Finding Shelter On a Brenham Ranch During the Pandemic
Lauren Wills designed a charming ranch house on 60 acres in Brenham for her parents. Nine months later, it became her refuge.
On March 11, 2020, Houston native Lauren Wills flew in from New York with her fiancé for one of Houston’s biggest events of the year: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But within hours of landing, the rodeo was cancelled due to COVID-19, and the city was heading for stay-at-home orders. Returning to New York and their small apartment wasn’t an option, so the couple headed west to her parents’ ranch in Brenham, where they isolated for the next four-and-a-half months.
“It was a blessing, getting stuck on 60 acres,” Wills says.
With horses, cattle, and acres of wildflowers just starting to bloom, lockdown on the ranch was a welcome reprieve from the hustle of New York, where Willis had moved 16 years earlier to study interior design at Pratt. Wills hit the ground running after graduation, working with top designers Penny Drue Baird and Jeffrey Bilhuber, followed by a two-year stint at Ralph Lauren Home. She opened her Brooklyn-based firm, Wills Design Associates, in 2014 and hasn’t slowed down since.
One of her most challenging projects was the Brenham ranch house, which her parents had hired her to work on three years ago. An architect had drawn up plans, but when the contractor dropped out, Wills picked up the slack and supervised construction.
“I quickly learned how to build a house,” says the 35-year-old Wills. “It took three years of me flying back and forth from New York twice a month to finish.”
With broad, covered porches and a pitched metal roof, the two-story house has its roots in classic Texas ranch-house design. The interiors are bright, airy, and imbued with charm.
Wills found many of the furnishings in Round Top — just 30 minutes away — including a pair of ornately carved double doors in the living room.
“I had been looking for more than a year for something special to put there,” Willis says. “And when I saw them, I said, ‘Oh my god, these would be so much fun.’ ”
She also discovered colorfully striped Peruvian blankets, which she used to cover the dining-room chairs, along with small kilim ottomans and a pair of leather club chairs that originally came from a lounge in London. Like many designers of her generation, she’s a wiz at navigating the Internet for whatever she needs.
Hand-blocked cotton textiles from India and Moroccan tables were sourced on Etsy, and pottery lamps and wicker furniture came from Wayfair and Urban Outfitters. Anthropologie was her source for the master bedroom’s hammered-metal bed from India, along with a lacquered wood chandelier that’s designed to look like magnolia leaves. Wills learned to look for clever finds in unexpected places early in her career.
“All of the designers I worked for sourced furnishings from all over the place,” she says. “They were very layered in their approach to design, and I picked that up.”
Wills references Morocco — one of her Mother’s favorite places — in the master bath’s Moroccan-style lanterns, mirrors and hand-painted Moroccan sinks. She used sturdy artisanal elements, such as handmade encaustic-tile floors in the mudroom, as a way to introduce color and pattern without getting too precious.
Willis’ fruitless search for unique tiles for the kitchen backsplash turned into “a total obsession,” she says. “So I decided to paint them myself.”
For inspiration, she looked to their own pastures blooming with delicate fernlike stalks of Queen Anne’s lace and buzzing with dragonflies and hummingbirds. A friend in Houston glazed and fired the hand-painted tiles for her, and now the delightful mise en scène gives the kitchen unexpected charm.
The house had only been finished nine months when Wills and her fiancé moved in during lockdown.
“I’ve never lived in a house that I’ve designed myself,” she says. “There’s always something at the end of a project that doesn’t get finished. This gave me a chance to focus on all those details.”
Wills spent the downtime making pleated lampshades from hand-blocked cloth and planting flowers from a nearby nursery in pots on the porches. She did a lot of painting, including adding decorative folk art to chairs. She also painted abstract canvases and scenes depicting landscapes and horses on the ranch, which she framed and hung throughout the house.
“It was unbelievably therapeutic,” she says. “My business last year skyrocketed, and I took on too much and worked more than I thought was possible. I needed the time off to regroup and see what I wanted my business to look like going forward — I had to figure out a better work-life balance.”
In September, Wills and her fiancé packed up their apartment in New York and moved to Houston, where the pace is easier, and she’s hired an assistant to help with her design firm. Life and work are already more in sync, thanks in part to the Brenham ranch house.
“Doing that house was a great experience,” she says. “I saw what I am capable of, and it expanded my creativity. It’s a really comfortable, peaceful house.”
Photography by Kerry Kirk. Interior Design Lauren Wills, Wills Design Associates.