Classic furniture, eclectic artwork makes home a place to ‘exhale’

This article originally appeared in the Commercial Appeal on Nov. 15, 2013

When you step inside interior designer Leslie Shankman-Cohn’s East Memphis home, it’s impossible to latch onto just one detail. The whole house is a feast for the senses.

“You don’t walk in and see one thing and go, ‘Wow!’ You walk in and go, ‘Wow,’ and then you start seeing things,” said Shankman-Cohn, a partner in Jill Hertz Interior Design. “That’s the way I like to design. It’s a holistic view.”

Shankman-Cohn also doesn’t have a single style she feels more comfortable working in than any other. As she tells her clients, her style is “whatever your job calls for.” Her projects run the gamut from minimalist contemporary to period traditional.

In her own home, it’s difficult to tell whether the midcentury architecture dictated the home’s furnishings or whether Shankman-Cohn and her longtime partner and new husband, Robert Schreiber, were drawn to the house because it fit so well with their existing pieces.

The house was designed in 1962 by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright who was the first owner’s brother-in-law. It was built to accommodate its hilly, wooded site and has no windows on its street-facing north elevation.

“You walk in the front door and go straight through, and you’re on the second story because the topography dips down,” Shankman-Cohn said.

The walls at the rear of the house, on the other hand, are made mostly of glass. Shankman-Cohn chose not to disturb with window treatments the wide-open view of her lush backyard. A cantilevered roof extends over a long back patio Shankman-Cohn and Schreiber use almost year-round.

“I can sit out on that patio three-fourths of the year, even in storms,” she said.

One of the most striking features of the house is its myriad undisturbed original features. From the slate floors in the main living areas to the grasscloth wallpaper in the master bedroom to the cork flooring in Schreiber’s office, period details remain in pristine condition half a century after their installation.

Furniture, for the most part, matches the period of the house, and both Shankman-Cohn and Schreiber have contributed to the collection. The couple own iconic pieces by Harry Bertoia, Marcel Breuer, Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, among other midcentury luminaries.

That’s another philosophy Shankman-Cohn brings to her work as an interior designer: Buy classic, well-built items that stand the test of time.

“I think that’s why we don’t have to redo,” she said. “The furniture is classic. When you spend more on the front end and buy quality, classic pieces, you don’t have to replace things.”

At any rate, Shankman-Cohn believes neither the furniture nor the architecture is the star of the show in her home. All of that serves as a backdrop for the artwork she and Schreiber have acquired from around the world and the various collections they’ve built.

Works by local artists including Peter Bowman and David Nester share space with such eclectic finds as gold weights from Africa, a 6-foot tall sculpture of double fighting warriors from Thailand and even an Egyptian camel blanket Shankman-Cohn bought Schreiber as a gift.

The couple’s home is proof they don’t take themselves too seriously. A stone Chinese sculpture in the great room blended into the double-sided stone fireplace behind it, so to make it stand out, they dressed the sculpture with Groucho glasses, fake flowers and a tiara. Across from the sculpture, a photograph of roadkill that Schreiber “gave the dog” one year for Hanukkah shares wall space with high art.

After purchasing the house 18 years ago, Shankman-Cohn did little to change the existing structure or finishes. She painted the dark kitchen cabinetry and replaced orange Formica countertops with butcher block. She and Schreiber also removed a bank of upper cabinets that divided the kitchen from the adjoining breakfast room.

In the sunken dining room, she removed carpeting and replaced it with sturdy, industrial rubber floors that remain in place today. The room features a Dunbar table from a Memphis antiques store surrounded by caned chairs by Marcel Breuer. Above the fireplace hangs a large-scale painting by Schreiber’s late ex-wife, Pat Schreiber.

Though Shankman-Cohn is the resident designer, Schreiber — who manages a growth equity portfolio with Longhorn Capital Management — is an equal participant in the home’s décor.

“He’s got a very good eye, and I let him do anything he wants to in the house because I do this all day long,” Shankman-Cohn said. “There’s not much we disagree on. We keep picking things up from our travels, and we have to find homes for it.”

Shankman-Cohn, an expert on aging-in-place and universal design, said if her home were built today, it would be considered a “green” house because of its sustainable features. The home contains low-voltage lighting and was built with radiant heating beneath the floors. Arkansas stone went into the double-sided fireplace, and other materials were locally sourced.

“It’s a cool house, ahead of its time,” she said.

But her favorite thing about the house is that it’s exactly right for her and Schreiber — a quality she works to achieve in every home she designs.

“You walk in and you’re transported to a different feel, a different world,” she said. “You feel like you’re out in the country in the middle of the city. Mine is a livable house. It’s not a show house; it’s a livable house and a comfortable house. It’s like you walk in the house and you exhale.”

This story is part of an occasional series that takes a look inside the homes of local interior designers.