The third-floor ballroom was the clincher. “So many houses, the higher you go, the less interesting they are,” remarks Amie Corley. “When we walked up the back stairs, we said, ‘Oh my God, we have to have this house.’” It’s a Beaux Arts mansion on Lindell, and its top floor is a huge, highceilinged ballroom, graced with classical columns and sunlit (or moonlit) through eight tall windows. “We both do a lot of art,” Mrs. Corley explains, “and we’d always dreamed of having one of those New York loft studios.” For a young couple starting a family, this fixer-upper mansion made even more sense: The ballroom was big enough for kids to play with fingerpaints while grown-ups played with acrylics, fabric swatches, or beads, so they could all be together in the evenings.
At the moment, Robert Corley’s worktable is covered with the cheap, shiny switch plates previous owners installed in the shabby 1970s and period-correct reproductions, edged in rope or eggand- dart patterns, that will replace them.
“Rob and I love to do this stuff,” Mrs. Corley says. “We love to figure it out.”
She spent four months blasting hot New Orleans jazz (Rob wired speakers inside all the radiators) while she used a heat gun to strip layer after layer of paint off the back staircase and the butler’s pantry (mint green, dark green, spring green, metallic gold, white). “It looks like a hair dryer, and the paint bubbles up, and you just scrape it,” she explains cheerfully. “It’s really time-consuming; the quote for someone to do the staircase was $50,000.” She grins. “The plan was ‘After I finish the stairs, we’ll start trying to have a baby.’”
That would be Henry, who’s now in his highchair gurgling over his latest fixation: tabbouleh. Sunday, a chocolate Lab with a less sophisticated palate, sits at his feet. “I love old butlers’ pantries,” Mrs. Corley says, walking past the built-in cabinetry that divides the breakfast room from the kitchen. “People rip them out to have an open kitchen, but I think that’s the coolest part, all the little weird rooms you would never make now.” She painted these walls a fresh white lime and found tile that looked as if it came from an old New Orleans restaurant. Then, beneath a vintage map of New Orleans, she hung the metal initials A+R, because the two of them met at a bar near Tulane University. He was in med school; she was finishing a master’s in tropical medicine. “My original plan was to move to Africa and cure malaria,” she confides. “He said, ‘There is no way in hell I’m moving to Africa with you.’”
Instead, he’s an emergency-room physician at St. Mary’s Health Center, and Mrs. Corley, after five years transforming this house, has gone into business as an interior designer. “When we bought the house, I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says ruefully. “I’m so glad we didn’t have the money then, because the few things we bought, I’m getting rid of. Part of the process is figuring out what your style is. I started looking at every single design publication, and about two years after we moved in, it clicked.”
The epiphany came—as so many do—in what was once the ladies’ parlor. She copied the pale aqua of the walls from a Vogue photo shoot done at the Paris Ritz. Bought a white modern couch. Had French gold chairs upholstered in a yellow with a hint of lime. Added a black granite coffee table from New Orleans, bid on an oil painting from Ivey-Selkirk, found an off-white cowhide rug. “All of a sudden, it kind of started to come together. I saw how the mix works,” she says.
And mix it is. She’s always loved New Orleans’ casual, sexy interpretation of French culture—and French antiques (“Think Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon”)—and midcentury Modernism. She even loves the funky mosaics her husband makes with Mardi Gras beads; he fashioned a ’57 Bel Air to hang above Henry’s crib. Rob Corley wasn’t the first doctor in her life: Her father’s a family-practice physician in a small town in Louisiana. He still takes homemade pies in payment if a patient’s strapped for cash, and he taught his daughter to be both practical and patient. “I’d rather save money for five years and just do one room and do it right,” she says, breezing through the as-yet-unfinished dining room. “You never want your house to look like all your furniture arrived on the same day.”
Her forte, she adds, is finding things. She wanted John Derian’s coral découpage plates, but they cost $200 apiece, so she sought more affordable botanicals online, using “seaweed prints” as a search term. “The good finds come from everywhere,” she says happily. “The antique gas lanterns under the portico are originals; we bought them for $200 from a hardware store in New Orleans, and Rob rewired them.” The bamboo sideboard they bought for $160 on eBay and lacquered it a strong, dark blue.
Color matters deeply to Mrs. Corley; she once walked through a mansion done in shades of beige, and she’s never gotten over it. “Living in a beige house—I can’t imagine anything worse! Everybody immediately gravitates toward neutral colors, because they think it’s easy and safe. Color can be a little hard; the trick is finding the right color that’s soothing but still bright. Rob and I went through 40 gallons of paint to get the right green for the piano room!”
Thirty-nine gallons are going to Habitat for Humanity—and the room’s perfect: an emerald that’s bright and clear yet somehow subdued, the ideal foil for white trim, a Greek-key area rug, and a stark white Barcelona chair. “This used to be a sitting room where the men retired after dinner for port and cigars, so I wanted it to be a little masculine,” she explains. “And then I said, ‘You know what? The hell with it. I want some pink.’”
New linen curtains, pale pink. Because times do change.
“I tell clients, ‘You will be so much happier if you just step out of your comfort zone,’” she says, remembering how she dragged her husband out of his by painting the ballroom walls a dark teal, making the vast space cozy. The rest of the house she kept light and airy, going crazy in controlled bursts. “Everything that’s a little wild has to be toned down with something that’s a little neutral,” she explains. “That’s why I kept a lot of walls white in Henry’s room, so I could do crazy drapes. Also, a lot of the woodwork here is not pure white, so all my colors have to be a little ‘dirty,’ have a little bit of gray. Pure, vibrant colors look good against pure white.”
Back up in the ballroom, she fingers the swatches on her worktable, stroking the suede she’s chosen for a client’s project. Does she miss tropical medicine?
“Are you kidding? Not at all. Growing up, I was told I had two choices—doctor or lawyer—and I really thought those were my only options!” She relishes young clients who want their homes to be as expressive and artful as hers, yet have budget constraints and no idea where to start. She uses her house as a showroom, to prove “you can be a little crazy, but still elegant. People think it has to be modern and brightly colored and look cheap, or beige and French and elegant.
“Every room in my house is its own vignette,” she adds. “Why try to marry your rooms together, when it’s so much more fun to treat a room as an independent creature?” She pauses. “Another thing I really can’t stand is a house that has furniture of all one period. Nothing looks unique and personal unless it’s mixed a little. And I love layering textures: something shiny against matte, woven straw with smooth leather. If you have all the same surface in a room, it feels cold.
“I like the way British houses look,” she comments suddenly. “Nonchalant but still refined, like it just happened. A lot of people take their houses too seriously.”