DESIGN SENSE

by LINDA HAYES / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

Ask Karen Benson about the philosophy of her studio, Benson Associates Interior Design in the Downtown Fort Myers River District, and she responds with the clarity and conviction that has long been a hallmark of her career: “It’s not just about design. It’s about doing our best, about meeting clients’ expectations,” she shares. “Sometimes design will be trumped by budget or personal aesthetics, but in the end, it’s their home. We just want them to walk in and say, ‘We’re so happy to be here.’”

For each of her projects, Benson, along with one or more of a trio of project leaders (Shana Williamson, Michelle Briggs and Stephanie Mansberger), leads a fluid, organic design process that begins with getting a sense of a client’s style and lifestyle. “For example, we’ll have them look through photos of interiors and design websites to find out whether they prefer clean, tailored lines with a Zen quality or something bright, colorful and busy,” she says. “It’s our ‘creative energy’ phase.”

That done, the project team will pull a ‘mini presentation’ together and hone in on elements such as paint colors, fabrics, tiles and finishes. Typically, something like a collection of industrial-looking tiles, an interesting pairing of barn wood with glossy tile or a piece of art a client particularly favors will start the process off with a wow factor that helps formulate the design. A comprehensive architectural interior design concept, including details such as built-ins, fireplaces and wine bars that help define the space, is presented via AutoCAD and SketchUp. “These drawing programs not only help clients see their home three-dimensionally, but they also form the basis of the working drawings that will be used for construction purposes,” says Benson.

Regarding the wow factor, a recent case in point is a project for a 4,260-square-foot vacation home on Captiva Island, designed for a family living in England. Coming from a cooler climate, the family desired a home with a beachy, Florida vibe. “Their idea was for it to be comfortable and simple, not fussy or with a lot of bells and whistles,” says Benson. “And they wanted spaces where the whole family—and extended family and friends— could comfortably gather.”

To that end, with Williamson taking the lead, the primary interior space was opened up to allow for a significantly sized living area, without, she emphasizes, a television in sight. Instead, the main focal point became a custom-designed built-in that occupies an entire 12-foot-high wall and features a sliding, glass-paned window repurposed from a 1900s cottage. The space also features a “deconstructed,” unframed painting of a wave, which the owners brought from England.

The pale aqua hue of the window and dark gray-blue color of the wave-inspired the palette for the entire home, which also features highly textured pieces, such as a pair of beaded rope stools in the living room and a trio of hanging lamps in an adjoining dining room, that reflect the local environment.

After 23 years running Benson & Associates, Benson spends “some time,” versus being “full time,” on every project, which allows her entire team to shine and also creates a unique culture within the studio. “Starting a business on my own after 19 years at architectural firms and other design firms was challenging,” she shares, reflectively. “When you work in a bubble, you don’t have that synergy that comes with teamwork. Not having to be responsible for all of the myriad details that come with every project is refreshing. Plus, I enjoy the mentoring, and you always get a better project when you have two or three sets of eyes on it before it goes out the door. It works for all of us.”

The concept also allows time for some off-site work to share their expertise with the community. “We have a huge heart for Habitat for Humanity and are always involved in their Women Build initiative,” says Benson. “For the past two years, we sponsored a team to raise money and volunteered to help build homes. Locally, Habitat turned over keys to three homes on Mother’s Day.”

As with all of Benson’s clients, you can bet the owners of the Habitat homes were, indeed, happy to be there.

Linda Hayes is an Aspen-based freelance writer specializing in architecture, design and the luxury lifestyle. Her articles have appeared in LUXE, Hawaiian Style, Elle Décor, Mountain Living and Dallas Style & Design.