It’s easy to love a storybook cottage from a distance. But to confine the routines of a modern family with young children to the small rooms and maze-like floor plan of an older home? That can be harder.

One evening in 2010, as Matthew Swaim was bounding down a leafy block in north Evanston on a twilight run, he spotted an agent placing a “For Sale” sign outside an inviting yellow brick house with a pitched roofline. Swaim lived nearby in a bursting-at-the-seams condo with his pregnant wife, Farah, and their two daughters.

“He came home and said, ‘You have to look at this place tomorrow,’ ” Farah remembers. “The next morning I walked right over and crashed the brokers’ open house with my stroller.”

The layout of the 1928 house was tight, but plenty of pros—good bones, a prime location, and a backyard complete with a gorgeous outbuilding that one former owner, a professional violinist, used as a practice studio—made it easy for the family to fall in love with it.

After the Swaims moved in, a vision for the house began to bloom in Farah’s mind. She needed help bringing it to life, so she asked Stacia Garriott Kass, the owner of Sojourn, a design shop in Sawyer, Michigan, that Farah had become obsessed with, to consult on the project. “I was not artistic in my childhood,” Farah says, “but when I met Stacia and we started exploring design ideas, I tapped into this creative side I never knew I had.” The fast friends discovered they’d both grown up in small Indiana towns, gone to the same university, and joined the same sorority. “We were soul sisters,” says Garriott Kass. Not surprisingly, their aesthetics meshed—a little modern here, a little vintage there; nothing too formal or heavy; a neutral palette with interesting pops of color and layers of texture.

The Swaims hired Thomas Ahleman of Studio Talo Architecture in Evanston, who, along with project architect Doug Snider, was inspired by Finnish design principles—lots of natural light and natural materials—in drawing up a plan for an airy, triangular, treehouse-like master bedroom addition upstairs. Downstairs, Studio Talo proposed creating an indoor-outdoor effect with a generous new deck and NanaWall accordion glass doors that would instantly make the deck and yard an extension of the family room and allow Farah and Matthew to watch their girls play outside.

Since it was Farah’s first big remodel, she knew she needed a patient contractor. She found him in North Shore–based Terrence Robinson, who masterminded many of the home’s space-saving and storage-maximizing design features—some of which were thought up on the spot. “Farah wasn’t afraid to throw out ideas or make changes along the way if it meant a better end result,” he says.

In fact, those who saw her in action think Farah may have found a new calling. “She was thoughtful about every detail,” says Matthew. “For Farah, it was a labor of love. She had help, but it wasn’t an outsourced project.” Still, Farah doesn’t take her masterpiece too seriously. “Nothing is precious in this house. If a side table gets water spots on it, even better—it reminds me of my daughter’s sippy cup sitting there,” she says. She grins as her youngest flops onto a black vintage couch, giggling. “We live hard in this house. Hopefully, it doesn’t fall down around us.”


Buy Guide

Architect Studio Talo Architecture, Interior design Stacia Garriott Kass, General contractor Terrence Inc., 1616 Colfax St., Evanston. Landscape architect O’Brien Landscape, Wilmette, Prop floral design Bloom 3, 1503 Chicago Ave., Evanston, Living room Sofa and vintage credenza, Sojourn. Hosta print, Michael McGuire. African juju hat, Dragonfly-df, 1501 Chicago Ave., Evanston, Vintage coffee table, Jayson Home, 1885 N. Clybourn Ave., Root table, Bloom 3. Dining room Vintage table, Brimfield, 5219 N. Clark St., Vintage sideboard and rugs, Sojourn. Vintage walnut and glass sideboard, Scout, 5221 N. Clark St., Hanging light, Brendan Ravenhill, Family room Leather sofa, Jayson Home. Side tables, Sojourn. Kitchen Cabinetry, Kitchens by Gregory, Master bedroom Linens, Matteo, Walnut side tables, Mode Carpentry, Master bath Tile, Heath Ceramics, Walnut vanity, Mode Carpentry.