Design Lessons from Charleston’s Amelia Handegan

Essential design takeaways from the Charleston designer’s book, Rooms

The best Southern houses tell personal stories, and in her beautiful book, Rooms, Amelia Handegan shares a few of her own.

The designer, whose work has appeared in Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and Veranda, grew up on a farm in South Carolina built by her grandparents, and loved decorating from an early age. She founded her Charleston firm more than thirty years ago, and quickly became known for a less is more approach, deft hand with color, and ability to create spaces that live very much in the present and reflect the interests of their owners. “I love Southern houses,” Handegan says. “The finest to the most humble are built to accommodate both luxury and need.”In her portfolio, it’s not unusual to see a spare, purposeful kitchen in a nineteenth-century house that meets the needs of a twenty first-century family, for example, or a living room where modern and antebellum portraiture share one wall.

In the 223-page volume, Handegan covers a diverse array of projects, from a North Carolina mountain cabin to a formal historic estate in Virginia to her personal residences on Folly Beach and in downtown Charleston. Here are a few of our favorite decorating lessons from the book.

Look for a “map piece” to guide color choices 

Pieter Estersohn

Southerners are known for their love of color, and in Handegan’s Charleston apartment, above, she used a textile discovered during her travels to guide the color selection of the room. “We bought the pichwai in India,” she says. “I was determined to have a place for it because it’s full of colors that I love. The acidic green yellow in it is what I used for the lacquer color for the doors to the bedroom. Amazingly, this color becomes neutralized by such a strong art piece.”

—When it comes to kitchens and bathrooms, restraint is important, particularly in historic houses.

Pieter Estersohn

“I think the biggest mistake is trying to make utilitarian spaces more than what they are,” Handegan says. “These spaces were always simply functional and there is beauty in that.” Pared-down design is key in order to play up the existing architecture (as seen in the kitchen above).

Pieter Estersohn

In the bathroom in an eighteenth-century home above, Handegan highlights the original windows, trim, and millwork with a custom mirror and vanity fit to the exact measurements of the space.

Painted and stenciled floors are a timeless addition to any space.

Pieter Estersohn

“I like patterns and I also like a plain glossy paint finish,” Handegan says. “Sometimes they help hide an inferior floor but more often they add dimension and interest.” In the entry hall of a Virginia house above, the floors are hand-stenciled.