Where Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing and realtor Sam Saladino go to really get away

by | Design, FD House, Home

The 1970s house sits on a knoll along an inlet of Cedar Creek Lake, just one hour from Dallas. Designer Jason Pautz devised a tiered landscape that mixes everything from yucca, Mexican feather grass and verbena with boulders, concrete and slabs of wood. The boulders were quarried in Oklahoma and delivered to the house on 18-wheelers.

Holiday in


The house’s original octagonal living room is filled with tailored furniture and textures — “a very slight nod to Billy Baldwin,” homeowner Ken Downing says, of the vibe of the decor — and myriad finds, including Barcelona chairs that Downing has had since his Los Angeles days. (They’re now in nubby tribal tweed found at Childress Fabrics in Dallas.) “There is a lot in the rooms,” Downing says, “but there’s a great amount of symmetry in the furniture layout.”

Joyous news: California has moved closer to Texas.

One can barely imagine how frenetic are the lives of Ken Downing, the jet-setting and influential fashion director of Neiman Marcus, and Sam Saladino, the high-energy, quick-witted real estate agent with the Luxe Realty group of David Griffin & Co. But even they — longtime partners, Dallas shakers, social movers — sometimes need a break. They close the door to their city house, a stylish midcentury ranch just seconds away from two busy boulevards in Kessler Park, and point their SUV southeast. In one hour precisely, they arrive at the door of their other place, high on a knoll above a spiky landscape, with water views and fresher air. It, too, is low-slung and cool. “Doris Day and Rock Hudson — in Carmel — in the ’70s,” Saladino says, smiling. “That’s what I think of this house.”

Welcome to almost-California. Downing and Saladino have, effectively, created a Pacific Coast getaway with no pesky plane ride in the way. They found the late-1970s house online, drawn to a particular photograph of it taken from the water’s edge, looking up. It sits high above an inlet of Cedar Creek Lake, a man-made reservoir 18 miles long and nearly 37,000 acres in size. The dream was a 1950s house, but since the lake wasn’t created until 1964, that idea had to be adjusted a bit. But the 1970s houses that still exist — there is a fair amount of new construction at Cedar Creek, waterside McMansions and all — that the men had seen were “too fishing cabin,” Downing says, “dark, and barely with any windows.” This one had a strange appeal, on its double lot, “positioned more graciously than most.”

But, oh, the Harvest Gold. It was everywhere: countertops, sinks, tubs, tiles. And, oh, the Texas-y trim outside: railroad ties and two-by-fours. (“Very wagonwheel,” Saladino says.) An ace team of artisans — contractor Richard Allen, master carpenter Eric Steele, landscape designer Jason Pautz — helped Downing and Saladino free the house of its ’70s shackles and nudge it into territory much sleeker, much chicer. Trim came off, unifying paint went on. Pautz devised a modernist-meets-naturalist landscape that ingen-iously connects the house to the water with tiers of agave, yucca, verbena, grasses and reeds, all retained by 150 tons of handpicked boulders plus concrete, gravel and wood, the slices and slabs made from trees that were dying on the property. Inside, a third bedroom was opened to become a dining room. The kitchen and baths were reinvented entirely. The grandest change? The two-car garage off the kitchen was gutted and turned into a glass-walled gallery with a newfound vista of Cedar Creek Lake. Now, instead of catching glimpses of the inlet through the house’s smaller windows elsewhere, one is handed views of rippling water and bobbing boats, in CinemaScope. “We adjusted the whole focal point,” Saladino says. The blue-gray-green of the new sandstone floors taps directly into the palette outside — blue sky, green trees — and the whole house now reads as one coordinated composition. (It also feels a bit more Frank Lloyd Wright, its original angles and central octagonal living room now visually strengthened. They were hiding there all along, under all that Harvest Gold.)

All of this set the stage for Downing’s favorite part: the decoration. There are no fishing nets, no plastic bass, no cabin kitsch. No, this place got the full fashion treatment: super-chic pieces, tailored fabrics and layers, layers, layers. (“Minimalism is for novices,” Downing says. “I like abundance. Empty interiors make me very nervous, as do empty walls.”) Excess from the Dallas house is here, as are inherited pieces, estate-sale scores and sentimental pieces the men have had from previous places and previous lives. The only camp references here are of the knowing, amusing kind: a vast collection of owls; glamorous ’70s accessories; gigantic concrete hands as patio chairs, found at a garden shop up the road. Downing pegs most of the vibe on his grandmother. “She was in her heyday in the ’70s, and she was a very chic woman. She knew intrinsically where to put things. She had a great understanding of tablescapes. I have a well-trained eye from working for years in visual merchandising and creating parties, but if it’s possible that it’s inherited, I must’ve inherited it from her.”

Grandmother likely would’ve had as much fun here as her grandson and Saladino do, an hour away from professional duties — and another world away. Friends come out, now and again, and there are no televisions in the house. But things can get a little fast. The Rotary Club here has an auction, from time to time, to benefit area schools. It sells everything from handmade rocking horses to trips. Who does the hawking? A jet-setting, influential city slicker, who does something fancy for Neiman Marcus.

Homeowner Sam Saladino first discovered Dallas artist Nathan Green in 2012; they have since become friends. Saladino saw an Instagram post of Green’s earlier this year of a site-specific installation of his in Portland, Oregon. That led to a visit here, where Green absorbed the house and its collections, made sketches and took measurements and photographs, “for design inspiration.” The colors of the finished work, Green says, “were sourced from all around the interior, and the design referenced a few textile patterns I honed in on during my visit.” The installation took seven days to execute: sanding, primer coats, drawing by hand, taping and painting. Green and two assistants worked virtually around the clock, and “drank 1,000 cups of coffee.” The finished work, CEPRD Retrofit (For Ken and Sam) — it stands for Clay Earth Pigment Razzle Dazzle — took nearly 190 hours. “There is nothing more irreverent,” Downing says, “than having an artist create something right on the drywall. Every time I walk through the hallway, it just makes me smile.” The French-style chair was white with Wedgwood blue velvet, from an I. Magnin jewelry department. Downing had it gilded and upholstered in Ralph Lauren leather, for a window he designed for Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. The lamp is from Lula B’s West. Beyond is the octagonal living room. The 1970s chandelier dangling over it, found at White Elephant Antiques Warehouse, is octagonal, too.

The kitchen is a mix of old and new. Master woodworker Eric Steele used existing cabinet doors but sandblasted and refinished them, then cleverly reassembled them this way and that, into Mondrian-like compositions. The log-slice accent wall is made from trees that were dying on the property. The appliances and a restaurant-grade, stainless-steel sink, far right, are all-new. The brass sink in the island is vintage, found at White Elephant Antiques Warehouse; the Victorian-style faucet is new. (“Victorian references were everywhere in the ’70s,’ Downing says, “not only in fashion but in home decor. No home worth its salt was without an oak hall stand and a pitcher-and-bowl set.”) The petite vintage barstools are finds from Lula B’s West.

The dining room was the house’s third bedroom; now it is an open space off the living room. Downing credits his arranging skills to his grandmother: “She understood intrinsically how to hang art and pictures in a salon style. She had a great understanding of tablescapes.” The Brutalist chandelier is from the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California. Around the Florence Knoll table is a mix of seating: ottomans, parson chairs and Chippendale-style chairs that were gifts from clients of Saladino’s.

In the gallery, a mix of owl plates — Fornasetti to West Elm — and a circular work by Dallas artist Otis Jones. “Our Dallas artists are represented out here,” Downing says, citing, too, Eli Walker, Joshua von Ammon and Alex Moreno.

In the kitchen, more owls and a painting that Downing calls “some sort of bizarre, Star Trek, astro-blowfish,” found at a flea market in New York. He brought it home on a plane, wrapped in a winter coat.

The cozy guest room, with paintings by Downing’s grandmother of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound. “My childhood, in oils,” he says. His grandmother took up painting after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s how she kept her mind and memory intact as long as she could. Her paintings are incomplete, which is charming and melancholy at the same time.”

The capacious master bedroom. The polished-nickel fixture overhead is the Anemone Ceiling Lamp by Jonathan Adler. The pair of avocado green Murano lamps found at Zola’s Everyday Vintage in Oak Cliff have new shades lacquered in peacock blue. The bench is a flea-market find, now upholstered in zebra-print cowhide.

At the other end of the bedrooma $25 chair from the Salvation Army now upholstered by Childress Fabrics in what Downing calls “almost Chanel” raw-silk tweed. The floor lamp behind it is from Ikea; the chest of drawers is by Paul McCobb. The hoofed luggage stand is by Dransfield & Ross. On the house’s new sandstone floors, an antique Afghan rug tossed over a new one from Pottery Barn. (“Did someone say ‘high-low?’” Downing says, laughing.) The art collection runs the gamut from Op art to portraiture.

The two-car garage has become an art gallery and secondary living area; the kitchen is just out of sight at far left, at the top of a set of four massive log steps. The works on the wall are by Texans Josephine Mahaffey and El Franco Lee II, far left, and Scott Reeder, right. The work on the easel was a Los Angeles auction score. The elegant 1950s sofa, newly reupholstered, once sat in a friend’s family’s living room in Oklahoma. “It was destined for the garbage dump,” Downing says.

Downing bought a 3-acre patch of land nearby to keep it from being developed. (“If I’m going to be out in the country, I want it to look like the country.”) It is a sculpture park now; the first work, Instrument for Listening by Slovakian artist Oto Hudec, was in the Belo Garden in Dallas, as part of Make Art with Purpose.

The house’s patio includes slices from trees that were dying there. The chairs are from Michael’s Patio and Landscape in Seven Points; the 1980s marble table was found at Lula B’s West.