The Character Issue

Shrewd design takes the cookie-cutter look out of a new-construction condo

Newlyweds Seth and Ivy Bender’s brand-new condo had everything they’d been looking for: an open, inviting layout, large rooms, and a neighborhood-Lincoln Square-where they felt at home. The only sticking point was a problem familiar to many buyers of new-construction condos: rooms that felt impersonal and generic.

“We wanted a place that looked simple and modern,” says Ivy, who runs a marketing communications firm with her husband. “Instead, we got molding on the doorways and the tops of the cabinets, and a fireplace with a very traditional white mantel. After we moved in, it didn’t feel like home.”

The Benders didn’t have an unlimited budget, but they knew they needed professional help. So they consulted interior designer Arden Nelson (who is a stylist for this magazine) for guidance on making the public spaces more modern, while also tackling specific problems (wedding gifts piled up against one wall, a television that sat forlornly next to the fireplace). The result? A living room and kitchen that are streamlined, practical, and stylish. “Everything we did addressed a need,” says Ivy.

Nelson’s solutions included a marble fireplace surround that segues into a media cabinet, and efficient built-in storage in both rooms. The kitchen cabinets were extended to the ceiling, making the room feel bigger and giving the couple more room for their vast collection of kitchen appliances.

“You don’t have to do everything right away,” Nelson advises cash-strapped homeowners. Instead, she says, focus on a few eye-catching elements that instantly give the space character.

When they first met with Nelson, the Benders told her they planned to live in the condo for no more than five years. Now, they say, their home’s new look has made them consider staying longer. “We’ve had these moments where I look at Seth and say, ‘Wow-this really looks good,’” says Ivy. “I can’t believe we live here!”

before and after photos of the remodel

Before
A large television set sat awkwardly beside a generic white fireplace mantel, an uneasy combination of traditional decor and modern technology. The Benders searched for a media/storage cabinet but couldn’t find anything they liked. The vast empty wall, stretching up to a ten-foot ceiling, made the space feel even more impersonal.

After
A marble fireplace surround gives the room a modern edge and anchors the space. The wide front platform provides extra seating when the Benders entertain. Ikea cabinets, customized to fit the space, provide convenient storage for electronics; the marble top helps the television cabinet blend with the fireplace, making it an integral part of the space. Adding shelves all the way up to the ceiling “improves the scale of the room,” says Nelson. “It also gives the fireplace more of a presence.”

before and after photos of the chicago condominium remodel

Before
While the Benders liked the understated modern style of their kitchen, they wanted to use the space more efficiently and were eager for extra storage space (frequent entertainers, they have a large collection of dishes and kitchen gadgets). Rarely used odds and ends ended up in the space between the top of the cabinets and the ceiling, adding to the room’s cluttered feel. Although the granite-topped island allowed for seating, the Benders found that it wasted space, since they preferred to sit at the nearby dining table.

After
Nelson contacted the company that installed the original cabinets and ordered supplemental pieces to fill in the tops. Because wood stains are hard to match exactly, the new pieces initially had a slightly different color than the original cabinets, but months of light exposure eventually made them indistinguishable.

Three Ikea cabinets with frosted glass facades were tucked into the space originally intended for island seating, giving the Benders room to stash cookbooks, serving dishes, and other entertaining accessories. The pieces were cut to a shallower depth to fit the space. Sliding doors make the cabinets easy to access even when guests are standing nearby.

The 1970s-era Scandinavian teak dining table belonged to Ivy’s mother. Its clean lines made it an easy fit with the condo’s contemporary decor. The hanging light fixture is similar to one that hung in Ivy’s childhood home: “When I saw this, it just resonated with me,” she says. When the Benders entertain, they like to push the table to the side to allow for mingling; a hook on the ceiling allows the light to be pulled up and hung higher so it won’t get in the way.

For information on resources, see Buyer’s Guide.

AFTER Photography: Kate Roth

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