Maximalism Is Leading the New Orleans Design Renaissance

Paul Costello

Who says modern minimalism is all the rage? These designers and architects are capitalizing on the city’s more-is-more aesthetic.

The lazy Louisiana sun is casting lattices of light through streets lined with pastel Creole cottages and camelback shotgun houses in the Faubourg Marigny, the creative residential enclave just northeast of the French Quarter. When I pull up to a peach-and-mint gingerbread house that has convent stenciled on the door, I realize I’ve arrived at the Hotel Peter and Paul, which includes an 1860s church designed by noted New Orleans architect Henry Howard, a red-brick rectory, and an old schoolhouse. It spans the entire block. The complex sat abandoned for 13 years until the Brooklyn firm ASH NYC came upon it in 2014. “When we first saw it, there were boards still nailed to windows, paint was alligatoring up the walls, and graffiti was scrawled all over the exteriors,” says design director Will Cooper. 

The transformation took five years: “I started my research by studying Creole trade routes that came from Cuba and North Africa up to the Mississippi,” he says. From there he looked to Europe for inspiration––from the Alhambra in Spain and Cy Twombly’s palazzo in Rome to late-18th-century Gustavian design. Now the hotel’s 71 guest rooms are appointed with Madeleine Castaing–esque canopied beds, gingham-covered settees, and arches and tiles that bring to mind Marrakech. Meanwhile, inside the Rectory is a pair of parlors with Italianate fireplaces and windows draped in swaths of gold linen and orange-vine florals––as well as a sunroom reminiscent of Monet’s dining room in Giverny. “I think of this hotel as a love letter to New Orleans,” Cooper adds wistfully. “As with our other two hotels”––the Dean in Providence and the Siren in Detroit––“our mission is to do something for the community, by creating these little cultural hubs, high-design destinations, and beacons of hope.” 


An interior in the French Quarter decorated by Brockschmidt & Coleman. Paul Costello

The Hotel Peter and Paul’s old-world style––a refreshing contrast to the midcentury modern and Scandinavian minimalism craze––is indicative of the larger design renaissance happening throughout the city. New Orleanians are known for being as colorful and distinctive as their city––and there’s a new group of hoteliers, shopkeepers, interior decorators, and architects celebrating this tradition. Trading minimalism for maximalism, they’re leaning into the city’s 300-year-old melting pot of culture, rich architectural history, and vibrant artistry with a more-is-more aesthetic, but doing so with an approach that feels youthful, modern, and anything but kitsch. 

Down in the Irish Channel neighborhood, I later found myself in front of another former church. This one has been renovated into an event space and three Airbnbs by Sara Ruffin Costello––a decorator, writer, stylist, editor, consultant, and now fashion designer––and her husband, Paul, a photographer. The couple and their three children moved from New York City into a peach-hued 1868 Italianate-Gothic house in the Garden District in 2010. “When we first saw the church, the windows were all painted jet-black,” says Sara. “I thought, What were they doing in here? Maybe sacrificing goats?” 


From left: Sunday Shop, run by interior designers Jensen Killen and Katie Logan; architect Lee Ledbetter in the courtyard of his Uptown house. Paul Costello

The creative chameleon is currently putting the finishing touches on the 15-room Hôtel Chloe, set in an 1891 Queen Anne Victorian mansion in Uptown. “It was once a boardinghouse for seamen,” she says. “Definitely had a sailor’s bordello situation going on.” The revitalized property will include a 120-seat restaurant, a pool, a cabana bar, and a garden room––with a pastel palette, banana-leaf wallpaper, tiled fireplaces, and maybe even a James Turrell-inspired staircase. “The vibe is breezy Caribbean meets Creole meets London ladies’ club,” she adds. “I never dreamed I’d renovate a hotel, own a church, or design dresses, but that’s the thing about this town. The languid pace and absence of hyperactivity here really allow for endless creativity.” 

Not far from the Chloe, I discovered a hidden architectural surprise: Lee Ledbetter’s modernist glass house, which was built in 1961 by Buster Curtis (who famously designed the Superdome) and looks as if it were plucked from Palm Springs. Ledbetter is a dualist in every way: He’s both an architect and interior designer, and he loves neo-Corbusian modernism but doesn’t abandon classical details. “Like New York, New Orleans is very much a city of neighborhoods––there are actually 73 of them here––and each is rife with opportunities to restore, renovate, and rebuild,” says the Louisiana native, whose first book, The Art of Place, was published by Rizzoli in March. He also recently finished the entry pavilions in the sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which features outdoor works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois and Robert Indiana. 


From left: ASH NYC design director Will Cooper in the Elysian Bar at the Hotel Peter and Paul; copper pots in Lucullus, an antiques store that specializes in kitchenware from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Paul Costello

Nearby on lower Magazine Street, some shopkeepers at boutiques like Saint Claude Social Club are putting a more playful twist on local tradition. That space––founded in 2016 by Sarah Killen and Margaret Sche––is an Aladdin’s cave of playful costume jewelry, Afro-Caribbean art, and 1980s sequined sheaths from Neiman Marcus. “We love the crazy melting pot of cultures that founded this city, so we wanted to create a space centered around inclusivity,” Killen explains.

A few doors down is Sunday Shop, run by interior designers Jensen Killen and Katie Logan. Entering the airy boutique feels like walking into a chic decorator friend’s house; it’s staged as if it were a home, with a living area, a bedroom, a faux kitchen, a giant bath, and a lush courtyard lounge. Leroy Miranda’s acrylics hang on the walls, while handmade ceramics, Baule textiles from the Ivory Coast, and ’60s Guatemalan runners fill the sun-soaked space. 


Lucullus’s owner, Patrick Dunne, seated in the store’s courtyard. Paul Costello

Farther west on Magazine Street, the New York design firm Brockschmidt & Coleman is getting ready to open a satellite office in the Garden District. “At least half of our projects are now in the South, and since we love color, historic references, and architectural preservation, New Orleans was hands down our ideal location,” says Courtney Coleman. 

One of the firm’s projects is Justine, a 200-seat restaurant in the French Quarter that James Beard Award–winning chef Justin Devillier opened in late January. “The idea was to connect the classic brasserie-style dining of Paris to the design atmosphere of New Orleans, and to play on their shared cultural histories,” Devillier says as we sit in the back dining room, flanked by two murals depicting scenes and creative figures from the two cities. (Portraits of Edgar Degas and Ernest Hemingway––who each spent time in New Orleans and Paris––hang face-to-face in another nook.) He and his wife, Mia, traveled through France to pick several of the pieces in the brightly hued space, including a 19th-century marble statue of a goddess that towers over the 20-foot-long vintage zinc-topped bar. 


Chef Justin Devillier and his wife, Mia, in Justine, their new French Quarter restaurant. Paul Costello

When I tell him my next stop is Lucullus, a nearby culinary antiques store, Devillier gets up to accompany me––as he has to return a porcelain serving platter he borrowed from its owner, Patrick Dunne. Named after a Roman general famous for his passion for luxury and lavish banquets, the shop has been a must-stop since 1984––and brims with ornate glassware, Edwardian silver, and fine English china from the 17th to 19th centuries. “My agenda is to connect people to the past, by making the store feel playful instead of sacred and by showing them that these pieces shouldn’t be taken too seriously––they’re meant to be used and to get chipped,” says Dunne. He’s thrilled that antiques and maximalism are coming back in style: “I couldn’t stand that recent design trend of all white everything. White is great for snow and the Acropolis, but that’s it. Let God use white––we all need some color in our lives.”