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‘I mentioned “Star Trek”... and I thought they wouldn’t take the job’

A modern architecture lover taps Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects to build her dream house in Dallas

Diane Cheatham knows what she likes—and how to get it. When it came to realizing her dream of developing a modern enclave in Dallas and assembling a creative team to build her family home there, she followed her intuition for what was needed, be it a full-court press or stepping back to allow designers to work.

Cheatham started her career as an accountant, but abandoned her practice to pursue a career in real estate development. After meeting local architect Lionel Morrison, she became a modernist. “Early on, Lionel and I did a lot of jobs together, and he said something that sang to me,” she says. “He said: ‘I don’t understand why people want to build something from the past. Why not build something of its time and place?’ That made so much sense.”

The home belonging to Diane and Chuck Cheatham is surrounded by trees.
The living room is lined with windows. The furniture is modern and done in neutral colors.
The living room appears to float among the trees and is surrounded by green. The Chat 12 sofa is by Carlo Colombo for De Padova, the black Lowback lounge chairs are by Bassam Fellows, the brown leather Womb chair and ottoman are by Eero Saarinen for Knoll, the coffee table and ottoman in front of it are vintage.

Fast-forward into the future and past many successful projects, and Cheatham was still thinking modern, but ready for something bigger. “I had a bee in my bonnet to create a development made up entirely of unique, modern homes,” she says.

When a 14-acre plot of land became available, she pounced, with the intention of making that dream come true. “Really, I should have been more cautious,” Cheatham says. “But if I had been, I never would have done this.”

A patio is shaded by upper stories. The walls are hammered concrete.
The hammered-concrete patio is shaded by the wider stories above, and provides a cool respite from the Dallas heat.
A rust colored metal screen covers the uppermost part of the building. The lower part is concrete block and hammered concrete.
The brise-soleil on the upper part of the exterior is made of steel tubes welded to Cor-Ten metal and designed to reduce heat gain.

The result is a neighborhood she named Urban Reserve (“Naming is such a tricky thing,” she notes). Just as she envisioned it, it contains 50 lots, and nearly all have been built out with modern homes.

With the number of available building sites reaching zero, she and her husband, Chuck, decided it was time to construct their own home, and Cheatham knew exactly who she wanted to hire to do it.

When she was a board member of the Dallas Architecture Forum, she hosted a dinner party for architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, partners in work and life who have been tapped to build Barack Obama’s Chicago presidential library.

“I was very, very impressed with their work. At the time, they had not done that many houses; they mostly worked on museums and institutional buildings,” Cheatham says. “I started wooing them.”

How do you go about wooing architects? Cheatham started visiting their projects around the world—including the maze-like Snow Show installation in Finland in bitterly cold February—and then posting a note to them about how much she appreciated the work.

Finally, she arranged a meeting with the couple in their New York City office to talk about her residential project. And there, she thought she blew it. “I mentioned that I’m a big Star Trek fan, and I used the phrase ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’” Cheatham explains. “I thought I saw an eye roll, and I was sure the meeting was over and they wouldn’t take the job.”

The dining room has a wood dining room table surrounded by black leather chairs. A piece of art (showing what looks like a moon) hangs above a wall-hung console.
Given that the owners love to entertain, the dining room was an important part of the program. The custom oak table is by John Pawson through Matin Gallery, the 412 Cab chairs are by Mario Bellini for Cassina, and the art (The Crescent Nebula in Cygnus) is by Russell Crotty.
A large, white, twig-like sculpture stands next to a window.
A piece of sculpture stands sentry by one of the floor-to-ceiling windows.

She didn’t need to worry—they accepted. “We don’t remember the Star Trek reference, but clearly it wasn’t a detractor,” the architects say. “Diane impressed us from the start, we can recall from the very moment she introduced herself that we knew we had a very special, enthusiastic, and positive client.” The Cheatham house was to be the eighth private residence the pair designed.

The home is a three-level dwelling that seems to hover over and connect with the wooded site. The indoor-outdoor connection starts on the two lowest levels, where a concrete block structure seems to hold up the glass-and-screen-clad story that cantilevers over them. The result is a pair of covered patios containing al fresco seating, dining, and a lap pool that are a blessing in a city where summer heat can be relentless.

“The third story of the building floats as if it’s a tree house, giving privacy and a sense of lightness to the living quarters,” the architects say. “This is where Diane and Chuck have their offices and bedrooms. By maintaining this open second story and floating the above volume, guests can appreciate the landscape year round.”

While the outdoor areas are sheltered by the upper stories, the interior is protected by exterior metal screens. “The screen is intended to shade the home from the Texas sun while its horizontal composition relates the house visually with the scale of the neighborhood,” the architects say. “It has a dual purpose, allowing privacy and shade while still connecting to the outside by filtering in light through windows framing views of the rest of the Urban Reserve.”

A covered patio has a long koi pond decorated with boulders that peek above the water. A yellow tile wall is a bright accent.
One of the sheltered patios contains a boulder-studded koi pond. It’s surrounded by a Harry Bertoia asymmetric chaise for Knoll, custom concrete tables, and an accent wall composed of Heath field tile in Zest.

Upstairs, the emphasis is on the kitchen and dining room, as this is a family that loves to entertain. “The bedrooms were never the focus for me, and ours are small,” says Cheatham. “What’s really important is the kitchen.”

The kitchen has wood lower cabinets and a white marble backsplash and counters. A shelf holds decorative objects.
The kitchen has custom cabinetry, a white marble backsplash and counters, and a bespoke stainless steel range hood. A vintage ice bucket and a wooden Thai vessel are among the objects decorating the open shelving.
Photo by Max Burkhalter

The large cooking and eating areas flow seamlessly from one to the next, making the tendency for guests to gather in the kitchen a non-issue. The crown jewel of the space, says Cheatham, is the one that’s not on display during parties. “I am a pantry lover, and we have a large one,” she explains. “I want to walk in and see what I have to cook—and my available tools.”

Something Cheatham doesn’t love is when a person commissions a house and doesn’t go all the way. “When you see someone who has built a wonderful house, but they haven’t spent the money to complete the interior design, it’s frustrating,” she says.

When it was time to furnish this home, she tapped Dallas-based Joshua Rice, an interior designer she’d worked with previously.

In the bedroom, art decorates the walls. Through the door, you can see the light blue tile of the master bathroom.
Interior designer Joshua Rice designed the bed in the master bedroom and the artwork over the headboard (The Conversation) is by Linda Ridgway. Through the door, you see the master bathroom, which is done with Heath field tile in Frost.
The exterior sun screen makes for stripes of light on the interior.
From the outside, the brise-soleil provides shade from the sun. Inside, it provides dappled light.
A large tub is made of black honed granite and looks like a black cube.
The custom-designed tub is made from honed black granite. The tub faucet is by Vola.

For Rice, who calls himself an architecture-minded designer, the project began with an appreciation for the building.

“When you’re evaluating a home, it’s important to see how the interior design is going to fit in the space,” he says. “In this case, we had great architecture and impressive art. It was important to design rooms that were complementary to both.”

The designer went with elements he describes as substantial, but subtle. “I love pieces with bold, interesting details,” he says. “The trick here was not to give the eye too many of those to look at. We chose pieces that stand in the rooms like sculptures.”

An iconic modern chaise sits in front of a corner window looking out onto the garden.
An LC4 armchair by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand for Cassina sits in front of a corner window.

Nature drove the design as well. “The house is surrounded by these wonderful trees. The light bounces off the leaves and into the rooms, bringing in a lot of green,” Rice says. “We had to choose colors that would work with that.”

Another consideration: the family’s lifestyle and the household’s three small dogs. “We needed to keep things sophisticated, but not fussy. These are casual people who like to cook and entertain, and the interior design needed to suit that,” says Rice. “The furniture needed to be comfortable and functional, but look good.”

The house has a larger upper story that seems to hover over the more slender lower levels.
Stepping back from the house, you can see how the upper story hovers over the lower levels. Diane calls entering the main level a “Beam me up, Scotty” moment.

When it came to dealing with the creative team, Cheatham held back. “I laid out the program, and then I turned it over to them,” she says. “I don’t think you get very far with creative people by being a control freak. Why would you hire talented architects and designers and then tell them what to do?”

But perhaps she did inspire one design element with her Star Trek reference in that first meeting with the architects. She says, “They’ve never commented on this, but I think that when you walk under the house, call the elevator and go up, it’s like entering a spaceship. I think it’s my ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ moment.”