Written by Brett Levine
Photography by Edward Badham
There is a work of art by the artist Ben South in Barbie and Steve Arnold’s home. It shows a heart springing out of a box. “Ben asked me what I liked about Steve, and I said I liked that Steve thinks out of the box; he asked Steve what he liked about me, and Steve said that I had a really big heart,” Barbie says. Big hearts and out-of-the-box thinking are what led the Arnolds to their beautiful, sensitively designed home in a leafy Birmingham suburb.
For Barbie, a contemporary home was not always part of the plan. “I thought contemporary design was cold,” she explains, standing in the expansive entryway of a home that is anything but that. Trips to Atlanta and Chicago to view some options for furniture and fixtures changed her mind. “I think I fell in love with the idea of a contemporary home then,” she says. The Arnolds worked with Richard Carnaggio of Cohen, Carnaggio Reynolds to produce something else entirely. “We call it soft contemporary,” she explains, describing a home that is most distinguished by its intriguing angles and forms that make the most out of what was a slightly unusually shaped lot. “We believed that a contemporary home can be sympathetic to its surroundings.” Sympathetic it is, elevated above the street, with a stacked stone façade and soaring glass windows that create unexpected vistas. Spread over two levels, the house blurs the distinctions between inside and out.
Barbie describes Steve, an attorney with White, Arnold and Dowd, as the one who was the more architecturally adventurous of the two. “He has always been interested in art and design,” she explains, “so one of the requirements we shared with Richard was that the house had to have wall space where we could display art.” Steve has a unique approach to art. When considering a piece of art, he asks the question, “When you look at it, do you want to see it every day for the next 10 years?’” Understanding their passion, Carnaggio created spaces that are sympathetic to the Arnolds’ needs, while allowing views and access to the outdoors at almost every turn. “I will admit that function prevailed over form in one instance,” Barbie says. “Richard had envisioned a view from one end of the house to the other, but I wanted a guest room on the main level, which made that impossible. I promised him that since we had to have a wall, I would fill it with a beautiful work of art!”
One of the most unexpected elements of the architecture is the use of folding doors that open to the outside in many of the downstairs spaces. “We wanted to be able to go outside as easily as possible,” Barbie says. “We have a granddaughter and triplet grandsons now and we like spending as much time outside as inside.” Carnaggio’s approach included these doors, which open to the seasons.
The design also seamlessly blended the new architecture with the existing environment and landscape of the nearby church and the distant hills, bringing subtle views into the picture windows. It is almost as if each creates its own natural painting. Upstairs, in the entertaining area, a long window reveals the church’s steeple, which can be seen fully from the upper deck. The upstairs custom bar is intriguing. Here, Joe Ries inserted fiber optics, clipping them when the concrete bar surface was poured. It twinkles like the night sky.
On the main level, the home’s flexibility as an entertaining space truly comes to the fore. In the dining area, a long leaf connects two round tables. “The center is removable,” Barbie explains. “I wanted to be able to have ample room for a large dinner but also be able to sit down to dinner with Steve and feel like we were connected, so we designed a table that can actually be separated into two round café’ type tables. The center even has its own storage in the pantry!”
The project was a partnership. The Arnolds worked with Michael Fortson at Illuminations to source the majority of their interior lighting. He was also able to direct them toward a source for the unique doors that they were unable to find locally. “We finally found them in Miami,” they say. “However, it is becoming easier to find a wider range of contemporary options here in Birmingham, which is a reflection of how wonderfully our city is growing.”
The Arnolds’ home truly is their dream home. “It was the third house I’ve built,” Barbie says, “and Steve and I have said it is the last one we will build. We built it so we could grow old here. It has a shower that is wheelchair accessible. All of the living areas are on one level. All the rooms open to the outside with easy accessibility. But for now, it is just a home we love, where we can entertain, and where we enjoy living.”