Editor’s note: This Milwaukee couple has taken on their second home renovation project, dubbed the “Midwest Malibu Cottage,” and has invited us along for the ride! Stay tuned for all those ups, downs and delicious before + afters! Check out the first installment here.
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine.
As our first summer here at the Midwest Malibu Cottage was drawing to a close, it occurred to us that we were coming up on yet another fall/holiday season where we were going to be knee-deep in projects and unfit to celebrate. Two years ago we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas renovating our second level Master Suite at House One, and a year ago we spent Thanksgiving packing to move here, then by Christmas we were settling in with all of our junk after the wood floors were installed upstairs. We did not want to have another holiday season completely dismantled by a home in total disarray, unable to hold events for people that are dear to us, being dinner table nomads as we escape to others’ events. So we decided to push to finish another one of our public spaces in the house, our dining room.
One of the reasons we endeavor so intently to renovate our spaces so quickly is to be able to share our home with our friends and family, to host special events that bring us together to make memories. We see the dining room as that unique place in a home where conversation is guaranteed, laughs bounce off the walls, and the iPhones seem to stay on the table. Even when it’s just the two of us, when we have dinner at the table, connectivity occurs, ideas take shape, and our lives become enriched. We identified this when scrolling through photos on our phones and recalled some milestones that happened right at our dining table: the first time Andrew made dinner for Kiel on his birthday, our first Thanksgiving together when we hosted Andrew’s parents in our first apartment together and we tackled an unreasonably large turkey, the first Thanksgiving in our first home together, and last Christmas when everything here was still in boxes, but our friend Matt came over with a great bottle of wine just to make sure we didn’t have Christmas dinner alone. These moments are what we do all of this remodeling for, to create spaces that complement and enable our life together, and we’re pleased that we’ve finished out a sweet room that we think will host a lot of life in the coming years.
The Room Without A View
When we came into the house originally, the room was staged as a dining space but utilized as a home office. While we have historically relied on our dining table as our solution for working from home, we decided to craft that sweet little niche in the living room for that function, in hopes that this room avoids what seems to happen in every dining room: piles of junk on the table. Let’s drill around why this happens: most people don’t use dining rooms, TBH, and people scurry to clear that one area of the kitchen counter when guests stop by so the whole “out of sight, out of mind” trick happens in a snap. Then there’s the lone, shadowed dining room table, helpless to prevent the abuse like JLo in the nail-biter Enough. We’re gonna try super hard this time around to keep that tabletop clear, so this room needs to host only one function. With discipline to not junk, and dedication to hosting real, frequent dinner get-togethers, I really think we can do this.
Let’s talk about the original conditions we mortgaged. Again we encountered end-of-life white carpet and dark-painted walls. The special treat waiting for us in here was a brocade-patterned, textured wallpaper applied to the ceiling and the standard accompanying #takemeback to Tuscany wrought iron chandelier. And last but not least, the sweet, off-center niche built into the wall to display all that hand-me-down china that Mom’s gonna ask about at Thanksgiving. Standard fare for the average American space that hasn’t been updated: zero character, a blank canvas for us to conquer! A fun discovery we made during demo was that, at one point, this room was covered in floral wallpaper and bright—really bright—red shag carpeting. We found remnants behind baseboards and under the carpet that made us grateful we didn’t have to remediate any of that!
We’ve discussed before that the space in this house which is utilized as the dining room is actually the third bedroom for the house, which was also confirmed this summer when we had the surprise visit from the man who grew up in this house while we were finishing up work in the guest room. It’s not a large room, only 12’x12’, so we had to be attentive to scale of objects in here. This room has an OK-sized closet, within which we also demo’ed the original single rod/shelf storage configuration and replaced with floor-to-ceiling wire shelving like we did in our guest room closet, and can also receive components that accommodate clothing on hangers should we ever want to convert this back to a bedroom in the future; this has given us a great place to temporarily store a lot of kitchen-related items until we have a better-designed kitchen (in the near future!).
The most unique thing about this room, to us, is the collection of thin clerestory windows that wrap around the eastern end of the room; they’re some of the unique original wood windows that have been retained over the years because they have great tilt-out functionality. It makes sense for the windows of a bedroom at the front of the house to be able to allow natural light to enter the space while still providing a sense of privacy, but, unfortunately, there’s just no view out, really. But what we’ve found, in our first couple of dinners in this room so far, is that something about the four walls being pretty opaque actually lends to truly dedicated, intimate connections — a little cave of conversation. So let’s show you where we went!
The Concept And The Work
Our original idea for this room was to take the clerestory feature of the space and ride off into a mid-century sunset, but we quickly realized that going all-in just wasn’t going to work for us. We couldn’t put our fingers on what we wanted this space to be, and we think we may have gotten stumped because we’ve actually never done a separate dining room for ourselves before. All our previous dining spaces have been part of either the living room or the kitchen, so this was our first chance to create a dedicated dining experience, and when the parameters were so wide open we became paralyzed with options. We stayed in stuck mode on the aesthetic for the room until we went to Scandinavia this summer and felt like we’d found our homeland. From restaurant to restaurant we found ourselves nestled in quiet spaces with minimal appointments, awash with framed graphic items, contemporary, almost-always black light fixtures, and one rustic/old world component, usually the table itself. This was true as we traveled through Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, but what stuck out to us in Sweden was an interesting fascination with California themes of beach and surf – and at that point we knew we had our concept. We’re bringin’ Scandi back [cue the JT dance moves].
We had to continue our quest for continuity so the same wood flooring was installed in here, the walls would undoubtedly be the same white, we should drag some more shiplap in here, and the ceiling could sport the same wood plank treatment from the living room as well so it was check, check, check to treat the surfaces, and we got to work. A little truth must be told here, though: we knew from Day One that we’d hit the ceiling with the wood planks, and actually executed this room’s ceiling before we did the living room, as a test of how it would work, and we’re glad we did because we learned a lot from the many mistakes we made that helped us pull off a much better result in the living room, burying all of Kiel’s novice construction secrets here in this less-used room. We played with the faux beam spacing in this room and had them line up with some structural posts that break up the clerestory windows, to suggest some actual structural association.
Shiplap came to our rescue when we decided to erase the odd niche from our memory, allowing us to tear out the casing, drywall over, skip the whole mud/tape exercise, and extend the wood right in front. This gave us a clean wall with more options to furnish in front of, instead of having to dance around that little hole in the wall. We kept the two existing French doors in the room – one connects to the living room and the other to the kitchen – and replaced the closet door with the new 3-panel door we’ve been using elsewhere, so the construction in here was the easy part. Note there’s not been one mention so far of any disagreement! So aside from some disappointments in construction execution, this room had set sail, like Titanic out of Southampton, not a worry in sight!
The Worst Client: Yourself
So obviously we were gonna hit that iceberg. Maybe a couple of ‘em. This is the first space that has challenged us to furnish and style together, but we made it to the end and we love it. We are always careful to ensure that we can backtrack from our styling decisions, to permit our style to evolve over time, and we can confess that this photographed room is a pause point, ‘cause the ship was sinking and we had to remind ourselves that there’s no finish line for an evolving patina. This was a project where we changed our minds many times and couldn’t find the right answers to some things, and we finally realized that we were just being bad clients by not having a solid vision and becoming fatigued at this point in our work. It has actually taken us about five months to bring this whole room together, with several periods of stopping to contemplate.
The foundational furnishings we chose for this room echo what we resonated with in Scandinavia: some Mid-Century sensibility, some rugged texture, some quaintness, a masculine-feminine balance. The centerpiece item, to us, is the table, which is actually the third table we chose for this room. Our original intent was to simply utilize the table we already had, but it was rectilinear and we found that it did not complement the square shape of the room, so we found a new use for that table elsewhere in the house (stay tuned) and decided to seek out a round table. When we were on the mid-century bandwagon we bought a sleek, dark piece and fortunately it had a long lead time so when we chickened out on the MCM aesthetic we were able to cancel. It took us a long time to go in one direction and it honestly set us back quite a bit to realize we made a mistake and needed to be more definitive with our vision. Ultimately, after about four months of waffling, we came across this natural-toned piece with a neat structural base that is 54” wide and even has an expandable leaf so we can host MORE. It feels like the perfect Scandinavian core for this room to build around.
We love the light fixture we chose for the room, and some may recognize it from House One; we loved it so much we bought it again. It provides some variation among the lines in the room and the color is a great contrast to all of the white, but the scale is not overwhelming. There are six points of light that have a randomness to them, lending a contemporary flare to the space. We’d buy this one again if we had the chance. But seriously, though, we swear we’re done being remodelistas after this house!
Aside from our challenge to pick a table, acquiring furniture pieces is something we are good at (mainly because it’s shopping and we love to shop), almost as good as buying decorative pillows (note we finally have a room with zero pillows!). With this being our first dedicated dining space, we leapt at the opportunity to find a buffet piece, and selected this one with Mid-Century styling, but finished in white, to bring some coolness in form and tone to balance out the weight of the dining table. It’s a great place to hold food items, or for the distracting iPhones to come to rest, during dinner. And it offers a whole lot of storage for those weird, one-time-a-year pieces you tend to collect, and all of our prized table linens (black and white and not easy to keep clean, of course). Atop the buffet is a pair of table lamps we scavenged from the basement, and while trying to find some fresh new shades we ended up realizing that they looked pretty cool naked, candelabra-like, so it felt like we got all-new pieces and spent zero dollars.
At the shiplap wall we brought in an upright cabinet with glass doors that we used in our kitchen at House One. It’s another piece from a big box retailer that got a quick hardware switch-out for a refresh, and we filled it up with some of our favorite dining accessories, all kept safe behind glass from the cloud of construction dust that never seems to dissipate, possibly because there’s always either demo or construction going on somewhere in the house. Reusing a piece was a huge time and money savings for us, so we’ve got some money to spare for somewhere else!
The rug for this room was another agonizing process for us in this room, as it’s a textile and we drool for most things woven. We have a huge affinity for vintage afghan kilim rugs and considered several for the room, but ultimately decided that, while we love the graphic aesthetic, they just want too much attention, and it would have been a big investment, so we went in an opposite direction and chose a more contemporary style, with lines and color blocks. This one we fell in love with has an almost grasscloth look that lends a beachy vibe and keeps things cool and neutral. Again we took probably four months to make this decision, with countless Add to Cart moments that were abandoned over and over.
Beneath the clerestory windows on the main eastern wall in here, above the buffet, Andrew wanted to bring in some of our favorite images in a gallery display, and this is where we really hit that iceberg. While you can clearly see the boundaries we put in place to define the extents of the gallery, there’s still a lot of square footage to cover with frames, and the possibilities for arrangement are endless, multiplied further by imagery selection.
Proven Advice: A trick we use to build gallery walls is to lay them out on the floor by using painter’s tape to define the boundaries, then we use craft paper to cut out the shapes of the final layout, including the fastener locations required in the wall, then transpose onto the actual wall with painter’s tape and nail right through the marks on the paper. It’s a huge time saver and offers precise outcomes. This gallery wall laid out in various, agonizing stages on the living room floor for about two weeks, where we argued every other day about the arrangement and subbed in dozens of photos and art pieces until we settled on this configuration. There was definitely some yelling, lots of passive sighs, exasperated howls, and eventually submissive “fine”s through this process. It was the last thing we did here in the room and it almost broke us. We think it’s only fair to share that this process isn’t always puppies and cold brew lattes; we don’t always agree, sometimes it gets hairy with two strongly-opinionated designers, but by taking things one day at a time we are able to navigate through to successful outcomes and still be on speaking terms. And that’s the end of the iceberg part of this story!