Call it a penchant for all things new, but, in Arizona, many dated 1980s houses are demolished soon after they’re sold. So when someone chooses to keep one standing, it often becomes the talk of the neighborhood.
“It really was a home that most builders probably would have knocked down,” designer Meredith Smyth says of that particular home in Casa Blanca. But her clients, Ashton and Sarah Wolfswinkel, saw promise in its somewhat quirky bones. “Everything about the house was just unloved,” Ashton says. “We never considered knocking it down—we knew the potential was there.”
That was music to Smyth’s ears. “It’s meaningful to me, as a designer, to be able to work on homes that preserve a part of the past, because we don’t have a longstanding history in the state,” she says. Fortunately, she did with the owners—not only had she known Ashton for more than 30 years, but she’d already collaborated on the design of three of their houses.
Trusting that she already knew their taste, the Wolfswinkels gave Smyth one particular directive: open everything up and make it appropriate for a family with three kids under 10. The original home was very dark and sectioned off. There were more walls than windows and dated finishes. “We needed to make it a family abode with a modern, open floor plan and use the space more wisely,” the designer says.
“I think originally it was built to be more formal with more defined rooms,” Sarah adds. “Ash and I want that definition of space, but still have it be usable, open and visually pleasing.” So they knocked down several walls, added large doors and windows, and replaced much of the tile flooring with engineered white oak. And those “great bones” came in handy. “We had to rework the floor plan to open everything up and reimagine some things,” says Smyth, who collaborated with general contractor Steven Letcher on the renovation. “But the structure of the home was really good. It’s rare to have huge bedrooms, walk-in closets and en suite bathrooms in houses from the ’80s.”
For a family that likes to entertain—be it 28 people for Thanksgiving or a group of kids from all around the neighborhood—the kitchen and dining spaces had to be both practical and welcoming. “We really wanted a space right off the kitchen that felt like a natural extension, not like a formal dining room,” Smyth says. “We worked hard to keep the house pulled together and unique and interesting without it feeling stuffy.”
That included finding the right place for some of the couple’s quirkier possessions, such as Ashton’s mounted jackalope head. The perfect perch revealed itself above the bar space that Smyth designed into the kitchen to accommodate Ashton’s passion for mixology. She also found space for several other family heirlooms, including a large piano belonging to Sarah’s great-grandmother. “Meredith picked some of those items from our stash and found a lovely way of weaving those into modern pieces that we’ve chosen,” Sarah says.
While both Ashton and Sarah are fans of color, they agreed with Smyth that a neutral palette would work best, especially in the main spaces. “The living room has amazing soaring ceilings, so we wanted the palette to be kind of grounding where your eye just immediately locks in on the outdoor landscape,” Smyth says. “We were nodding to the region without being overly Southwest—a version of it mixed with really comfortable neutral touches and a lot of texture.”
“We like that it doesn’t have a museum feel,” Sarah says. “We want people to feel comfortable to go over to the bar and pour themselves a glass of wine without having to ask where something is—to just have it family-friendly and usable.”
Smyth is quick to point out that she couldn’t have achieved any of this without open-minded clients. “The most fun thing with these kinds of houses, especially when you’re preserving something and bringing it back to life, is that it’s a reimagining,” Smyth says. “It takes a special kind of client to even be up for something like that. I think the neighborhood kind of couldn’t believe it.”