Artists, musicians, and designers know all about the power of creative collaboration. Take Catherine “Cat” French, a graduate from the Master of Fine Arts in Interior Architecture program at UNC Greensboro. After extensive coursework in both interior design and historic preservation, French helped to launch the Center for Community-Engaged Design in Greensboro, a collaborative group that encourages students to be civic-minded and committed to creating socially relevant and engaged design for the public good.

French’s work in Greensboro eventually caught the attention of Corey Madden, the executive director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute at UNC School of the Arts. Madden was looking for a designer to design the institute’s Creative Community Lab on South Liberty Street, and she felt French’s inspired designs would be a nice fit. The two women were introduced by a Kenan Institute staff member who had attended grad school with French at UNCG.

“I found Cat to be warm, creative, and organized,” Madden says. “She was joy to work with during the [Kenan Institute] project.”

The French Effect

Last spring, Madden and her husband, composer and cognitive scientist Bruno Louchouarn, turned their attention back home. They had outgrown their Ardmore bungalow and decided it was time to move. Louchouarn needed a larger space for his music, preferably a studio to practice, compose, and collaborate. After scouring the local market, the couple found an ideal match a few miles away in Buena Vista—a traditional two-story Colonial house with a detached guest room.

Balancing jobs at UNCSA with freelance creative assignments on the side, Madden and Louchouarn decided that they needed someone to help them coordinate the entire move, from the renovations to the sourcing to the styling. “All on a tight timeline and careful budget,” adds Madden.

The couple immediately thought of French, and she happily jumped on board after they closed on their new property. French and Madden then worked closely together on every detail of the new space, from floor plans to sourcing.

“It was a highly coordinated move,” Madden says, “but Cat kept everything on track.”

Their collaboration also went a long way in keeping Arista Builders on task and on schedule. “Arista renovated three bathrooms, redid the floors, and painted the entire interior of the house this past spring,” Madden says. “And they did all of it in just eight weeks.”

Once the fast-and-furious portion of their ongoing home makeover was complete, French and Madden settled into a more leisurely pace over the summer and tackled the upstairs bedrooms, the deck, and a myriad of decorative details.

“As a stage director for 25 years, I love to collaborate with designers,” Madden says. “I like to be involved in design concepts, developing, and sourcing. But I also appreciate letting a creative team run with their ideas.”

For French and her design team, which includes right-hand-man and lead stylist Danny Ekstrand, permission to “run with their ideas” was a creative blessing. One of the hallmarks of French’s company is delivering the unexpected, all while keeping things simple and streamlined.

“We meet our clients’ needs by creating beautiful, personable spaces that are uniquely tailored to their lifestyle, budget, and aesthetic preferences,” says French. “I think my favorite aspect of this project was Corey and Bruno’s willingness to entertain the unexpected.”

Madden and Louchouarn knew they wanted to feature their eclectic visual arts, crafts, books, and instrument collections all through the house. They also wanted to mix their contemporary aesthetics with the good bones of what was a wonderful old house.

“Cat did a great job of presenting our things and new items in mood boards so we had a chance to preview each room,” Madden notes.

For her part, Madden helped to source rugs and vintage pieces and added to her painting and pottery collection.

“I was particularly happy to have Cat work with Bruno to design the perfect [music] studio space, and I was thrilled with how the guest house turned out,” Madden says. “Our extended family loves staying there now.”

Despite their busy professional lives and the physical distance between them (French’s design firm is based in Chapel Hill), Madden and French were able to work together collaboratively, albeit remotely, to complete the project in about six months. The result of their combined efforts is nothing short of stunning—an eclectic artists’ retreat with a classic Buena Vista soul.

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