In southern Lake County, Illinois, lies an oasis–the woodlands preservation village of Riverwoods. The beauty of the area is what led Josh Weiss, an executive at a lighting company, and his wife, Natalie, to leave Lincoln Park and purchase a late-1970s ranch in the community. “Being surrounded by nature is energizing,” Josh says, noting the thrill their two young children find in the landscape.
“When we came to look at the house, they would run outside and roll in the grass,” adds Natalie.
The couple, who have a keen appreciation for architecture, were instantly drawn to the painted cedar-clad dwelling originally designed by renowned Chicago architect Milton Schwartz. Despite its 15 skylights, however, inside the home felt dark and closed off. So the couple invited architect Kevin Toukoumidis to update the interior and build a new rear addition. “They have a wonderful modernist aesthetic,” muses Toukoumidis. “So we hit it off right away.”
The project required a careful balance of maintaining the integrity of Schwartz’s modernist design while altering rooms just enough to maximize the natural light. “It’s a special setting, and the house was designed to integrate with the landscape,” says Toukoumidis. “It’s a very understated, elegant house with clean lines.” But, he points out, “The interior did not function like a house should function today.”
“Kevin suggested a few minor tweaks that made a huge difference,” says Josh. For example, Toukoumidis, working with general contractor Neil Corcoran, widened the main hallway by several feet and eliminated a large portion of the wall between the living and family areas. A new two-sided steel-plated fireplace with a porcelain tile surround can be enjoyed from either space. “We preserved the existing architecture, but we simplified it and made it fade quietly into the background,” explains Toukoumidis. “We felt that the furnishings and art should take center stage.”
Finding the balance between contemporary and cozy was key. “We wanted modern, but we weren’t looking for something stark and cold,” says Josh. “The old house was full of tile and dark wood that fully absorbed the sunlight.” To add brightness, walls were painted crisp white and new European white oak flooring was installed throughout. Juxtaposing the lightness are black-painted windows that keep the look sophisticated but subtle. “A curated palette of materials creates a quiet elegance that emphasizes views of the landscape,” Toukoumidis explains. “There’s this great interplay between interior and exterior.”
Even the jaw-dropping LED chandelier in the living room references the tree branches in a modern way, notes interior designer Elizabeth Pasquinelli, who collaborated with Toukoumidis. It hangs above a square steel-and-glass cocktail table that is a nod to the architect’s fireplace design. “We made sure that everything references one another and marries the design elements throughout,” she points out.
Another important factor was the plethora of light throughout the home, which is a dream for any designer. It also means every nuance plays a starring role: Everything from the tufting on the sofa to the grains in the flooring are on full display. “It’s wonderful,” remarks Pasquinelli. “In a lot of homes, the details get lost. Here, there’s an overflow of natural light, so everything is showcased.”
While the designer chose to keep most of the furnishings decidedly neutral in deference to the verdant surroundings, she also made sure to plant occasional pops of color throughout. “In their former home they had water views, but they don’t have those anymore, so we brought the blues from the lake back in,” Pasquinelli says, pointing to the robin’s-egg blue wool upholstery on the lounge chairs in the family room. And, in an even bolder approach, a cocktail table with an orange wool top pops against the deep wall color in the more casual office.
Visible from every major room, the exterior has also been updated by landscape designer Carol Heffernan, who extended the back lawn to create more “playable space” and built a new ipe-accented counter with a concrete waterfall top to house the grill. A mix of native grasses, evergreens, boulders and a Japanese maple likewise enhance the front faÃ§ade. “We tried to give them as much color and texture as possible in such a dark spot,” Heffernan says.
For Josh and Natalie, the sounds of the city have been replaced with birds chirping and rustling leaves, and an owl starts to hoot every afternoon at 4 p.m. “It’s so peaceful out here, but we’re not far from anything,” Natalie says. “It puts you at one with nature, and that’s pretty cool.”