In the late 1940s, a 30-something Furlow Gatewood started renovating a carriage house on his family’s property in Americus, Georgia. After decades living in New York and dealing in antiques, he retired to the former carriage house and lives there today. Now 94, Gatewood developed the property to include four main buildings plus fanciful accessory structures and handsome gardens.
He’s a designer who has never designed for anyone but himself. And his life’s work is the subject of a recent book: “One’s Man’s Folly: The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood,” penned by New Orleans writer Julia Reed, with a foreword and afterword by one of New York’s top designers, Bunny Williams.
Williams and Reed will pair up at Longue Vue’s “The Essence of Style” design symposium in early November to reveal what they have learned about Gatewood’s design wizardry and how he has crafted this singularly arresting retreat for himself, his beloved dogs, and his close friends.
Williams, an A-list New York designer who has been recognized by Architectural Digest among its AD100 superstars, has known Gatewood since the late 1960s, when he and her now-husband, John Rosselli, operated an antiques store together in Manhattan.
“Furlow didn’t set out to create a compound of extraordinary houses in Americus; things just evolved,” Williams said. “First, he worked on the carriage house, then along the way he moved two houses there to save them from demolition. The fourth was a makeover of a smaller building on the site.”
Now known as “The Barn,” the former carriage house is where Gatewood actually lives. Over the decades, it has expanded via porch enclosures and the addition of bays for sleeping and dining quarters.
“The Peacock House,” originally a small shed for overwintering plants, developed into a picturesque marvel when Gatewood discovered, on one of many antiques buying forays, a set of French doors and Gothic inspired columns he wanted to use.
Later, when he learned that a nearby church planned to demolish the mid-19th century “Cuthbert House” to expand its parking lot, he intervened by moving it 65 miles to his property.
Finally, “The Lumpkin House,” a centerhall cottage, was trucked from 40 miles away, in large part due to Gatewood’s passion for its elegant front doors with their transoms and sidelights.
“Furlow can look at something and say, ‘Bunny, isn’t this the most wonderful thing you’ve ever seen?’” Williams recounted. “And I will say, ‘Oh, yes, Furlow,’ when in reality all I see is a pile of old wood. But he can see in his mind what can be done with it, and he has never been wrong.”
Gatewood has been able to carry out his construction and renovation projects because of his talented friend and builder, Jimmy Fuller, and master carpenter Joe McElroy, who execute the ideas that Gatewood dreams up without the benefit of architectural drawings but relying merely on a description or, at best, a sketch on piece of paper.
Although few of us have a skilled furniture maker/carpenter at our disposal or a trove of the finest antiques and accessories, we can nonetheless draw inspiration from how Gatewood approaches the making of an expressive environment and consider how we can apply his approaches to our own homes.
For example, when Gatewood “restores” a property, it is not to its original appearance but to the appearance he imagines for it.
He does not hesitate to add wood to the walls, wainscoting, columns and more, and he likes to use architectural salvage pieces he has kept for years, awaiting the right opportunity.
Wood floors are often painted — sometimes to mimic marble, other times less elaborately — and outdoor shutters are used inside in some places to dramatic effect.
These strategies can be adapted for the interior of many old homes.
Gatewood’s furnishing mixes are equally personal and include everything from fine oil paintings, to miniature bird statuettes placed in crannies to amuse the eye, to glittering chandeliers, to hand blocked prints from India. Sometimes a painting will hang on top of a mirror, and mirrors are ubiquitous.
Plaid, toile, and vintage Fortuny fabrics mingle comfortably as pillow covers. He likes to display his extensive collection of blue and white china — as well as other patterns such as Old Paris — hung in groupings on a wall or placed atop small wall shelves supported by millwork brackets.
Reed said her mother found inspiration in the book about Gatewood. “She pulled all her old sconces and oriental vases out of the attic and layered them right on in, and her house looks great,” she said. “That’s one of the many lessons of my glorious time in Furlow’s ‘follies.’ You can mix, you can layer, fabrics don’t have to be ‘matchy,’ and, certainly, periods don’t have to match.
“I love how brave Furlow is,” Reed said. “And best of all, is how practical he is. … Far better to make like Furlow and start collecting things you love. And that’s the real secret to how glorious his houses look: every piece in there, from one of his many Chinese vases to an Italian door surround, is there because he loved it and chose it. It’s not about anyone else’s vision or passion but his own.”
Furlow invented a clever way of ensuring that built-in bookcases are well illuminated by devising small shelves that extend beyond the front of the bookcase to hold tiny lamps. Ideas, if not resources, abound for any homeowner who wants a singular interior design.
“The thing about Furlow is that he’s always curious and he loves a project,” Williams said. “He is always on the hunt and likes solving design problems by drawing up pieces of furniture or other things to have Jimmy make.
“All the same, I told him recently, ‘Furlow, you cannot move another house!’ “Who knows if he’ll listen?”