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What happens when one half of a couple loves modern design, while the other prefers traditional? “It’s no lie: People get divorced over buying houses,” attests Bruce Fox, a designer with Heather G. Wells, Ltd. Stylistic differences, he says, “can be really polarizing.”
Happily, divorce isn’t what happened to one long-married Chicago couple who faced this design dilemma when they bought an apartment at 840 N. Lake Shore Dr. several years ago. Instead, they asked Fox to help them meld their divergent tastes. “It was a bit of a struggle,” the wife admits. “My husband wanted more modern than this; if I had it to do myself, I would have done a more refined look. Bruce came up with a perfect marriage of our styles.”
The 3,200-square-foot apartment represented a new phase of life for the couple, who raised their three children in a Lincoln Park townhouse. “The baby was going to college. We wanted to get rid of vertical townhouse living and come to a single-floor apartment,” says the wife, who works in real estate sales for LR Development Company, which developed the property. “We felt this was more of an adult neighborhood.”
The apartments in the newly constructed building all had essentially the same layout; Fox worked with the interior architect of the building, Synthesis Architecture & Design, to tweak the couple’s unit to better fit their lifestyle. Because they love to entertain, the pair decided to swap the spaces originally designated for the dining area and the media room. Now, instead of being down a hallway, the dining area is right next to the kitchen, a homey space lined with raised-panel cabinets and anchored by a six-burner Thermador stove and a marble-topped island. Space-saving frosted-glass pocket doors separate the rooms.
The dining furniture is a good example of the compromises made throughout the design process. Fox had the clean-lined table made with planks of mahogany instead of the single length of rosewood veneer that usually tops it, for a slightly rustic, aged look. Vienna Secession chairs from Rita Bucheit are practical as well as elegant: they’re upholstered in a synthetic weave that has the look of chunky linen but is extremely durable and easy to clean.
The ten-panel print on the wall, an original by Yizhak Elyashiv, was chosen as the backdrop for the dining area. Fox, who already owned a piece by the Rhode Island–based artist, thought his work would be a good match for the space. “We wanted an art installation because it’s a big wall,” says the wife, who found herself on her husband’s side of the aesthetic spectrum here. “I love that it’s modern. To me it’s soothing and really enhances the room.” The couple even replaced the traditional light fixture over the table with can lights. “They really wanted to see the art,” Fox says. “They just kept making it more and more modern.”
The dining area flows into the living room, an open, airy space with a southern exposure overlooking Lake Shore Park; in the distance, the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier lights up the night sky. The baseboards and the casing that frames the three large expanses of windows had the potential to offend the husband’s sensibilities; Fox toned down the traditional look of the woodwork with simple linen-and-wool draperies.
“There were always sticking points,” Fox says. “This molding is big and exaggerated, so it’s traditional, but all the draperies are mounted on inside tracks so they have a more modern feel. Instead of having a rod and finials and big swoops, they’re kept in the [window] openings, so they feel very architectural.”
The Mattaliano sofa was a favorite of the husband’s; he loved the rectilinear form originally created by Jean-Michel Frank, a legendary Parisian designer of the 1930s and ’40s. He balked, however, at buying pillows, deeming them an unnecessarily fussy touch. Fox stepped in and lent the couple two of his own pillows just to try out. The husband ended up liking them so much that the couple bought them from Fox.
One thing that didn’t require negotiation was the palette used throughout the apartment. “We tend always to go toward green and ochre; we’ve never been a pastel family,” says the wife. “It could be boring, but there are elements that really stand out-and that’s where we always agree. We might do solids, but we love solids with texture.” Linen velvet, for instance, covers the living room sofa and matching club chairs, a woven grass mat serves as a rug, and a curvy antique side table in front of the fireplace has a distressed finish. Even the walls have a linen-like texture thanks to glazes dragged in horizontal and vertical layers.
Beyond another set of frosted-glass doors is the media room, a windowless interior space with a darker, more private feel than the other rooms. It was designed around a custom-sized Patterson, Flynn & Martin rug whose charcoal, olive, and brown tones and geometric pattern echo the simple wood frames on a group of paintings. The paintings, which had been displayed separately in the couple’s townhouse, were reframed to hang together as a collection.
The husband so loved the living room sofa that they bought another one just like it, this one covered in casual cotton chenille, for the media room. Suede club chairs swivel to allow conversation or TV viewing, while a built-in desk tucked into a corner nook holds the computer. “It’s probably my favorite room in the house,” says the wife. “It’s cozy and comfortable; this is our special space.”
Fox and the couple have plans to add a few more small pieces, such as a pair of antique arm chairs, but they’re clear about not
disrupting the serenity of the space. “I don’t want it to be a home where people walk in and their heads are turning, looking at everything,” the wife says. “We want simple, straight, and clean. It’s very easy to live with.”
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Photography: Kate Roth