House Beautiful

Steph’s Project: the Evanston Designer Showhouse

I was recently asked to do a room in a Designer Showhouse in Evanston, IL.  Neat-O, n’est-ce pas?!  For you non-Chicagoans, Evanston is an idyllic little suburb just north of the city and a hop, skip & a jump from where Jake Ryan once leaned up against his shiny red Porsche, ca. 1984, waiting for Samantha Baker.  To the tune of the Thompson Twins.  I only re-wound that scene about 857 times in high school.

This particular brick mansion (a National Historic Landmark) was built in 1914 by Ernest Mayo and is perched on a luscious, picturesque corner lot in said town.  Owner Janet Kohl – who currently resides in the home with her husband and 3 young boys – carefully and lovingly restored this once delapidated property a few years back.  Click here for pre-renovation pics.

What’s a Designer Showhouse, you ask?

A Designer Showhouse is like the home design equivalent of a fashion show.  It’s a project where a bunch of designers each pick a room in a house and redecorate it in their signature style…  Then, the showhouse is opened to the public for a few weeks, during which time visitors buy tickets to shuffle through and soak up some inspiration…  in the end, the designers get some business, the house gets a facelift, and the proceeds go to some very worthwhile charities (in this case, Designs for Dignity and the Citizens’ Lighthouse Community Land Trust of Evanston).  Good times, Amen.

I almost turned it down, given that my plate already overfloweth.  But in the end, the opportunity was too cool to pass up, so I jumped in and thought, yo.  I can totally figure this out.  Bring it.

Flash forward to 2 weeks ago, when I was under-the-gun, measuring out my floorplan to scale with a measuring tape I fished out of my sewing kit.  Yikes.  To be clear, I am not a card-carrying, official “designer.”  My background is in real estate; design-ing has always been the thing I do on the side.   I renovated my own home, have decorated homes for friends, and do some freelance work, but those projects have always developed organically.  This project is a horse of a different color.  Designer Nathan Thomas (Bravo’s Top Design Season 2 winner) said something in a recent interview that really resonated with me:

“I think designers are constantly thinking, rethinking, and second guessing their work looking for something better or different to make it their own and truly add their stamp to the project or design.”

Word to your mother, home slice.

Not wanting to bite off more than I could chew, I opted for the manageably-sized 2nd floor landing.  Here are some BEFORE pics:

AND, here are my hurdles:

Hurdle #1 – I initally had visions of sweet, funky little matching chairs & sugarplums dancing in my head, like these bad boys that the lovely Sam from StyleSWOON recently used.  But alas, there’s not enough depth anywhere for ’em.  Any furniture I put along the walls can only come out about 15″, otherwise someone will trip over it.

Hurdle #2 – The Rules:  No painting of the original woodwork, no faux finishes allowed, and all paint colors must coordinate with the owner’s existing decor and must be approved.  Artwork must be chosen from a select pool of sources, as the showhouse will have curator-style, docent-led tours.  We’ve also been instructed to drive as few nail holes into the old plaster walls as possible.

Hurdle #3 – Finding common ground between the owner’s vision, and my own.  This project is less, “go hog wild!” and more like a true design job…  walking the fine line between fulfilling the client’s wishes and staying true to your vision.  Janet has wonderful taste, but it’s very different from mine.  She loves pastels, ultra feminine interiors, and Victorian French opulence.  Je love all that too, but I prefer it pared down, injected with some modern oomph, a few punchy colors, and a little whimsy.  (Below Left) is Janet’s current living room.  (Below Right) was my living room in Charleston.

…And our respective dining rooms.  (Top) = Janet’s, (bottom) = mine:

Her style is more refined; mine is more laid back and eclectic.  If Janet was an issue of Veranda, I would be the love child of Cottage Living (RIP) + Domino mag (RIP).  Classical music plays softly in her house, while Def Leppard and Billie Holiday mash-ups blare in mine.  You get the idea.  We do, however, share a love of antiques and all things French.  So I’m building on that.

Hurdle #4 – Getting ehhhhhverything DONATED.  Mama doesn’t have an extra $10k lying around to spend on curtain tassels.  Luckily, I’ve worked as a design rep long enough that several dear friends and clients have offered to lend some of their gorgeous inventory to the showhouse.  (High-five Devin & Don from Jayson Home and Garden, George from George Lowell, Ken from Kenneth Ludwig Home Furnishings, Christopher from Urbanest, and Brian & Rob from Oscar Isberian!  Hollar.)

Hurdle #5 – Coordinating all the yesses, no’s, maybes, and “come back and see what we have in stock the week before”‘s, and turning that into something that resembles a cohesive design plan.  I would do cartwheels if I could just bop around Chicago and hand-pick what I wanted.  That said, here’s what it’s looking like so far:

Left to right, top to bottom:  (a) Farrow & Ball’s PALE POWDER = Wall Color.  (b) Chandelier from Kenneth Ludwig Home Furnishings.  (c) “Contessa” fabric, by Home Couture for Quadrille, available to the trade through Summer Hill.  This pattern – used by the likes of Ruthie Sommers and Angie Hranowsky – has had me messing myself for YEARS. (d) Antique Moroccan marble lamp base, from Edgewater Antique Mall.  (e) Rug from Oscar Isberian.  (f) Mirror from Kenneth Ludwig Home Furnishings.  (e) Shades by Delia Shades.  I first saw these in a bathroom done by one of my idols, Jessica Helgerson.  These are FLAW-LESS.  Simple, clean, and lovely.  They also filter out only 14% of the light, so they’re relatively transparent.  (f) Spencer Chair, from Jayson Home & Garden.

Nothing is set in stone, but that’s how it’s shaping up.  My biggest challenge is to keep it looking fresh…  I’m still looking to add a dose of lucite, some limewashed-looking wood, and another pop of color somewhere.  The showhouse runs from June 18 – July 2.  We would LOVE for you to stop by!  I’ll also be teaching a workshop on refinishing furniture that week.  Check out the project’s website for further information.


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