolish it, subdivide the lot and build a replacement with Mr. Hoertdoerfer’s help.

The initial idea was that the second house would be a spec home to sell. But as work progressed, Ms. Baldwin turned the plan on its head, deciding to keep the second house and put the first one up for sale.

To make her new home as distinctive as possible, she tapped as much burgeoning talent as she could. “What was supposed to be just a construction project ended up turning into this collaborative art installation,” she said.

Ms. Baldwin gave Mr. Hoertdoerfer limited instructions and then set him loose. “The only direction was the programming,” he said. “She wanted three bedrooms and open kitchen, living and dining.”

There was also the exterior color. “I had just come back from New Zealand and had also been in Scandinavia, where I had noticed a lot of black contemporary houses,” Ms. Baldwin said. “So I said to Kevan, ‘How do you feel about a black house?’”

Mr. Hoertdoerfer thought it was a fine idea and proceeded to design a building that bears little resemblance to its red-brick and white-porch neighbors.

“We just went back to basics, with a quintessential gable-roofed form,” he said, completely cloaked in black. A standing-seam aluminum roof folds down over two sides of the house, creating a simple wrapper, while the two ends are clad in black-stained cedar shiplap paneling.

Many of the tightly clustered houses in the neighborhood have side windows covered by curtains for privacy, so Mr. Hoertdoerfer decided to do away with those windows altogether, adding floor-to-ceiling glass at either end of the house instead. That opened up sightlines to the most desirable views: the park across the street and the backyard garden, where Mr. Hoertdoerfer added a cabana.

To animate one side of the home, Ms. Baldwin and Mr. Hoertdoerfer recruited McKenzie Eddy Smith and Elliott A. Smith, artists and designers who own the firm MES Creative Services, to create a dot-based mural that runs up a wall and onto the roof.

For the front yard, Mr. Hoertdoerfer designed a sculpture garden of overlapping artificial-turf-covered squares, where a piece by Carey Morton, a local sculptor, was given pride of place. Mr. Morton’s creations also populate Ms. Baldwin’s empty lot next door, which she may eventually use to build an art studio, or a spec house to sell.

As the project progressed, Ms. Baldwin and Mr. Hoertdoerfer seized on the design process as a teaching tool for elementary school students. “In a lot of cities, schools are cutting out art programs, which, being an art major, just breaks my heart,” Ms. Baldwin said.

Working with Charleston’s Redux Contemporary Art Center, she and Mr. Hoertdoerfer developed a weeklong summer program to introduce children to contemporary architecture. (Ms. Baldwin also held a fund-raiser for Redux at her house). The students received instruction from Mr. Hoertdoerfer, toured Ms. Baldwin’s house and designed dream homes of their own.

After 13 months of construction, the 2,245-square-foot house was completed in May, at a cost of about $700,000, and Ms. Baldwin moved in.

Inside the house, the palette is the opposite of the exterior: white and bright, with flashes of vivid color. Even the concrete ground floor is finished in brilliant white epoxy.

“I loved feeling like I was walking into a gallery, so I wanted to keep it super clean and very contemporary,” she said. “But I also wanted to have a pop of color, since everything is white.”

She installed a spare mix of furniture and accessories, most of it from Iola Modern in Charleston, to put the emphasis on the art hanging on the walls.

But guests shouldn’t expect things to remain that way for long.

“I’m definitely one of these people that needs to be creative on a daily basis,” Ms. Baldwin said, “and to surround myself with creative people.”

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