It’s tempting to differentiate between Bucktown’s historical homes and the modernist dwellings popping up in their places today. Husband and wife Glenn and Katie McMillan certainly thought they’d have to choose past or present when they imagined the aesthetic of their new custom abode and had settled on the former.
“We were wanting to stay in our comfort zone; that traditional Chicago house,” Katie explains. “I went around taking pictures of buildings we loved that fit that bill.” But when the couple presented those images to friend and architect Chris Talsma, he was having none of it. “He said, ‘You guys are cooler than that, so you’re going to branch out a bit,’” Glenn recalls.
For Talsma, “branching out” meant tiptoeing toward his modernist aesthetic. “I joke that I’d love to be designing nothing but spaceships,” the architect laughs. “So yes, I tried to incorporate some modern moments into a house with a primarily traditional language.”
The boxy structure he designed for the McMillans is clad top to bottom with dark brick and wrapped with horizontal steel channels—a modern take on an old-school belt course. The traditional punched window openings are trimmed with beveled limestone—a nod to the clients’ original vision of a full limestone façade. A portion of the top floor appears to hang over the recessed front entrance, “and when you combine the weightlessness of that cantilever with the seamless corner window, that’s where I got to play with some more modern concepts,” says Talsma, who collaborated with associate Karoline Burg on the home’s design and builder Eric Kraus on its execution.
Alongside the front door, a stretch of vertical wood cladding, painted black, provides a preview of the interior’s most dramatic detail: a monolithic, wood-clad volume that conceals a powder room and coat closet at the foyer level, and extends up to create a bold accent wall in the living room above. Just beyond it, a staircase appears to float alongside a tall stretch of reeded-glass windows; its steel stringer is placed off-center of the white oak treads—“details that might easily be overlooked, but when you notice them, you get just a little more joy,” Talsma says.
When interior designer Melissa Benham joined the project, the home’s exterior language of masculine lines and dark finishes was well-defined, “which we were all very excited about,” she says. “But Katie is a girl’s girl with great fashion sense, so we wanted to ensure a thoughtful balance of masculine and feminine.” Benham expressed some of that femininity subtly: in deep-lilac-veined marble slabs that play dramatically with the kitchen’s dark cabinets; in the streamlined fireplace wall’s coat of pearlescent plaster; and in the blush tone of the primary bathroom’s white oak cabinetry. Other more glamorous touches surprise and delight. The foyer coat closet’s hidden door pops open to reveal a wall papered in a bold Gucci tiger print, “which is 100 percent Katie,” Benham says. The adjacent powder room displays a tropical-patterned grass-cloth wallcovering discovered by the wife. “It was a unanimous love-fest for this wallpaper,” Benham says. “Its moody turquoise colors became a driving force for the palette throughout.”
In the primary bedroom, a deep blue hue defines a custom bed and headboard wall upholstered in ribbed cotton. In the adjacent sitting room—accessed via another hidden door—blues reappear on a tufted sofa and a framed Gucci scarf. “Katie’s sartorial sensibility informed many fabric choices,” Benham notes. “A bouclé Chanel jacket was the inspiration for a lot of the cushions and pillows, and even the quilted texture on the living room sofa feels like a fashion moment.”
Jewelry-like lighting and artwork offer more nods to Katie’s dress sense, from earring-esque bedside pendants to a necklace-inspired, blown-glass wall hanging. Other details reveal a more unique proclivity: “I love a Schluter strip!” Katie shares, referring to the thin metal bands used to create decorative designs in walls and floors. “I wanted them everywhere,” she says. Benham delivered, adding brass insets to the primary bathroom’s terrazzo-slab walls, the foyer’s marble mosaic floors and even the custom dining table’s oxidized-maple top.
Incorporating such personal details is Benham’s trick for pushing clients into new comfort zones—and for achieving the elusive “timeless” design. “Every house ages,” she concedes. “But as long as this residence reflects them, they should love it for years to come.”