Inside a Lighting Designer’s Family-Friendly Lake House
Barbara Cosgrove’s scenic Lake Lotawana, MO, home wasn’t always so pleasing to the eye. The lighting designer, who’s not one to mince words, says, “It was a total dump. When I took my daughter-in-law to see it, she was just horrified; the realtor couldn’t quit laughing.” But Barbara saw its potential and decided to take on lakeside living full-time, trading the “big old house in town” (town being Kansas City) that she and her husband had resided in for 30-odd years for “the fabulous light, the view, and the enormous property line.”
Redesigning and decorating the home came with a big to-do list. But Barbara firmly took the reins and kept the process as headache-free as possible. “I’m just artist enough to be a little defiant,” she says. “I just wanted things that were very straightforward, but that’s not to say that these things are trite. I didn’t want standard.”
Barbara didn’t feel that the house’s layout lent itself to an overly formal entryway, but she created a nice welcoming moment here, pairing several of her own tiered pendant fixtures with natural woods and casually overlapping carpets. “Those are my husband’s family’s rugs. They’re pretty thin and pretty worn, and I love them that way,” she say
Accordingly, Barbara masterminded a comfortable yet chic home hardy enough to withstand the shenanigans of a lively extended family, including her two grown children and three grandchildren (who love to visit and take full advantage of the water). “Everything was planned around being livable,” she says. “I have carpet that doesn’t show any pile. The kids don’t have sheets on their beds; they just have quilts, so they have to make them. We don’t have towel racks; we have hooks everywhere so everyone just hangs everything up.” Even more impressive was the fact that Barbara managed much of the process from a hotel bed where she was holed up with a shattered knee. “I was in this huge cast,” she recalls. “The contractor would come and ask me questions, and I had to make a lot of decisions through photos, but somehow it got done.”
Lest you forget where you are, a map of the Lake Lotawana area is never far away in the Cosgrove abode. The Missouri lake town (which is southeast of Kansas City) is just over 11 miles and home to about 2,000 people—including one very talented lighting designer.
Making it happen is a Cosgrove specialty. After all, we’re talking about a former stay-at-home mom who launched her eponymous lighting business at age 47 (“I was bored, and I don’t play tennis,” she jokes). Though she held two master’s degrees in sculpture, nothing had really prepared her to launch her own company. “I didn’t have any reference, experience, or exposure when it came to this industry. I didn’t know what I was doing,” she laughs, “which was probably a good thing.”
Sometimes, successful design stems from knowing what you don’t want—and Barbara had that covered in the kitchen. “I didn’t want a plethora of kitchen cabinets. I didn’t want marble or granite countertops. I didn’t want a big old island. I didn’t want fancy finishes, and I didn’t want ordinary,” she recalls. She found her dream island in the form of an old drafting table, bought at a garage sale for about $50, and customized it by adding an old door and a glass cover on top.
Perhaps the secret to Barbara’s success, as a decorator and as an entrepreneur, is trusting her gut. “I think all artists, whether they admit it or not, work on instinct,” she says. “Creative people have really messy minds; we put together pieces and draw connections that other people don’t see. Things bounce around in our heads and somehow come together.” They certainly did in this happy home.
The comfy couch came by way of barter: Barbara traded some of her lamps for it with an old friend who was a Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams dealer. “He was a world-class designer,” she says. “He did huge-acreage homes in Tokyo, for goodness’ sake. I’m sure he had ordered it for a client and then the client didn’t use it. Anyway, it’s enormous. Two people can easily lie on it. When my daughter was pregnant, she was on it all the time.”
Barbara was clever with her placement of art in the living room, which finds vintage plates mingling with framed black-and-white animal prints. “When I hung the prints, I knew I wanted the view of the lake to be what people saw, so I put the pictures way up high so that you aren’t really aware of them when you walk in.”
“This is my little ethnic moment,” Barbara says of the pairing of an African chair and her own artful Mythic Llama lamp. She bought the chair from a vendor who was exhibiting across the aisle from her at one of the many trade shows she’s participated in since founding her business in 1997.
Dinners at the lake house are almost always casual, according to Barbara. “But we have had Thanksgiving dinner here, and we just squeeze everybody—which is, I don’t know, 14 people—in. Those big chairs at the end of the table are huge, so we put an adult and a grandkid in each of those to make it work.” For those rare formal occasions, the designer takes her tabletop game seriously: “I like to decorate. I like great china and great decor and flowers and everything at the table.”
All the lighting in the lake house is, indeed, by Barbara. But the self-deprecating designer admits to feeling a little uneasy about that. “When I started, I got so excited about having pieces from all of my colleagues in my home, and then my house started being photographed and my general manager said, ‘You’re going to have to put your own lights in your house now. You got to get rid of everybody else’s. This is not working for PR!’” Barbara admits with a laugh.
A grouping of trophies—and, okay, a busted $4 coffeepot—makes for an unexpected vignette, especially in a powder room. “I just put them together,” says Barbara, who tried using actual family trophies (her daughter is a world-class swimmer) before determining that they didn’t look right. “These are more like loving cups,” she says.
Barbara’s decision to paint the bedroom ceiling dark gray immediately upped the room’s sophistication factor. “I don’t know if this is true,” she says, “but I read somewhere that here in the States, we tend to paint low ceilings white, and in Europe, they tend to paint them very dark, to make them disappear.”
Sometimes even Barbara is surprised by where her design ideas come from, as with her Pineapple Lamp. “It’s like two years ago when we were in Hawaii, there were pineapples. ‘I’ll think I’ll make a lamp out of a pineapple!’ It’s all sorts of things in my head that somehow come together,” she says.
The master bedroom, with French doors that open out to the lake, is large enough to accommodate a sitting area. “You can hole up there for quite a while,” Barbara says. The beautiful white chest is an antique from her husband’s grandmother. “It was mahogany, and I painted it. Nothing against mahogany—it just didn’t work in there.”
Her daughter and son-in-law’s bedroom is home to one of Barbara’s favorite creations—a foo dog table lamp crafted of resin. When the designer found it, “it was black and gold-leafed, not black with some spots of gold, just bad patchwork black and gold. It was incredibly ugly.” While it was intended for a customer, “we took it and sprayed it white and said, ‘We’re not sending it to whoever ordered it. We’re keeping it!’”
You have to love a design pro who admits to buying something because it was a good deal. “I did the yellow for the grandkids’ room because they were really cheap and they’re all cotton and quilted,” she admits. “My daughter said, ‘Oh my God, Mother. That’s the ugliest color.’ I like it.”