When the owners of this newly built classic brick Illinois residence decided the time had come to upgrade its decor and the furnishings, they called on Lake Forest designer Shelley Johnstone to realize their vision. Admirers of the elegant, timeless work Johnstone had done for a friend of theirs, the couple, who have three young sons and two dogs, “wanted a home the family could live in–a place to make memories,” says Johnstone. So over the course of three years, the designer overhauled the five-bedroom house, incorporating a mix of antiques with new and vintage pieces, prioritizing beauty and livability.
One characteristic of the traditional architecture was a sense of symmetry. “The house is set up on an axis,” Johnstone says. “There’s a kind of ‘T’ pattern, which made the decorating naturally symmetrical–and the wife and I both love symmetry.” Balance, scale and proportion are also important to Johnstone, who got her start designing interiors in London. A distinct European sensibility characterizes her aesthetic, evident here in the use of lacquer on the icy-blue ceiling of the dining room and the cocoa-brown ceiling in the entry, gesso finishes such as that on a bench in the living room, and draperies that cascade from decorative cornices. Even custom throw pillows throughout feature details like cording and Turkish corners.
“One request the wife had,” Johnstone says, “was for bursts of color here and there.” On the first floor, main living areas and the master bedroom all have outdoor views. The designer chose to draw from nature and the home’s verdant surroundings by working with a palette of ivory, soft cocoa, and pale blues and greens. The peacock marine lacquer in the butler’s pantry is a shade pulled from a beautiful photograph of a tropical bird that the wife took during the family’s travels. Patterns incorporate a floral element, and the use of grass cloth in the foyer, master and other areas is a tactile interpretation of that objective.
When it came to furnishings, Johnstone went for a lived-in feel, purchasing pieces from different eras to bring about a layered effect. The very first thing she bought for the house, from 1stdibs, was the 1970s brass coffee table. “She trusted me from the beginning,” notes the designer, and the vintage table shines in the neutral living room between a taupe velvet sofa and a pair of swiveling, taupe wool chairs. A celadon sideboard with a marble top was a perfect fit–in size, color and patina–for the dining room. Johnstone found it at a dealer in Palm Beach, buried in a corner. “I love the painted pieces mixed with the more contemporary ones,” she remarks. The plaster chandelier in the kitchen, custom by Julie Neill, “is a nod to the French,” in particular the midcentury works done in Paris by the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. Working this way can take some time, Johnstone admits, “but the house will look great in 20 years.”
Johnstone’s interiors also consider the needs of a family–not only regarding use, but their contributions as well. In the dining room, the hand-painted Fromental wallpaper was customized by the three boys, who picked out the birds and flowers, even choosing some placements. In the bright white kitchen, which opens to the family room, upholstery on the chairs and island stools has been laminated with vinyl so they can be easily cleaned. “We didn’t want to compromise on our choices of fabrics,” says the designer. The living room walls and shelves aren’t crowded, either, and for a reason: “This is a young couple,” Johnstone says. “Always leave room for more art.”
Seeing the clients happy is her greatest reward. “I stop by, and they’re all there, enjoying the space,” she says. She recalls them telling her, “‘You’ve made our house a home.’ And that’s what I do. I’m lucky to work with families who appreciate it.”