Forgive Larry West if he reaches for a musical metaphor.
Sitting in the vacant kitchen of a sprawling, French Country home on the wooded edge of Little Rock, West is envisioning the infusion of style a platoon of top designers will bring to this year’s Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Guild Designer House.
Just like the musicians in an orchestra, West says “the designers really come together and create a masterpiece.”
West, designer and founder of L. West Jr. Designs, is the committee chairman of this year’s Designer House, the primary fundraiser supporting the work of the ASO Guild. The biennial project, now in the 25th iteration of its 50-year run, offers designers a blank canvas of space in which to show their skills, while supporting donors and related events raise the money the Guild needs to fund its youth programs.
This year’s Designer House selection, Belle Maison, is a two-story, 25-room, 7,000-square-foot house sitting at the foot of a mountain on 40 acres of landscaped grounds. The property includes a small lake and bubbling brook, a 2,500-square-foot cabin (which will also get a makeover), greenhouse and pavilion, all nestled into the woods off the main road.
West is no stranger to music, having played French horn and saxophone in high school. While he supports music for the ears, he is anticipating plenty of artistry for the eyes from the various incoming designers.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” says West, who will personally redo the kitchen of Belle Maison.
Footsteps and voices reverberate off the walls and through the halls, but in each empty room is a display of the wallpaper, carpet and paint samples chosen by the designers, a promise that the echoes will be replaced with color, ingenuity and imagination.
More than 30 veterans and emerging professionals will contribute to this year’s home, bringing unique perspectives, yet weaving individual designs into a cohesive, finished product.
“All I need to know is if you want a big or little room,” West says.
As a designer, West is “100% self-taught” and, to the best of his recollection, has been redecorating since around age 4. Before he knew what interior design was, he was shuffling furniture, redesigning his sister’s Barbie house and redecorating neighbors’ homes for free.
“I don’t remember a time I didn’t do it.”
He was raised in the tiny town of Hickory Ridge, not exactly a hotbed of design, and West’s mother urged him to try something with a guaranteed paycheck.
He did part-time bookkeeping work for designer Tom Chandler, of Little Rock’s Chandler & Associates, and talked Chandler into taking him on a job. West’s input was impressive enough that he was immediately reassigned to Chandler’s furniture store, where West sold items and handled displays.
After college, West set out on his own path, founding Interiors West Design in 1995, based in Little Rock and now with an office in Dallas.
He first got involved with Designer House in 1999, but saw it nearly blink out of existence for lack of interest before beginning to rebound in 2016.
“It has to do with a team of people that were put into place,” he says. “They were go-getters. That’s how they got me involved.”
The Guild asked West to be design chair in 2018, a wildly successful year in which talent had to be turned away because there weren’t enough rooms.
“We really started going crazy,” West says. “It was the best year we’ve ever done.”
A two-year planning process is involved, with the committee chair overseeing the selection of the house, helping to boil it down to two or three choices. Normally the homes are vacant and on the market, sometimes for quite a while, and the Guild will contact the owners to see if they’re interested, with the home ultimately chosen by the committee.
It’s a win-win, West says, because the designers get the spotlight and the owners’ efforts to sell get a boost. According to West, every home but one has sold thanks to being a Designer House.
In something of a departure this year, the owners of the property at 21509 Denny Road — C.D. and Leslie Williams — are friends of West who agreed to vacate for six months as they seek to downsize. The discussions went on for some time, but the couple’s agreement was a deal-maker that cinched West’s involvement as committee chair.
“We’re so excited about what these grounds have to offer,” he says. “It’s just the ability to have an estate instead of a house.”
Behind the Music
The ASO Guild supports the symphony through fundraising and all proceeds from Designer House go to the orchestra to help fund school outreach programs like Orchestra and You, the Symphony Children’s Concerts and the Stella Boyle Smith Young Artist Competition.
“Music education is our real passion, and Designer House reinforces our commitment to music education,” Guild President Betty Herron says.
Designer House publicity chair Jane Dennis says the 2018 project brought in $150,000 and this year’s goal is to “raise as much as possible for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.”
Beginning in April, Belle Maison will see a full month of ticketed tours and events including the Crescendo Gala, a girls’ night out fashion show, a gift shop and a tea room, not to mention January’s Bare Bones party.
For the first time, the Guild is purchasing its own, three-section event tent in which guests can enjoy music, dancing, food and drinks. The tent can also be used for off-year corporate sponsorship parties.
“The 25th anniversary is bringing in some great ideas for us,” West says.
With the events has come a trend toward younger audiences, the next generation of symphony patrons. The black tie of Crescendo has given way to jeans and casual dress, and the Bare Bones event, introduced in 2018, drew “a ton of new, young, fresh faces,” West says.
The word of mouth from the art show has also helped drive interest in this year’s events.
“The younger crowds are so hyped up about this year,” West says, recalling how the previous attendance of 50 to 75 increased to 175 in 2018. “We have never in our life experienced anything like that.”
Building interest in the arts matters, says West, who has been around long enough to see downtown Little Rock grow stagnant and then revive. The comeback is due in large part to a robust dining and nightlife scene and a financial commitment to building and revamping art and performing venues like the Arkansas Arts Center and Robinson Center, the ASO’s home.
“I’m busier than ever, and that tells you people are moving here,” he says. “Having that culture, having that arts scene, is so imperative in drawing people here
Symphony Designer House XXV
Single Day Tours
April 10 - May 10, closed Mondays and Easter Sunday
10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday
To see Belle Maison in the full light of day — without all the hustle and bustle, mind you — this is your golden opportunity. Take in every room, visit the gift shop and stop in for lunch in the tea room Tuesday through Saturday.
For tickets + info: ARSymphonyGuild.org