With his south Florida flamboyance, designer Michael Henry has unsettled the provincial Lafayette building establishment and won the undying admiration of his elite clients, who embrace the unexpected. Lyla, Bailey, Cakes and Beau are fluffy, affectionate, noisy and utterly spoiled. The four shih tzus scurry like dust mops across the floor, hop onto chair seats or guests’ laps, and then up onto the dining table, fortunately covered with magazines, not plates. Babycakes, a sweet-faced 4-year-old male, prances over the table top to kiss owner Michael Henry on the nose. Henry tells the little dog he is fabulous and snuggles him into his lap. The whole scene — from the half-gilded, half-frump décor of his Bendel Gardens house to the coy Gloria Swanson mannerisms of Henry’s quick-witted delivery — leaves the visitor breathless, but it’s mostly from laughing. Solicitous, funny, dishing, intuitive, Henry can run the gamut in a single, over-the-top sentence. It’s no wonder the houses he designs, which are show stoppers in River Ranch, are the talk of the town. Short and unprepossessing, wearing oversize button downs and loose chinos, Henry seems pretty ordinary — not someone who you’d peg as the man behind such ostentatious displays of wealth.
But there is nothing ordinary about Michael Henry.
Since arriving in Lafayette 10 years ago, Henry has designed a dozen or so houses, named on his Web site, michaelhenrydesigns.com, for the homes of Italian princes such as Villa Medici or Villa Borghese. His Hub City clientele, while not as high profile as the sports and entertainment stars of his glory years in Atlanta, are some of the most prominent and wealthy residents of Lafayette. Lafayette is a very provincial town, and it shows in the local architecture. For the most part, house design venerates Acadian style architecture, holding up the plantation-based houses of A. Hays Town as the epitome of good taste. Henry, with his Miami flamboyance, has unsettled the building establishment and won the undying admiration and friendship of his clients, who have chosen to embrace the unexpected.
Take Darlene and Jim Swain. The Swain house, under construction in River Ranch on the Vermilion River, is in competition to be the largest house in Lafayette. If 27,600 square feet under roof weren’t enormous enough, the ceiling height of the entrance hall, over 30 feet tall, rivals buildings like St. John Cathedral. With its fanciful south Florida Italianate style — complex massing with multiple roof lines that include towers and belvederes topped with spear-shaped finials that act as lightning rods and a two-story wrought iron entry gate — the huge house is a bit of an anomaly in the architecturally controlled environment of River Ranch. Most houses in Lafayette’s traditional neighborhood development meet an approved Louisiana centric guide line, which incorporates Caribbean, colonial French and Spanish, Creole, Cajun and plantation styles. But the Swains, who have lived in south Florida, weren’t interested in Louisiana architecture. When they decided to build on a double lot on the river, they met with several architects and designers before they found Henry. He spoke their language.
“He understood immediately what we wanted,” says Darlene Swain. “We wanted light, views of the water, and my husband Jim loves high ceilings. Michael actually tried to lower the ceilings, but Jim wanted them to be really high.” Taking advantage of so much altitude, Henry has incorporated quadruple tiers of crown molding, double and triple domes, and a staircase right out of Sunset Boulevard.
The 27,600-square-foot Swain house is under construction in River Ranch.
Photo by Kent Hutslar
Nearer completion, the Alvarez house, also in River Ranch, is a flamboyant jewel box of high-style detail and finishes. Silver guilt crown moulding and slick-as-silk venetian plaster walls ennoble the master suite, but the jaw dropper is the huge bathroom, where the walls and floor are faced with an exotic multigreen onyx tile. An 11-foot-long tub, a pair of freestanding showers and a waterfall all contribute to the opulence. It’s both decadent and gorgeous in the way Roman villas were, making a statement about the stature of their owner. The house wraps around a central atrium, where a mosaic-lined pool is surmounted by a pair of reproduction Medici lions. Over the top? Sure. But who wouldn’t love to feel like Caesar, floating in warm water on a starry night.
“He’s a walkin’ around genius,” says attorney Glenn Armentor. Fabulous red faux marble columns frame Armentor’s living room. His entryway glows under a gold leaf finish, barrel vaulted ceiling. High style meshed to Armentor’s original A. Hays Town house on West Bayou Parkway was Henry’s first foray into Lafayette’s home design scene.
It was during a visit to Destin, Fla., that Armentor and his wife Dana bumped into Henry in a designer furniture store. Henry asked Dana what she was decorating. “He likes Dana because she looks like Barbie,” Armentor says. “Michael loves Barbie. He called Dana ‘Barbie’ for years.”
Henry selected a few things for the Armentor’s condo, “and they were gorgeous,” says Armentor, “impressive.”
Over the course of the next year, the Armentors became friends with Henry and his partner Bob Yorton. “We had dinner together in Destin, and they were a witty, smart, nice couple of guys,” says Armentor. “It got to the point where they were really friendly with Dana, and my kids would go over there when they were little, and Michael would look in on them to be sure they were OK, while I was over here trying cases and couldn’t be with them. So they became kind of like uncles to my kids.” The Armentors bought a house on the water. Meanwhile Henry, who had attempted to retire in Destin, needed to go back to work. So he offered to decorate the Armentors’ house free of charge. “It will be my coming out party,” he told Glenn Armentor.
Henry goes over plans at the Swain house
Photo by Kent Hutslar
“There’s something called the Destin Library Ladies Home Tour,” continues Armentor. “It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s the Superbowl of real estate. He who wins it that year is known as the greatest decorator-designer around. Well Michael won with my house.” The transformation from a non-descript house to an Italianate palazzo drew raves from the community, and wowed the Armentors’ friends, Charlie and Vicki Milam, when they drove over for a visit.
The Milams began talking to Henry about building a house in Lafayette, but in the meantime, Armentor hired him to design a 6,000-square-foot addition to his existing A. Hays Town house on West Bayou Parkway. It was 1999. Henry would spend two weeks in Lafayette and two weeks in Destin while he was working on the addition. “I would stay at the fabulous Hotel Acadiana when I was in Lafayette,” says Henry. “They got used to me. I could have my room arranged the way I wanted it, my coffee very early in the morning, so we worked out well together, me and the Hotel Acadiana.” Meanwhile, he began designing and overseeing the construction of the Milam’s $5 million house.
“The first thing that drew us to Michael is that he is a color guru,” says Vicki Milam. “Charlie and I love color. And Michael does, too.” It’s obvious from a driveby of the Milam house just off West Bayou Parkway that color is a big factor. The Mediterranean villa is a hot shade of ochre, sheltered by a blazing red tile roof. Formal interiors gleam with tiers of rose gilded crown molding, marble mosaic floors and Las Vegas ceiling mood lighting in shades of neon blue and green. Indoors transitions to out through a loggia, replete with Renaissance inspired sculpture and a tropical garden and pool.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” says Glenn Armentor. “Charlie’s was so pretty that everybody wanted to have a party in that house. It was the house in Lafayette for a couple of years. On the basis of that house, everybody got interested in Michael’s work.”
The Milams have since sold their showplace, and Henry is designing another house for them, Caribbean-influenced and more informal this time, says Vicki. “Every time he calls, the first thing he says is, ‘Vicki, how’s your day?’ He takes an interest in you personally, as well as the business part of it, which I’ve always appreciated. He’s always available whenever I have a question or a concern about anything, from the design of a rug or something as small as my heated toilet seat, he’s always there. If I call him morning, noon or night, it’s like I’m the only person in the world that he’s dealing with, and I know he’s extremely busy right now.”
Henry’s personal touches extend to homemade chicken soup when his clients are sick, key lime pie for a special treat, and invitations to the big top when the circus comes to town.
Michael Henry is not an architect, nor is he a licensed interior decorator; he’ll be the first to tell you that. “I wanted to be an architect, but I couldn’t get the sciences and the math. Call me stupid, but I couldn’t get the sciences,” he says, even now a bit rueful. “So in college, I switched to business administration.” Growing up in the town of Melborn, Fla., halfway between Jacksonville and Miami on Florida’s eastern coast, Henry watched his father, a developer, build shopping malls and huge subdivisions. As a child, Henry sketched houses, designing and decorating their interiors.
Red faux marble colonnaded living room
Photo by Kent Hutslar
During college in Miami, he got a part-time job working for the design firm of Laverne, a high-style interior decorating company with showrooms in New York and Miami. Laverne’s business was quality reproductions and bespoke design, not antiques, to outfit the carriage trade in Miami during the 1970s. “I was working for the best,” says Henry. “If you worked in Miami for the decorative trade, Laverne was the premium.” He started out vacuuming floors and answering the phone. But Louis Laverne took Henry under his wing, taking him on buying trips to Italy, where Henry was exposed to 3,000 years of classical and neo-classical design, from the simplicity of a Doric column to the triumph of Bernini’s baroque sculpture. “I learned everything from Lou Laverne. He had such an eye and such style,” says Henry. After six years fulltime, Henry, who “wasn’t going to come into the business by marrying his [Laverne’s] daughter,” hit the glass ceiling. He and his partner, Bob, moved to Atlanta, opening up a satellite of Laverne Galleries.
Leaving flashy Miami, Henry caught Atlanta as the building boom of the 1980s exploded. He opened a wholesale decorative arts center in Buckhead and began doing all the same importing and decorating he had learned at Laverne’s. The business took off. One of his prized clients was Prince Bin Saud, brother to the king of Saudi Arabia. “One day, rows of limousines pulled up, and all these flowing robes walked into my shop. They introduced themselves and walked through the show rooms and took some pictures and said, ‘Thank you very much’ and left. Six months later I get a call.” Henry was summoned to Riyadh and wound up designing two palaces for the prince, which led to decorating the Heliopolis Hotel Tower and Casino in Cairo, Egypt. “That was a four or five-year operation. I mean the jets and chauffeurs and the valets and the cooks and the butlers — incredible.”
“That was the wealth level clientele of Laverne,” Henry explains. “Laverne was old in the business, and they were known. They had a hell of a following. You didn’t just sell a client a dining room table; you did a penthouse. You did a yacht. Or a plane. And I went after the same thing.”
Henry developed a client list in Atlanta that reads like a who’s who of sports and entertainment stars — Kenny Rogers, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Brown, Sir Elton John, Ted Turner, Isaac Hayes, Burt Reynolds, André Rison, Deion Sanders, Evander Holyfield, Fran Tarkenton and Sugar Ray Leonard. Sixteen years later Henry sold the business and moved, with Yorton and their two elderly mothers, to Destin. After a year of retirement, with both of their mothers’s medical expenses piling up, he found his tastes were too expensive for someone living on a fixed income. That’s when he met the Armentors.
The marble floored garage from the Milam house
Photo by Kent Hutslar
The way Henry works with his clients is not so very different from hiring an architect. “I can draw a house,” he says. “It might be a conceptual drawing, but I can draw it.” Michael Henry Design supplies 90 percent of the blueprints on a project, but Henry always partners with another company with an engineering license. “We either go to an engineering firm, or depends on who you go to, to supply your foundation. They supply engineered drawings. So do your framers, so do your plumbers.” Once the drawings are approved by the city’s codes division, Henry oversees the construction and does all the specifying for the builder. “I get the client to look at everything from the walls out, inside and out. And I help them pick everything. Wall finishes, crown, ceilings, lighting, floors, windows, plumbing, cabinetry, the fans, the air vents. You name it. I get them to approve it then I turn it over to the builder, so we’re in front of it. We spec the house to the client’s desire, then turn it over to the contractor to purchase and install.”
Staying in front keeps Henry extremely busy. His source list encompasses artisans from across the globe, with reproductions of renaissance Italian marble elements arriving from as far away as China, or tiles of royal red onyx from Pakistan. He supplies a guiding hand, but he says ultimately, what winds up on the walls of his houses reflects his client’s desires. “It’s their taste, we just refine it,” Henry says. “They tell us what they want, we draw it. They tell us what they like, we find it.” Even in this shaky economy, Henry’s clients don’t flinch when it comes to cost. “We deal with that five percent who always spend money.”
Henry is well aware that his houses aren’t to everyone’s taste. He has landed some of the biggest homes in town, the luxury clientele he has always sought, and he can get defensive about what he feels is criticism of his abilities. “I don’t have those big letters after my name [American Institute of Architects], and it offends people, and I understand why it offends people,” he says. “But I feel there’s business for everyone who’s interested in business, and I think there are a lot of successful architects and designers here.”
Henry’s interior design for the master bedroom
Photo by Kent Hutslar
For those who disdain the look of Florida rococo Coral Gables, not every Michael Henry house sticks out.
While the white roof of the Alvarez house, the only roof in River Ranch that’s not brown or gray, screams Miami, right down the road, another of Henry’s clients, Rusty and Pam Lamb’s French country house blends quietly into the streetscape. Henry says his designs reflect his clients’ world view, arguing that those who have traveled extensively and have fallen in love with Europe’s palaces and villas want to live surrounded by classical forms.
“Taste is evolving here,” he says of Lafayette’s architectural mix. “But I think there’s still a lot of the same. I was quite taken aback when I first came to Lafayette to see all these big houses on these small lots. That took a little getting used to for me. I love Greenbriar. The houses look like they came out of the 1960s — the Andrus houses. Forty-five-year-old interiors. They’re stereotyped. A lot of people get comfortable with a look and a feel, and they’ll live with it when they’re 12, and then they’re 60. I go back and see people still with ’60s stuff, and they’re comfortable with it. Avocado green and gold.”
When it comes to decorating, Henry struggles with the lack of proportion in so many of Lafayette’s homes. “The most upsetting thing I see in Lafayette is 8 foot ceilings. I can’t see how so many people live under an 8 foot ceiling. It’s claustrophobic to me. Then I walk into other houses: you’ve got this incredible room with a low ceiling, or you’ve got this tremendous ceiling with a small square footage. I can’t answer what is the norm here; all I’ve seen is what’s over the last nine years. It’s not a priority in a lot of people’s lives. But it grates on me if the scale is askew.”
Villa or cottage, Henry’s trademarks are huge windows and doors to bring natural light inside, as well as European touches rarely seen in town. “What we try to do in our decoration and style is timeless. We put ceilings, crowns, inlays, onlays, cartouches, things that give the room distinction, things you don’t ordinarily see. It might be a little higher finish than you like, but the detail is still timeless. Taste evolves, taste enhances, taste progresses, taste dies, taste falters, taste becomes stagnant.”
But stagnant certainly isn’t in Henry’s palate, according to Vicki Milam. “What I’ve learned from Michael is anyone can do what is expected in a home. He always says it’s fun to do the unexpected. Michael likes the wow factor. There’s nothing dull about anything that Michael Henry does."