A Garden of Serenity
Designer Margot Elena brings a lifetime of creativity to her south Denver home
Photography by Emily Minton Redfield
“It was all about light,” says Denver designer and entrepreneur Margot Elena. “The first time I came to look at the house, it was dusk. The house sits high on a slope; it almost feels as if it’s suspended in the trees, and everything was illuminated by that golden evening light.”
It was almost a love-and-purchase-at-first-sight story for this home in a southern Denver suburb. “But we had to get Scott’s permission first.” Scott is Scott Higgins, the general contractor and master carpenter who had worked with Elena and her husband, Travis Applegate, on the first home they bought together. “His work is incredible. Impeccable.” They needed his permission because of the wall problem. “The walls were textured—it’s called knockdown texture—and I have a reaction to that. And they were painted this unfortunate butterscotch color.” When Higgins confirmed he could fix the walls, and would sign up to renovate the 5,400-square-foot home, they bought the place. Applegate, a landscape designer, began to work on the back yard, and Higgins started the redesign. “I tell everyone that I made it through two studs-up remodels with the same husband and the same contractor,” Elena laughs.
Outside, Applegate designed a series of garden levels and landscaped them in restful green and blue hues. Inside, the couple opted for darker walls, with warming texture delivered by stone tile (“We estimate we used roughly a bajillion pounds of tile,” Elena jokes) and stained and painted woodwork. “The palette of grays with touches of green encourages your eye to travel to the landscape beyond,” says Elena. “What we love about the house is that it brings the greenery inside.”
Elena is the original creative mind behind several nationwide product lines, including Lollia, Tokyomilk and The Cottage Greenhouse. Seemingly infinite layers of exquisite tiny detail define each line, which could have made the big-picture work of a rebuild seem daunting. “Not at all,” says Elena. “For me, when I am designing, I think about spaces first. All of my designs are driven by the environment I imagine for them, so for me, creating spaces is probably the most satisfying kind of design. There’s something really special about creating an environment that’s immersive and expressive and beautiful. That’s what I’m about.”
The reflective, bright-white painted ceilings and maple floors refinished to a Scandinavian pallor provide an elegant frame for the couple’s brightly colored art and rugs. “I am not into perfection,” says homeowner Margot Elena. “I gravitate to these soumak rugs, a graphic, tribal style. I love the feel and the rawness of them. I think of designing as storytelling, and the storyteller in me loves to think of the women who sat weaving these rugs. Handmade, hand-touched—that’s very important to me, because I so feel the stories in these objects.”
Built by Elena’s husband, Travis Applegate, and a friend, this outdoor structure is a mix of new and old that feels as if it’s been nestled in the garden forever. “Travis built the bench—we use it for storage in winter—and added the tiles to the front.” The tea tables and intricate, wooden window grate are antique pieces.
Here, Elena showcases her collection of what she calls “lost art.” “Maybe it’s because my mother is an artist, but I picture the people who painted them, and how their work ended up someplace where people did not love it the way the person who created it did. I picture the work just waiting to be found, and I love to find it and rescue it.” Displaying the art on the shelf “lets us change paintings out, season to season, keeping it visually interesting.” The room is also what they call daughter Theory’s atelier, furnished with a child-sized desk and chair and lavishly stocked with art and craft supplies. “We have little spaces for her all through the house. We have all of these beautiful pieces, and people are like ‘oh, my god, aren’t you afraid kids are going to break that?’ But I grew up in an art-filled and inspiring space, and I didn’t want any space in our house to feel like it is off-limits.”
Elena fell in love with this chandelier. “I was looking for something with an open and elegant French design but didn’t want an antique, because the old wiring is a nightmare. I love the delicacy and workmanship. We have two more hanging in the kitchen.” Against the wall is an imported temple piece. “I love mixing old pieces that ground the space with new pieces. It’s all about interesting juxtapositions. There’s a formal feeling from the beautiful rug and chandelier, and then there are the chairs, with their pop of color for a bit of levity, to let you know we’re not taking things too seriously.”
SUNNY DINING SPOT
“Especially in Colorado, where you get tricked into thinking it’s spring in March and then get 4 feet of snow, it’s great to have a spot that’s open and sunny. Even if there’s snow on the ground, it’s warm and cozy here, and you can peek at the mountains over the trees,” Elena says. You also have a view of her garden Buddhas. “For me, the Buddha image is much more than sculptural. I think of myself as a very spiritual person, and in stressful times at work or in life, I find them a great reminder to pause, be present and be grateful. They are a reminder to give thanks.”
“When we moved in, the back yard was unusable, just one big, weird steep slope, so we hired this great guy—we’d call him Maverick, like from Top Gun— and he’d be out there on his earthmover tilted at a 35-degree angle, carving out the tiers. We wanted a yard that invited you to meander and pause, with an informal English garden feel. We all love it. In the summertime, my little daughter comes out with me in the morning and we collect flowers.”
In her home and design work, Elena seamlessly juxtaposes influences from other eras and cultures. “People used to say, ‘You must travel a lot.’ No. I design a lot. I’m so busy ‘making’ that I don’t travel much. But I collect and absorb design books—they are everywhere in my house. After so many years, I’ve determined that I travel in my mind.”
The tearoom’s weathered wood tones contrast beautifully with brightly colored Ikat throw pillows. “I’m a fabric junkie,’ says Elena, who recently debuted her first fabric collections. “Fabrics have been a large influence in my design work. When I was younger and would go through decorating magazines, the featured stuff was crazy-expensive, but textiles were affordable. They were attainable design.”
This beautiful Minton Cockatrice china is from Elena’s collection of vintage dinnerware. Picture-perfect place settings are a Margot Elena signature. “I’m crazy about setting a beautiful tablescape. In summer, I’m into the pinks and oranges, and in winter I take out my blues and neutrals and grays.”
“Of all the places I’ve designed, this was the hardest,” says Elena of her daughter’s light-filled room. “I was designing it almost until she was due, because you don’t know your child yet, and as a child I was so influenced by environment and the way a space can make you feel.” Elena finally settled on what she loved most when she was growing up. “I loved reading, and I was always reading books where the heroine was tucked in a little attic room, and I wanted to make that storybook room for our baby, a place to be tucked in and dream.” To create the space, they removed a wall between two smaller bedrooms. Then builder Scott Higgins created the cozy bed cubby, lined with bookshelves.
The Italian ceramic bird lamp “was the first expensive piece I ever bought. It’s museum-waxed to the table so we won’t knock it off. It was my first investment piece, where I was thinking, ‘This is really crazy … but it’s perfect, and I love it so much!’” It’s paired with a favorite piece of “lost” art and a watercolor of Elena and baby Theory that Elena’s mother painted.
This dream bathroom was literally a labor of love. Applegate dug out a 6-foot-deep pit, so builder Higgins could create this sunken bath, with windows opening out onto the private garden. “Travis said, ‘You need a love garden outside this window,’ and he built it for me. It’s such a serene space,” Elena says.
This shelf showcases Elena’s beautifully designed Lollia and The Cottage Greenhouse lines, as well as a statue and ceramics from a few of her many collections. “I think of collecting as a part of my design work. It feeds my brain. I’ve spent a lot of time on ebay and 1stdibs. It’s dangerous. When I’m working under deadline, and it’s 2 a.m., and my mind wanders and needs a break, I think, ‘Why not 10 minutes of ebay?’ It’s even weirder the next morning when you wake up and think, ‘Did I really buy that?’”
“My husband, Travis, built a little walkway from the kitchen out to the treehouse, and underneath the house, he hung a swing,” says homeowner Margot Elena of daughter Theory’s back-yard dream space.
GENERAL CONTRACTOR Scott Higgins INTERIOR DESIGNER Margot Elena GARDEN DESIGNER Travis Applegate
SEE ALSO: Margot Elena: Her Message is Love