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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”