After months of decision-making and anticipation, it was finally installation week for one of Brynn Olson’s projects, and the designer made one request: She asked her clients not to go inside the house until everything was in its proper place. They agreed, but homeowner Sarah Beren Karelitz says she couldn’t help walking by once or twice—or, she admits, maybe several times. “It was driving me crazy not to be able to see what was going on,” she says with a laugh. “But the wait was worth it. When we were finally able to go in, I opened the door and burst into tears. I immediately felt at home.”
Sarah, a political fundraiser, and husband Jon, an employment benefits attorney with Seyfarth Shaw LLP, bought their three-story Wicker Park greystone a year prior, before ground was broken, and the preconstruction status gave the young couple the opportunity to tailor the home to their style and the needs of their growing family. With the help of Olson and project manager Maize Jacobs-Brichford, as well as residential designer and contractor Donovan Eckhardt, the couple tweaked the home inside and outside, including the original—and decidedly more contemporary—plan for the exterior façade. In an “homage to old-school Chicago,” Sarah says, they married traditional materials with modern details, opting for light gray limestone brick with window frames, doors and custom ironwork painted high-gloss black.
For the grounds, Olson worked closely with landscape designer Bakary Soumare on a design that was “clean and simple and matched the rest of the house while also being kid-friendly,” he says. Walls of tall-growing juniper evergreens were planted to help delineate property lines and offer privacy, while a backyard fence constructed of horizontal composite boards offers a clean look and an enclosed setting for children to play. “The elevation was a little more traditional than we had originally planned,” Eckhardt says, “but their selections had a nice balance and gave the home a timeless look.”
Longevity was a driving factor inside as well and was consistent with Olson’s overall approach to the interiors.“I love to lay a neutral foundation, then pull in vibrant colors and more daring and trendier pieces with accessories and art—things a client can change out easily,” she says. Her method complemented the Karelitzes’ vision, which included bold colors and patterns, touches of brass, some Middle Eastern air and a mix of old, new and found furnishings that were beautiful and family-friendly. Their realtor, Lindsay Everest, also played a role in providing input on structural, mechanical and floor-plan elements and design features.
With her clients’ requests in the forefront, Olson painted most walls a crisp, pale gray, which she used as a backdrop for clean lines and controlled doses of vibrant hues, razor-sharp edges and geometric patterns. “Brynn was so helpful in showing us how to highlight things by scaling back on others,” Sarah says. “When I chose a busy tile, she made sure other pieces in the room were clean so the tile could be the star.” The designer wanted each room to have a wow factor—“something that provides a subtle punch but one that’s enough to be a conversation piece,” she explains. The overall look was to exude a contemporary California style, with a little more polish.
A microcosm of this modern vibe—and the Karelitzes’ penchant for fun—can be found in the entry, where guests are greeted by a faceted mirror paired with a jewel-tone area rug and a black-and-gold console table hovering over a stool shaped as a pair of hands. “They don’t take themselves too seriously, but they have a passion for creating a home that feels good,” Olson says about her clients. “Every room has its own personality but nods to the others. In an open floor plan, it’s important that all spaces speak to each other.”
Bold contrasts continue in the living room, where a black-and-white-striped at-weave rug defines a seating area punctuated by a navy velvet sofa and chairs as well as punches of hot pink from pillows and artwork. A pair of oversize brass lamps fitted with custom black shades provide height and drama. “The lamps were a ‘trust me’ moment,” Olson says. “I knew they would anchor an incredible piece of art in the room and become a focal point. And the size and scale reflect the Karelitzes’ sense of humor.”
The adjacent dining area, which sits in the same open space, was purposely kept simple so singular elements such as artwork and a vintage Sputnik chandelier could shine. “When we turn the light fixture on,” Sarah says, “the whole room comes alive.” And another one of Olson’s “trust me” instances occurred during the design phase of the nearby powder room when she suggested a vintage dresser serve as a vanity. With her clients’ ultimate go-ahead, she topped the dresser with black marble and a Moroccan-inspired vessel sink Sarah had fallen in love with. “There is a lot of personality in this space,” the designer says. “It’s fun and punchy but will also stand the test of time.” To complete the look, she dressed the walls with patterned grass cloth and hung an iron-and-glass light fixture overhead.
Olson’s knack for pinpointing what her clients were looking for even when they weren’t able to articulate it was a key factor in the transformation from house to home, Sarah says. “She was able to understand both of our aesthetics and translate them in a way that is livable and long-lasting yet still feels authentic,” she says.
The designer, meanwhile, says she loves this project because it reflects the Karelitzes’ personalities. “They approach their home with love and humor,” Olson says. “My motto is, ‘How you shape your space shapes your day,’ and I think together as a team, we accomplished just that in a bespoke way perfectly unique to them.”