By Kelsey Ogletree | Photography courtesy of A Boheme Design
You could say design is going to the dogs.
Darrell Russell isn’t a canine owner, but he’s come to love and understand them in ways most never do. When he says he likes to go above and beyond to deliver precisely what a client wants, he’s not kidding.
As a principal architect with A Boheme Design, a full-service architecture and design firm based in Inlet Beach, Florida, Russell had the privilege of working with a client who wanted a multistory home in which her dogs, two Lhasa apsos, never had to use the stairs. (Dogs of this breed, which can live into their twenties, often have hip and back problems later in life.) Russell and his business partner, Jonathan Hampel, rose to the occasion and created a system of gently sloping ramps—with client-requested inclines no greater than 13 percent—to allow these furry family members to roam the house pain-free.
“We took that design request and turned it into a beautiful design element, rather than taking a utilitarian approach, which would have been an eyesore,” says Hampel.
While this feat may sound silly to some, it embodies this dynamic duo’s mission as a design firm: do whatever it takes to create functional, aesthetically pleasing spaces that perfectly suit the needs of the homeowners. This has been their ethos for the past decade and certainly shows as A Boheme celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.
Originally from northwest Tennessee, Russell never imagined he’d become one of the most sought after residential architects in the Florida Panhandle. When he was only a third grader, he decided he wanted to draw houses when he grew up. A few years later, he wrote a research paper on Frank Lloyd Wright, and the idea of working in luxury residential architecture became his dream.
He launched his career in the 1980s at Memphis-based Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK), where he worked his way up to number three partner. The firm had a major Florida client by the name of The St. Joe Company, which frequently brought Russell’s attention to the Sunshine State. He opened an office there in the early aughts, but business in the area sank into a recession—both in work and in home values—following media coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (even though it was unrelated to the Florida Panhandle). Once the Great Recession hit, he and Hampel were on the verge of closing. Instead, they struck a deal with LRK, buying out the Florida office to start a boutique firm with a complete emphasis on luxury houses.
Launching a high-end design firm in 2009 sounds a little obtuse—a fact not lost on Russell. “August 2009 might have been the worst time in the universe to start a business, not to mention an architecture firm,” he says. Against the odds, they did well. As the recession hit the country hard, the area around Inlet Beach found itself on the upswing a little sooner than most areas, around 2010. Russell says that, unexpectedly, much of the firm’s client base at the time was from Texas and kept them busy in the meantime.
Since the inception of A Boheme Design, its founders have been fortunate not to have further natural disasters majorly impact their work. Russell has become an expert on fortified construction—a skill he would never have dreamed of having back when he lived in Tennessee. “During a storm, I would stay in almost any of the homes we’ve designed,” he notes.
One thing that sets Russell and Hampel apart from other architects and designers is the intricacy with which they get involved with a project. They both genuinely want to be a part of the design process, not strictly to manage it. For example, it’s not just about creating a doorframe: it’s also about making custom casings for the door. They’re not just selecting hardware: they’re designing the little pieces that go into them. It’s all within reason, of course, depending on what the client is after.
The light-colored walls and stone flooring throughout give the home a lived-in museum quality, serving as an ideal backdrop for breathtaking art.
“Every client has different criteria of what’s important to them,” says Russell. “Some want every single thing in a project to be unique, while others just want it to look good and be functional.”
The “doghouse” project, which Russell calls Sadie’s Hideaway, is his favorite project of his career. He’d always admired the movie-set house that appears in the 1991 thriller film Sleeping with the Enemy, so when the client contacted him and said they wanted a home that looked something like that, he knew it was kismet.
Equal attention to detail went into planning the exteriors (the house sits on 120 feet of water frontage, warranting hurricane- and impact-rated windows with the thinnest frames they could find to maximize views) and interiors. “The house appears extremely simple,” says Russell. “The simplicity is misleading for what is truly a complex and sophisticated residential structure.”
Sadie’s Hideaway is a post-tension concrete structure, which was a first for Russell in residential design. The light-colored walls and stone flooring throughout give the home a lived-in museum quality, serving as an ideal backdrop for breathtaking art.
In stark contrast to this design, another project, which Russell refers to as the Hannah Home, is representative of his love for everything Italian. Designed as a luxury speculative house to be sold to an unknown buyer, the home allowed him the chance to design around parameters that were a complete departure from the firm’s usual work (i.e., customized for specific owners). As such, Russell drove home the Tuscan theme by doing some “expensive research” (visiting factories and design trade shows in Italy) and incorporating heavy timber, custom interior doors, and rustic flooring influenced by Italian farms.
“Thankfully—and unknown to me—an interested buyer who is an avid lover of Italian villas was watching the entire progression,” says Russell. “She purchased the house shortly after it was completed and immediately contracted with us to assist her in furnishing it.” Together, they incorporated carefully selected Italian antiques and worked with Peck & Company in Houston to fabricate a dining room chandelier modeled after an old Italian candelabra.
Regardless of the style and interior choices on each project, one significant challenge that A Boheme Design faces with many homes along the beach is small lot size because of the skyrocketing price of real estate there. Russell describes it as trying to put ten pounds of something in a five-pound bag: “We’re always trying to fit what our clients want within the limitations of the site,” he says.
The firm has also had to address unique situations, such as raising the elevation on a Gulf-front property to meet the hundred-year storm elevation requirements of both the Florida Building Code and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection—while dealing with the issue of how to safely get a Lamborghini up the steep driveway grade.
Going above and beyond is second nature for Russell and Hampel. It’s not uncommon for them to help the client move into the new home—even to the point of helping arrange art on the walls. “We really like to go through the entire process with a client,” says Russell. “We believe architecture, interior design, and landscape design should all fit together like a glove on a hand.”
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Visit ABoheme.com to learn more.
Kelsey Ogletree is a Chicago-based writer covering travel, wellness, and design for publications that include Robb Report, Shape, Architectural Digest, and more. Always on the hunt for stories and forever a notetaker, she never leaves home without her mini Moleskine and at least two pens.