Magic on the Marais – Savannah Magazine

A Palmetto Bluff construction embodies the Lowcountry aesthetic with a twist


WHEN AN OHIO-BASED COUPLE approached Tom and Leighann Markalunas to build a new house in Palmetto Bluff, the clients had a specific reference in mind: another house on which the architect and the interior design duo, who together form Markalunas Architecture Group and Leighann Markalunas Design, had worked in the neighborhood – one of more than 50 they have collaborated on in the residential community of Bluffton over the past decade.

“Our clients loved the house they saw, but their particular lot – with an unobstructed view of the marsh water – was unique, so they asked us to build something that suited it,” says Tom Markalunas.

The result? A stunning two-story home that marries the Lowcountry aesthetic of the home their clients had seen (bright, airy, bright rooms) with modern finishes and rich color accents throughout. Or, as Leighann Markalunas puts it, “Lowcountry with a twist.”

Nowhere is this duality more clearly represented than in the living room, which greets guests as they enter the house. Located in one corner of the house, instead of the middle, the living room is anchored by a limestone fireplace finished with custom leather wall panels. The corner location of the living space allowed the foyer to have glass on both sides, bringing the exterior views of the marsh inside.

Although modern, the house relies as much as possible on natural materials, including wood, stone and leather.

“Normally when you think Lowcountry you think brick fireplace, wooden mantle and bookcases – and these are certainly design elements we’ve used before – but here we’ve brought in wooden ceiling beams and wooden cabinetry. drink for something a little higher,” says Tom.

An oil painting of an owl in front of an oak tree in gold leaf by artist Starr Marchand (one of four original pieces Leighann commissioned for the house) also adds a personalized touch: the work renders homage to the birds sometimes seen in the neighborhood and the live oak tree on the property.

Balancing airy, bright elements with dark, moody ones, the master bathroom features floating wooden vanities that provide a feeling of openness (and plenty of storage). The water ski painting in oil and metal foil was commissioned specifically for this piece by artist Starr Marchand.

“It’s not what you’d expect to see in a Palmetto Bluff home, but it still has that coastal, easy living feel.” – Markalunas, interior designer

As guests move through the living room, they enter an expansive kitchen, designed with entertaining in mind. Leighann chose darker colors for the cabinetry to balance out the lighter island and finishes. A separate bar with black tiles, floating brass shelves, and an abstract mixed-media piece — another commission from artist Josh Jensen — adds a layer of visual impact. “It’s not what you’d expect to see in a Palmetto Bluff home, but it still has that coastal, easy living feel.”

Elsewhere on the lower level, a screened-in porch with swing sets provides the perfect space for the owners’ family and friends to lean into Lowcountry living. “We designed it as a little retreat – the perfect place
to relax with a cup of coffee or a cocktail,” says Leighann. Because the house is a vacation property for their guests, the Markalunas added a bedroom on the lower level for friends and guests, with a bunk area for the kids.

Upstairs, the design duo focused on creating a comfortable yet stylish master suite for their clients. To complement the bedroom’s vaulted ceiling and adjoining semi-private outdoor space, Leighann chose a four-poster bed and commissioned artwork that reflects the view of the marsh outside the window.

Classic black and white plays with inky blues and woven elements for a soft yet sophisticated master bedroom.

“[The homeowners’] the collaboration has been so helpful. It pushed us to think outside the box. » -Tom Markalunas, architect

In the bathroom, a black marble shower and floating cabinets provide a modern touch, while a commissioned painting of water skiers adds a custom, colorful finish. “With a lot of coastal design, you’ll see white cabinetry, but our customers wanted to go a little more dramatic,” says Leighann. This hint of drama is also reflected in the metal grille shower door in another bathroom.

As their clients encouraged Tom and Leighann to take artistic license with the project, they became unexpected and wonderful collaborators. “Both husband and wife are very knowledgeable about design, and the husband’s father is actually an architect,” says Tom. “There can be a sense of ownership among designers – you hear that a client’s father is an architect and you think, ‘Oh, here we go,’ but their collaboration was so helpful. It pushed us out off the beaten track.”

He points to his favorite space, the living room, as proof. From the start, they toyed with several ideas for the location of the fireplace. “Getting this fireplace to the left of the front door, with glass on both sides, is emblematic of our collaboration,” says Tom. “It’s a credit to our customers and to his father, who kept pushing us not to settle for 80%, but to aim for 100%.”

Vaulted ceilings mimic the height and grandeur of the oaks and pines just beyond in the master bedroom.


Owners: Ben and Kylie Volpe
Year completed: 2021
Year of purchase: lot purchased 2019
Square feet: Main level 2,202 air-conditioned, upper level 1,780 air-conditioned
Number of bedrooms and bathrooms: 4 bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms, plus bunk space
Architects/planners: Tom Markalunas, Markalunas Architecture Group, LLC
Interior decorator: Markalunas Leaves, Markalunas Design, LLC
Contractor/Builder: Matt Vogt, Resort Custom Homes, LLC
Tile/flooring: Jessica Cheek, Savannah Surfaces
Windows/Doors: Weather protection (Terry Sutton, Low Country belt and door)

Kitchen design: Markalunas Architecture Group
Bath design: Markalunas Architecture Group
Landscaping: Dan Keefer, Witmer Jones Keefer
Landscaping design: Witmer Jones Keefer
Audio-visual: Iain Brown, custom audio video
Landscaper: Brian Poplin, The Kayan Band
Furniture: Leighann Markalunas Design, LLC
Appliances: Allison Wilson, Livingood’s, Inc.
Accessories: Leighann Markalunas Design, LLC
Art: Leighann Markalunas Design, LLC, with Art & Light Gallery, including oil and metal leaf on canvas by Starr Marchand and acrylic and mixed media on abstract canvas by Josh Jensen

All resources provided by the architect.

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