Good chemistry is hard to define, but the owners of a stately stucco-clad manse on a picturesque waterfront property in Highland Park, Illinois, felt it from the moment they first met interior designer Michael Abrams. “When he walked in, I hugged him and said, ‘Help me,’ ” the wife recalls. “There was just something about him.”
Abrams’ clean, sophisticated style is what the empty nesters had envisioned since they bought the traditional home more than a decade ago. Free spirits who enjoy yachting out on the open water, they felt suffocated by its excessive architectural details: doorways with pilasters and entablatures, domed ceilings next to tray ceilings, mismatched flooring and niches galore. “Overwhelming,” is how Abrams sums it up.
While they ultimately decided to work with the existing structure, the couple did begin anew in many respects. With Abrams’ help, they selected a company to stage a massive estate sale. By the closing bell, they had sold nearly every piece of furniture in the entire house, along with four fireplace mantels, all the light fixtures and even the door hardware. Once the sale was complete and the couple was happily ensconced in their pied-a-terre in the city, Abrams and builder Sean Freeman carefully deconstructed the home, stripping away moldings, filling in wall niches and replacing mismatched angled flooring with wide-planked rift-sawn white oak that leads the eye straight toward the expansive views. “Remodeling is a lot tougher than building new,” Freeman explains, noting that a number of obstacles came up during the construction, including plumbing and electrical wiring in places they did not expect to find them. “Having great homeowners and a flexible designer, we were able to overcome everything.”
That includes the home’s once ubiquitous reddish-wood tones: The built-in mahogany shelving in the library just off the front entry has been painted a shade of dark navy that downplays its many moldings, and the dramatic spiral staircase in the front foyer is now a dark gray hue that feels much more modern. A fabric wallcovering with subtle stripes adorns the stairway walls and three architectural panels above a contemporary three-seat sofa at the base of the stairs. “The foyer is huge, so it required some significant furniture,” the designer says. The color palette flows into the L-shaped living and dining room, which has been outfitted with a delicately textured wallcovering. A silk-and-wool rug grounds a pair of neutral-toned wing chairs and matching black sofas with a glistening gold thread that plays off the silk draperies. “Elegant,” Abrams remarks.
While just as sophisticated, the family room is now more subdued. A gray grass-cloth wallcovering apposes a light-toned area rug and a sectional sofa covered in charcoal fabric. Floor-to-ceiling draperies and woven shades crisply frame the water views, which the wife loves to observe. The vistas are equally prominent from the second-floor master suite, where a custom wall installation of upholstered panels makes a grand statement behind the leather headboard without overwhelming the room. Floor-to-ceiling wool draperies form a soft backdrop for a pair of tailored boucle-covered chairs accented by a round ottoman andÂ an elegant metal accent table. “These are such dramatic windows that we wanted something soothing, and the blue is quite calming,” Abrams says. Serenity was also the idea in the adjacent bathroom, where white Calacatta tile with an inlaid-tile rug replaced orange onyx floors. A floating vanity with marble countertops makes for a notably sleeker sight line than that of the original dual vanities. “We totally transformed this house, and that was very satisfying,” Abrams says.
The owners often stopped in to check on the progress of the months-long project, but when the renovation was finally complete Abrams asked them to leave while he placed the furnishings. Excited does not begin to describe how they felt when they saw their new home. “I could not believe how beautiful it looked,” the wife says. “Sometimes I don’t even want to leave the house.”