I’M STANDING IN THE DRAWING ROOM of 2 Water St. a four-story Federal-style home on the High Battery built by Nathaniel Ingraham in 1810. From here, the Charleston Harbor dominates the view. There are two dozen tourists taking photos and peeking through the lower windows, but I feel as if I’m on an island.
The Nathaniel Ingraham households more than 200 years of Charleston history, so it is an important building. When Shea and John Kuhn bought the house in 2016, they knew they wanted a designer who would help them personalize the house and make it functional for how they live while protecting the home’s integrity.
Enter Merrill Benfield, a Charleston interior designer known for having such impeccable Gilded Age manners and style that, just by proximity, he makes one want to be a better person and live a better life. John met Merrill one Sunday morning when Merrill was hand-delivering flowers and a thank-you note to a friend, as he is known to do. Merrill was driving one of his vintage collectible motorcars, a 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280SL Pagoda, top-down, two adorable dogs riding shotgun. In other words, he was a conversation waiting to happen. And it did.
After discussing the collection of British, German and American motorcars that Merrill has been collecting since he was 16, John learned that Merrill is a designer with a long history of buying and selling antiques all over the world, a family history in the textile business and that he is on a first-name basis with both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Merrill has the keys to several downtown homes in which he designed the entire interiors, so he took John on a “key stroll”; the two immediately hit it off.
The Kuhns’ personal and family collection of antiques is worthy of a museum, which is precisely what they didn’t want their home to feel like. “We have three children and wanted a party-, family-, and pet-friendly home,” John says. “Shea warned him that if the dogs couldn’t sit on the couch, things were not going to be OK.” Merrill, an animal lover and a bit of a maverick, has no problems with dogs on sofas. He was a perfect fit.
Back in the drawing-room, I’m standing on a 48-foot, 1920s Chinese art deco-motif rug. Magically, the rug makes the harbor, usually silty brown, look blue. “Since this is the largest space in the house, the rug had to be the first decision so I could determine the balance of the other 14 rooms,” Merrill says. “As the rug search was global, by accident I discovered it was custom-made for the world-famous William Randolph Hearst’s boardroom of the new Chrysler building. A source knew I loved Chinese and deco, so we won the lottery.”
Merrill doesn’t just know people; he knows which people have what things, and he knows which of those things go where in his clients’ homes. He’s a bit of a Southern James Bond meets Indiana Jones mash-up with an eidetic, or at least encyclopedic, knowledge of the world’s best stashes of antiques.
To pull off the Kuhns’ vision for 2 Water St. Merrill had to draw on his vast global network and incorporate the couple’s formidable personal collections. In the dining room, the design is so cohesive that it feels effortless. Look closely at the individual elements and one realizes it’s anything but.
The east wall is dominated by a Japanese screen John’s grandmother bought at the Port of Vancouver in 1870. Merrill found the perfect Japanese temple table to place beneath it. He also found the large Persian rug, the unusual bronze and copper chandeliers that echo the pattern in the tin ceiling, and the hand-carved Scottish sideboard. Exquisite Scalamandré silk cornices top the heavy velvet drapes. As a testament to the welcoming casualness of Merrill’s design, notice the fluffy Maine coon cat draped lazily across the sharkskin upholstered seat of a hand-carved Irish dining chair, circa 1810.
Upstairs, the master bedroom and dressing room are drenched in light that reflects off of the harbor. Here, Merrill kept the aesthetic light and slightly feminine with Shea’s favorite paintings, a French floral rug and an incredible Dutch armoire. Her dressing room is part old Hollywood glamour and part contemporary Los Angeles, with a dash of elegant playfulness thanks to the whimsical wallpaper.
Across the hall is Merrill’s pièce de résistance: John’s library of rare and beloved books, including a first edition of Walden signed by Thoreau. This is a manly man’s room, with wood, leather and hidden lion motifs everywhere. It’s a scholarly library, but nothing about it tells you to keep your voice down. There is a French Empire desk with playful lamps made of mah-jongg tiles. Here is a bottle green, vat-dyed bespoke leather sofa. The vases, clocks, sculptures, and photos all have history and meaning for John.
After getting to know the Kuhns, it’s clear that Merrill has designed interiors that express them beautifully.*
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.