Architect Keith Summerour’s renowned style is rooted in the juxtaposition of his rural upbringing and well-traveled life
A great space doesn’t design itself, as renowned architect Keith Summerour knows well. It takes authenticity, a lot of passion, and a bit of boldness, and that’s precisely what Keith has been known for over the last 30-plus years. He’s traveled the globe in pursuit (and appreciation) of architectural excellence, and it’s what his firm, Atlanta-based Summerour Architects, is built upon. His almost effortless ability to combine classic architectural elements with modern features has landed his firm high-end residential and commercial projects from coast to coast, from Old Edwards Inn and Blackberry Farm to St. Simons-Sea Island and Dogwood Canyon. But for Keith, it’s about much more than creating pretty houses or beautiful facades. It’s about creating a lifestyle—one thoughtfully inspired by his own, which started in the unlikeliest of places: rural Alabama.
“Growing up in Jacksonville, Alabama, literally all of our time was spent outside,” Keith says. “I spent many summers at my grandfather’s dairy farm, and there were miles between his farmhouse and the next.”
That space between farms meant Keith had to make his own enjoyment, which often was playing in the dirt, building forts out of hay bales, and running around the barn. “I had a rich imagination in building things, which played a big role once I got into architecture,” Keith adds. “There was also freedom of thought in those big open spaces, which in retrospect, gave balance to my worldview.”
Though architecture wasn’t originally in the plan when he started college at Auburn University—he was actually recruited for the track team—it didn’t take long before he discovered what would become his life’s work. “My dad actually suggested it because I liked to draw and I wasn’t very good at track and field,” Keith says. “I immediately loved it—it was like a fish to water.”
Once in architecture, he took part in the University’s study abroad program, which sent him to Europe and forever impacted his outlook on design and architecture. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—that this type of architecture existed,” Keith shares. “I will never forget going to London and Paris and Florence. When I came back to the United States, I looked at the life that I’d known here and began seeing it very differently. Suddenly, I had a view of the world that could have never happened any other way.”
That shift happened, Keith believes, just as much because of his past as the present.
“I understood urban life because I understood country life,” he says. “Without the ability to compare the two, how can you really understand?”
After graduation, Keith honed his skills at a large architecture firm in Atlanta, where he spent the next four years, before finally taking his newfound global perspective and starting his own firm. The mission, for Keith, was clear: to specialize in high-end design, both residential and commercial, integrating classical techniques with modern features and ideas. Setting Keith apart was his firm belief in building models for clients the old-fashioned way and even hand-sketching ideas during client meetings to paint a picture—one that is instant and easy to help clients quickly get in sync with the project. “Ideas can sometimes be hard for a client to visualize,” Keith says. “Using these types of techniques make our work better because it helps the client get excited about what we’re excited about. We’ve seen great success in how our work is built with the implementation of some of these classical traditions being implemented with modern tools.”
Though the main Summerour office was established in Atlanta, Keith began following his clients around the country, not only leading to the establishment of other branches—mainly around the South—but also making a name for the firm. With each completed commission, the Summerour name continued to spread throughout the architectural world, and the project lists continued to grow solely based on the firm’s work and reputation. The firm’s growth also led to what would become an important aspect for Keith: the opening of a branch in Italy, which allowed him the opportunity to spend much more time in a locale that has greatly inspired him and his work. “Having an office in Italy was fantastic because we could more easily document the historic buildings of Florence and surrounding areas,” says Keith, who also served on the board of directors for The Florence Academy of Art for many years. “We created books that we use today as good examples of details in architecture and employ in many of our designs.”
In addition to frequent travels to Italy—which have included sabbaticals to further his skills of drawing, painting, and even sculpting—and coast to coast in the United States, Keith began traveling the globe, from Japan and Morocco to Egypt and Argentina. But wherever his travels take him, he always finds his way back home to the South—often to his farm in rural Georgia, where he still employs much of what he experienced as a child, whether it’s driving the tractor and managing the land or raising chickens and goats. That ability to sway between two worlds—of globe-trotting academia to country life—is precisely what attracts so many to his architecture. “Keith has been all over the world and seen so much, but he also understands that what we have here is good,” explains DJ Betsill, who has worked with Keith for 10-plus years. “He truly lives in both worlds, so he understands it on such a deep level. He has a unique mixture of knowledge and excitement about what he’s seen and what’s right here at home, and I think that comes through in our architecture.”
That architecture is on display at some of the most sought-after destinations in the Southeast, and it’s also what the firm has been designing for residential compounds throughout the region. As much as the past has shaped Keith, he’s looking to the future and all there is to still see and design. “I’ve seen a lot of the world, but there is a lot more to see,” he says. “The inspiration I get from those new places makes me excited about our work and how it impacts so many people’s lives. We have a great institution of work, but we’re not resting on our laurels. We will continue to be at the forefront of design.”
And as important as that design continues to be for Keith, it’s not ultimately where his focus lies. For him, it’s about all those relationships he built along the way. “I don’t believe legacy necessarily needs to be in architecture, in bricks and stones and steel,” he says. “I do believe it should be about conservation. About how one treated others while practicing. That would be my ideal. That feeling of space and family and goodness would translate into the next generation.”