The City Magazine Since 1975

Trading Paces

Trading Paces
October 2010
How one family swapped downtown’s bustle for the mellow island life

When Nathalie Suzanne first moved to Charleston from New York 15 years ago, the French expat was in love with downtown’s Euro-flavored cityscape. But the marshes? “Frankly, I thought they were depressing, flat, and the colors… My husband fell for them immediately, but me? It took a number of years before I thought otherwise.”

Considering Nathalie’s delivering that comment from a house—their current home—that sits one street off the marsh-fringed Intracoastal Waterway, indeed, the tides have changed. To understand the transition, head back to the first chapter of her family’s Holy City story: the Suzannes were high on the urbane life, living South of Broad in a traditional 1797 Charleston single so smartly styled it found its way into the premiere issue of Charleston Home, and later into Traditional Home magazine. Dressed in a compilation of antique finds, rich colors, French country patterns and solids, and leggy antique chairs and tables, it reflected Nathalie’s eye (she’s a painter), the couple’s international sophistication (husband William was raised in Venezuela), and a softness that suited their two elementary school-aged children. The Suzannes were known to throw fabulous theme parties and became fast friends with other young families in the area.

But after a decade of such living, Nathalie began noticing a change creeping up on her. She started craving a slower pace, something removed, something more… country? “It was very nice, very beautiful downtown, but I was turning 40 and felt like ‘We’re set, we’re done,’” she says. “I like change, had never seen myself living in the same house forever, and wanted a different atmosphere. I was ready for something more country and even something near the marsh.”

After toying with relocating to James Island’s Secessionville, then considering rural Wadmalaw Island, they turned toward Sullivan’s Island. That was three years ago, when the housing market was still off-the-charts pricey. Still, the pair caught wind of a hulking house that was a relative deal thanks to its bare yard and busy street location. But given it was new construction, had barely been lived in, and sported a view of the ocean and marsh and plenty of room for a family of four, it became the instant front-runner. Sitting at Poe’s with William, enjoying an open-air libation and waiting on their real estate agent, Nathalie says she eased into the thought, “This island life is something I might get used to.”

Once they bought the house, Nathalie says the move took some adjusting for the foursome. It wasn’t so much acclimating to Sullivan’s—that was a head-over-heels romance—as it was cozying up to the house itself. Sure, they painted the dark mahogany wood walls white (“It’s a beach house, after all,” says Nathalie); replaced the mainly brass lighting with large-scale contemporary fixtures from Circa Lighting and Urban Electric; painted kitchen cabinets white; washed their hands of more über-traditional furniture and loaded in only sink-into-it fare or weathered, character-laden pieces which Nathalie found with the help of designer pal and fellow French native Marie Laure Kosian.

But that first night, as William and Nathalie lay in their bed and looked up at the vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom, “We felt ridiculous!” she says. “Our old apartment in New York was half the size of the new bedroom.” And, she adds, since they had been talking about downsizing as part of the motivation for the move, the whole thing further felt absurd.

Since then, though, the family’s made the abode their own. And with that, they’ve experienced a shift that spills into how they live, how they work, and how they vacation. For starters, their current digs sport a more family-friendly layout than their former single house, so even as everyone scuttles about doing their thing, they are all connected. “The downtown house was like a hallway—everything was in longitude,” says Nathalie. “We had this beautiful place, but we were living in the kitchen because it was where we could all be together. Here, everything is central and on a square, and I like that.”

As she says this, Nathalie’s curled into a sofa in the living room, teapot on the coffee table, a view through to the dining room and kitchen before her, and the front porch and son Christian’s room behind her. Aside from daughter Mae Rose, who’s upstairs working on a paper, the whole family—dogs included—is within sight and hearing (not hollering) range. It’s amazing how the configuration of open doors, high ceilings, and, as Nathalie explains it, “rooms as squares upon squares,” brought the group together in spite of the added footage.

Soft music—reggae rhythms and international island beats—spills down from hidden speakers as Nathalie gives a tour. She points out that most all of the earthy, bold, abstract paintings are hers, explains she likes to collect African masks, and, when she gets to her studio (a tiny bed and bath combo on the second floor), talks about how her paintings have changed since the move. “Now I am into less color and more abstract overall,” she says. “Before, I always had some figurative element that people could recognize and hold onto, like vines and leaves. But now the paintings are more like the beach, less defined, more abstract.”

Beside her, an easel holds a large canvas with a collage of colors ranging from steel blues to moody grays and green golds—a palette that’s both maritime forest and marsh. She grins at this. “Up until now, I didn’t have much time for painting—I had to be a mom. But now, with the kids in school, I have mornings to myself and in the afternoons I am a chauffer for them. That leaves me more time than I ever had when they were younger.”

For his part, William’s habits have changed as well. Once an avid hunter, he’s traded shotguns for shooting photos, and his arresting images hang throughout the house where they mingle with Nathalie’s pieces. (“It’s the cheapest artwork you’ll find—your own!” she laughs.) He, too, has gone toward the abstract side of things, snapping animals, textures, landscapes, and more with tight framing that hones in on a particular point of interest: a riverbed, an elephant’s eye, the spine of a red dune. If the subject matter sounds puzzling, that’s because the Suzannes, who once specialized in urban trips to foreign museums and so forth, have swapped their off-time jaunts for super-rustic adventures, most often in Africa. William’s car boasts a “No hurry in Africa” sticker, and he’s studying to become a pilot, thanks to the photographic perspective he got puddle-jumping everywhere from Namibia to Tanzania, Botswana, and Zambia.

After a climb to the house’s rooftop porch, Nathalie seems to breathe in the 360-degree view. “A few years ago I had a friend who moved to Charleston,” she says, “and she was trying to decide whether to buy a house here or downtown. I told her, ‘Don’t go to Sullivan’s, you’ll never see anyone, it’s too far.’ So she bought a house downtown, and then I ended up moving down here—she’s still furious. But it was right for me, to live first downtown and get connected, then come here. I still see everyone daily when I drive in to get the kids from school. But the social aspect has changed—you have to organize visiting, because no one is just stopping by and ringing the bell. We’re definitely on an island out here. And I love it.”