Homecoming by Design

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Essay and illustrations by Chuck Chewning

I first came to Savannah in 1983. Savannah College of Art and Design was brand new, and they happened to offer the only undergraduate program in historic preservation in the country. Having grown up in Atlanta’s historic Druid Hills neighborhood, I was immediately charmed by Savannah’s architecture, squares, history and romance, and I immersed myself in the creative atmosphere of the city. Those three years I spent here in college were the most influential and formative years of my life. I have often thought that coming to Savannah was the best decision I have ever made.

While studying historic preservation and later interior design at SCAD, I was offered an internship with one of Savannah’s most prominent and influential architects: John C. LeBey. He helped me refine my passion for design and grasp the possibilities of my education. I left Savannah in December of 1986 and for the next 20 years, I never looked back.

After graduation, I joined a large hospitality firm in Atlanta, working on the conversion of Chicago’s 1929 Medinah Athletic Club into the Intercontinental Hotel. A couple of years later, I was offered a position with the hospitality design firm, Hirsch Bedner Associates. My first project took me to Istanbul, Turkey, and all at once, my world expanded. Over the course of the next decade and a half, I designed some of the world’s most luxurious properties, including the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia and New Orleans; The Grande Bretagne in Athens, Greece; Badrutt’s Palace in Saint Moritz, Switzerland; Lucknam Park in Bath, England, and The Bristol in Vienna, Austria. To further expand my portfolio, I designed residences for the owners of many of the hotels I worked on. I moved to London, then to Milan. Friends asked me if I was scared to move so far from home. I told them that I was more afraid not to.

I have often thought that coming to Savannah was the best decision I have ever made.

I returned to the U.S. in 2003 and opened my own design firm, Chuck Chewning Interior Design, with a former Hirsch Bedner colleague and dear friend, Janice Clausen. In 2007, I was approached by the famous Venetian textile house Rubelli, who asked me to serve as creative director of the iconic American textile and furniture company, Donghia. It was an odd twist of fate: the company’s founder, Angelo Donghia, had always been an inspiration to me, and I later found my old copies of Architectural Digest with yellow sticky notes marking his published projects. This was the answer I needed, and I accepted the challenge. I moved to New York and began a new chapter of my career, driving the creative branch of an important industry brand. Opportunities continued to unfold, and in 2010 Starwood called and asked if I would helm the interiors of the newly restored Gritti Palace in Venice, Italy. In another twist, this very project had been on my wish list, and now it was happening.

My team and I spent three years on the project, and our efforts were recognized with a gorgeous 12-page spread in the May 2013 issue of Architectural Digest. Next, I began work on a country house for the royal family of Dubai, on 200 acres in Surrey. The house had been gutted back to structure and I had a clean slate to work with. The project was a wake-up call: I realized that my heart belonged back in residential interior design and, eventually, back in Savannah.

The Gritti Palace in Venice, Italy. Illustration by Chuck Chewning

I had bought a house in Savannah’s Historic District in 2011 as a retreat from the chaos of New York. I was still traveling overseas for design projects and consulting for Rubelli, but last year I left New York and settled full-time in Savannah. When my dear friends Johno Morisano and Carol Sawdye, who own The Grey, asked me for advice on who could design the interiors of their newly acquired historic home, I volunteered myself for the project, not entirely realizing what I was getting into. Then my close friend Rosalie Morris asked me if I would do the interiors of her Historic District rowhouse. These first projects in Savannah were intuitive—I was creating a lifestyle and atmosphere for people I knew and admired. I was also laying the groundwork for my new firm, Charles H. Chewning Interiors. Last summer, my firm was asked to spearhead the interior restoration of the Armstrong House, recently purchased by hotel developer Richard C. Kessler. Working alongside Christian Sottile, an incredibly talented architect and fellow SCAD alumnus, I’m helping to bring this jewel back to life. Armstrong House is one of Savannah’s most important and iconic homes, a place I remember passing by on my way to class all those years ago. Somehow, my three decades in design have brought me back to the beginning.

As if my Savannah story wasn’t full-circle enough, my friend and former SCAD classmate Cuffy Sullivan began working with me this past fall as my design coordinator. Cuffy spent part of her early career at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. and is now deeply rooted in the Savannah community, having co-founded the Savannah Children’s Choir. Her skills have brought to life my idea of a design business in Savannah, and given it structure and vitality. We’re currently looking for a new mixed-use space where our business can grow. When we find that place, we’ll be home. Then again, we already are.