A Yves Klein table filled with gold leaf is the living room's star. Photo by Tony Soluri

Museum Quality

by Amalie Drury | Interiors Chicago magazine | July 9, 2012

The house comes as a surprise—even a bit of a curiosity—on its well-manicured street in the northern suburbs, where its neighbors are grand examples of traditional brick and Tudor styles. In contrast, this art-filled house situated on a corner lot makes a more subtle mark on the landscape; the simple, quiet lines of its concrete façade belying the exuberance of the paintings within and the laughter that echoes over the lawn when grandchildren are playing around the backyard pool.

When designer Sherry Koppel embarked on the project with her client, their relationship already went beyond business. A trusted friend, Koppel had worked with the homeowner and her husband over the years on their previous home, a ’50s split-level that was filled with sophisticated furniture and the art that Koppel’s husband, gallery owner Alan, had helped them collect. “But you couldn’t see any of it because it was overflowing,” she says. The clients—a couple—decided to start from scratch for their next home, first nixing a previous design with a different architect. Shortly afterward the husband tragically fell ill and passed away.

The wife decided to move forward with a new plan, and with different priorities. Now she craved a peaceful place that would be just for her and her artwork, and which would also provide the right setting for family gatherings. Ease of movement and an abundance of storage options were key. “I wanted air, I wanted space,” the owner says. “When we first started, my friends were asking, ‘Are you kidding? At your age?’” But she asked Koppel to assemble her “dream team” anyway—Dan Wheeler of Wheeler Kearns Architects, Jake Goldberg of Goldberg General Contracting and Wade Harvey, a project director at Schmechtig Landscapes—and began a process that proved both liberating and healing. “It was the greatest distraction,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, I might as well do it now.’”

Wheeler designed a low, horizontally attuned building that would function as both a sanctuary for the client and a durable playground for her grandchildren. “The house isn’t just an object plunked onto the ground,” says Wheeler, whose objectives were to keep the design modest in scale and simple enough to let the art speak for itself. “It glides over the landscape.”

Only a few materials make up the construction of the home: drywall, aluminum and cement board. The white terrazzo floors throughout were the project’s one great indulgence. “The floors are a premium material that made good construction sense, and they brighten the space,” Wheeler says.

Koppel’s striking interiors—she designed much of the furniture herself and had it fabricated by her go-to woodworker, Travis Glazebrook—are all about livable glamour. “I’d been to Sherry’s house, and I loved her eccentricity,” the client says. Koppel explains her approach: “It shouldn’t be about a decorator’s taste. I want a house to look like people live there and use it—it should reflect the best of them.” It was Koppel who imagined the curved, stop-you-in-your-tracks built-in desk in the family room, and who modified the design and upholstery of some of the client’s existing furniture so pieces from the original home could migrate to the new one.

Among the client’s wishes was the request that the landscaping play a critical role in achieving a successful indoor/outdoor feel. Schmechtig’s Wade Harvey says they extended the lines of the interior grid to the surface that surrounds the pool, and relied on the repetition of mature shade trees and masses of perennials to define the property line. “We wanted to mirror the architecture of the home, and also do something that felt like it had been there for a while.” An attractive double hedge that hides the perimeter’s privacy fence was inspired by a similar technique the Koppels had used at their vacation home in Michigan. The blue-chip gravel used in the driveway adds an unusual textural and color contrast—not to mention a satisfying crunch that greets one’s arrival on the property.

The house’s lasting impression is one of exquisite harmony, the result of a surprisingly strife-free collaboration between everyone who contributed to the project. That, and of course, the supremely memorable art collection it was built to showcase. “I love being here,” says the client. “I wake up every day with a smile.”