Better Together: A Young Family Builds a Modern and Fun Place to Gather

The Leaston family’s home on Ridge Road combines European influences with texture, patterns and art that speaks to their heritage.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Catherine Nguyen

As you open the door to the home that Mandi and Chris Leaston share with their three daughters, the first thing you see is a giant dining table surrounded by comfy chairs. “I grew up with sit-down meals for the holidays, but Chris’ family was more into paper-plates-and-buffet-style celebrations,” Mandi says. For them, the open dining area bridged those two spirits: it’s inviting for everyday dining, but can get dressed up for special occasions.

It also reflects the spirit of the home, which the couple wanted to be a gathering place for family, friends and neighbors. “Being creative with color and pattern is a joy, but our real dream for this space is that every inch is designed to be used and shared well,” says Mandi.

The couple bought the lot on Ridge Road in 2014 and spent a few years touring houses on the Parade of Homes to gather ideas. “We knew we wanted to be in this neighborhood,” says Mandi

“We revised our blueprint probably 15 times.” Architect Tony Frazier of Frazier Home Design started their plans and they ultimately worked with Rex Bost of Bost Custom Homes on the final layout and build. “Tony really understood making the house work functionally, with no wasted space,” Mandi says, “and Rex has that very creative left-brain vision.”

“My biggest thing was I didn’t want any wasted spaces,” says Chris. “I wanted to make sure we really use all the rooms in the house.” The couple broke ground in 2019, but the project was slowed by the pandemic. They moved in in 2021.

Along the way, they enlisted designer Zandy Gammons of Miretta Interiors — who attended East Carolina University with Mandi — to help finish the space. “The fun thing about working with Mandi is that she knows what she likes and has cool ideas,” says Gammons. “She just loves design and everything about it, so she’s willing to try something different.”

The overall style idea was a sort of European modern. “Mandi liked the feel of white walls, but with some heritage and eclecticism,” Gammons says. Throughout, there’s a balance of more formal furnishings with playful touches, particularly through the use of wallpaper. “Mandi and I both love wallpaper — it adds a cool layer to so many spaces,” says Gammons.

She worked with Mandi to stay on a budget, mixing higher-end pieces, like dramatic lighting in the dining area and kitchen, with more affordable pieces in secondary rooms. Mandi and Chris shopped around for furniture from local stores, The Green Chair Project and retailers as far as Asheville and Hickory.

“We enjoyed looking for things we can use, and we took all these mini trips together,” says Mandi. “They would find things here and there and set them aside — I love that the home feels gathered instead of staged,” says Gammons.

On the first floor, the dramatic staircase is the focal point. There’s an office to the right of the entryway, but otherwise it’s an open floor plan: dining area, living room and kitchen. The space also opens to a screened porch overlooking the back yard and pool.

“They love to cook and entertain, so they wanted a big, multifunctional space,” says Gammons. “I love that you can go onto the porch and talk to people in the living room,” says Mandi.

Upstairs are two rooms for their daughters, twins Cali and Cai and their younger sister, Chloe — though right now, all three prefer to share one room. There is also the primary bedroom, a guest room and the laundry room. “I have a funky, eclectic style, but I reserved it for upstairs,” Mandi says.

“Downstairs I tried to stay classy and timeless.” The grand staircase leads from the second floor down to the ground level, where a family room, game area and theater open to the back yard. Mandi was an only child, but Chris had two brothers “and the whole basketball team lived at my house,” he laughs. “So it was important to us to have a space where our kids and their friends want to hang out.”

And now that they’re settled, that’s just what the space has become: an easy place to host a sit-down meal with other couples, but one where their kids are excited to welcome their friends. “We have the space to play, laugh, run and rest well,” says Mandi. “A place where we can open our doors and our hearts to whoever comes our way.”

Cozy Spaces:The powder room layers grays in the wallpaper, tiles, cabinetry and vessel sink. Chris’ charcoal-covered office is a counterpoint to the rest of the first floor. The art is by Kadir Nelson; the portrait of the girl was on the cover of The New Yorker. “When Chris saw it, he said, that reminds me so much of our daughters,” Mandi says.
Very Entertaining:The living room opens to the kitchen and dining area. The fireplace surround is done in ArcusStone; so is the hood over the stove. “Bringing it to the ceiling matched the scale of the house, and pulled in that detail from the kitchen,” says Gammons. Mandi had the idea to use the stone on the kitchen wall. “I grew up in Pennsylvania with a lot of old stone farmhouses, so it reminded me of home — but also of visiting Italy where my family is from,” she says. The windows over the bar sink open to another eating area on the deck outside, with a bar under the window. “This way, they can pass food or drink through to whoever’s grilling,” says Gammons. Off the kitchen is a butler’s pantry designed as both a prep area and mudroom, as it’s also the entrance from the garage. “We wanted a place to pack lunches and dump our stuff,” Mandi says. Downstairs, they used wallpaper to accent the wine storage.
Welcome Party: “The table is super long, with even more leaves for big parties,” Gammons says. Wallpaper defines the dining area and adds visual interest. Gammons put two chandeliers over the table, in contrast to a simple pendant over the living area: “We had to be intentional about the focal points.”
Focal Point: The stairs are a sculptural detail that can be seen from outside through a wall full of windows as well. “It’s all open, and we get a ton of light from the windows,” says Mandi. “And you can look down from the top to the bottom.” Gammons used wallpaper to turn a little nook outside the primary bedroom into a moment of its own. “We didn’t want to just do shelving, we wanted something really pretty,” Gammons says. In one guest room, which was originally intended as a kids’ room, Mandi has collected the art over time. Each piece speaks to some aspect of their lives. “There’s a photo of a brownstone with a vintage car and a sign that says immigrants; it makes me think of my grandfather, who came through Ellis Island,” Mandi says. “There are also three funky looking African American teenage girls, who remind us of our own kids, and palm trees that remind me and Chris of a favorite vacation spot.”
Sanctuary Spaces: The primary bedroom overlooks the backyard. “This is their retreat,” says Gammons, “so we toned it down with some deeper grays.” Here, she put in a cloud-patterned wallpaper behind the bed, and added jewel tone benches and a deeper purple rug for a rich accent. “This room is so airy, so we felt like we could have this pop of color without it feeling too purple,” says Mandi. In the bathroom, Gammons went for a warm modern look with wood floors, an angular tub and a floating vanity. They purposely kept the room simple. “I was looking at a lot of French modern spaces and European homes, where everything is painted white and it’s not over-decorated,” Mandi says. “It’s just peaceful.”

For The Girls: In one wing of the house, two bedrooms are joined by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom — but their three daughters only use one of them. “Our girls just all want to be together,” says Mandi. The bedroom has butterfly wallpaper on the ceiling and is trimmed in aqua, just for fun. “I love my room because I have a chill-out space,” says Chloe. Cai especially loves the big bunk beds, and Cali loves the swing. That bathroom has lilac-hued cabinets, black penny tiles, a built-in vanity and animal print-inspired wallpaper. “We did a posh little bathroom for them,” says Mandi. Gammons had fun working on it: “We wanted a space as cute and sassy as their three girls!”

The anchor of this open-plan living room is an extra-long green couch that homeowner Mandi Leaston fell in love with: “It’s my favorite color!” She worked with Zandy Gammons to furnish the room, which includes a bold black-and-white rug paired with smaller-scale patterns and textured accent chairs and console tables.
Outside Moments: Just off the living room, sliding doors open onto an elevated deck surrounded by phantom screens. “It really makes the room feel like it’s inside the house,” says Gammons. Mandi and her dad put the faux boxwood on the walls; it overlooks the pool and backyard. Below, on the ground floor, is a room with a bar, arcade games, a basketball hoop, and an adjoining play area and theater room; it opens to a deck and pool. “Chris and the kids love the theater,” says Mandi. “He played at NC State so he loves watching the games.” “My favorite place in the house is the theater because I love to watch movies and eat popcorn,” agrees Cai. Cali loves the game room “because I like to play games and basketball with my dad and cousin.” And Chloe’s favorite room is the playroom “because I like to play Barbies in there.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.