Keeping it Real in the Lowcountry

The finer points of local home style & design.

Story by Dean Rowland

It’s hard to hold on to the Lowcountry’s authentic past in today’s world of evolving architectural and interior design. But some professionals do, and they know what it means to be true to century-old historic origins.

They also can translate their design into a Lowcountry lifestyle for their clients that includes ready-made amenities for hosting parties in their own home.

There are misconceptions and misperceived notions of what Lowcountry “anything” really means. There is a generous acceptance of homogenous conformity as to what constitutes an authentic Lowcountry look and feel. Architectural design review boards at gated communities might have their version and apply community covenants to keep a lid on reviving genuine treasures from the past, however beautiful, charming and rustic the design might be.

Expert Advice: Use soft tones and crisp whites

Authentic Lowcountry design is a comfortable yet sophisticated style. Soft tones such as sky blues, mossy grays and crisp whites give a distinct color palette found throughout Lowcountry nature. Natural materials and textures commonly used to create an ambience of the Lowcountry are distressed woods, marsh grasses and sea glass. It creates a welcoming environment that promotes comfort, relaxation and a tranquil lifestyle. — Cheryl Wilson, Plantation Interiors

Expert Advice: Up your shell game

One signature Lowcountry look is the use of local shells, especially oyster shells.

They can be used in a variety of ways:

• As tabby for a fireplace or wall
• As a decorative mirror or accessory or finishing touch
• As a statement chandelier or light fixture

— Debi Lynes, Lynes on Design

“If you pick up a house from downtown Beaufort and put it in a (gated community), it might be disapproved,” said Rick Clanton, co-owner of Group 3 Designs, founded in 1986 when he and partner Mike Ruegamer merged their two companies. “The tendency of review boards is everybody wants to move towards this image that has less and less to do with what real Lowcountry is.”

The native South Carolinian has about 300 books on architecture in his Hilton Head office, about half devoted to the historical Lowcountry style and influences.

“When someone asks us to design a Lowcountry home, I want to go right back to the source and look at old houses,” he said. “I don’t want to look at new houses that have interpretations or paraphrases of somebody else’s idea of what a Lowcountry home might have been. I think a lot of what people say about Lowcountry goes astray.”

Interior designer Hannah Fulton Toney at the J. Banks Design Group on the island is smitten and beholden to the Lowcountry’s past and its glorious environment.

“We’ve embraced form and function from years ago and taken it to a new level,” said the Auburn University graduate in interior design. “We play off the architectural details and take the architectural design and translate that into the interior design.

“Where do we go with the finishes? I love the use of tabby, the oyster shells,” she said. “It’s really a true way to bring the Lowcountry into the home and its interiors. …We do a lot of beautiful fireplaces out of tabby. More and more we’re bringing the outside inside the home for a fireplace or a table base.”

Fulton Toney also infuses marsh colors and textures into her work and plucks blues, greens, browns and grays from the outside world. Seagrass can be found in rugs and on walls.

Floors are a special place to dig for remnants from the past.

“Lowcountry floors are rough and rustic, not polished dark wood, with a lot of texture,” she said. “Reclaimed pine looks like it almost came right from the dock and into the home. It gives the home a warm, earthy, natural feeling.” To the heart of the Lowcountry matter is the kitchen, emblematic of what was. It is slowly re-emerging in today’s blueprints, with refinement and a different sort of purpose.

Originally, the kitchen was a small structure outside the main residence, often called the “summer kitchen.” Once it moved inside, it would be positioned in the rear of the home, away from everyday life.

“In real Lowcountry houses, the kitchen is separate from the family room,” Clanton said. “In the old days, if it was the mama or the maid making a meal, she didn’t want you in there… That’s not unusual in the South.” The kitchen was for cooking, not entertaining.

Today’s ubiquitous open floor plans in the Lowcountry have transformed the original kitchen concept into a sophisticated functioning and entertaining mecca for family and friends.

The back kitchen is reclaiming its status as a sanctuary for cooking.

“It’s almost a full-service kitchen in the back; the pantry, clutter, make a mess, prepare, while your show kitchen and the family room stay pretty neat for whatever event you’re hosting,” Clanton said. “If you’re entertaining and trying to give everybody a good pleasurable experience, having a messy kitchen doesn’t fit that image.

“We did a farmhouse in my hometown of Darlington where the back kitchen is as big as the show kitchen, the party kitchen,” he said. “And they entertain all the time. It fits the lifestyle of some people. The house that works for the hobbit doesn’t work for the party person.”

Lowcountry Style Points

Fifteen exterior and interior tried-and-true design elements that drip with the look and feel of the Lowcountry:

Double-hung windows for temperature control
• Spacious double-stacked porches facing south for shade
• Distressed Savannah gray brick for fireplace surrounds and walkways and reclaimed pine and cypress for beams and flooring
Marsh colors from low and high tides like blues, greens, browns and grays
Oyster-shell tabby for fireplace surrounds and lamp bases
Seagrass in rugs and as wall coverings for texture and natural color
Back or secondary kitchens for prepping food, cooking, cleaning up and all-purpose utilitarian use
Board and batten wainscoting
Raised first-floor living space for air circulation underneath the home
Gable roofs covered with standing seam metal panels that slope down to exposed rafter tails
Hip roofs that slope down to the eaves on all four sides, forming a horizontal ridge at the top
Metal roofs of aluminum, steel and copper
Front porch cylindrical columns stretching from floor to ceiling
Open-sided roofed breezeways connecting the main residence with secondary buildings for cool breezes to circulate throughout
Carolina rooms for their floor-to-ceiling windows, abundant sunlight & striking views outside

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