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
Things have been going down at the Midwest Malibu Cottage, and by that we mean downstairs! When we finished our powder room project, we had completed the renovation of our entire main level, which leaves us with only our basement to complete. We’re left with just the accessory-type spaces to rethink and we’ll show you what we’ve been up to in our workspace down here. It’s a room type we’ve never gotten the chance to work on before. It’s full of pre-existing conditions that challenged us truly in every corner, and has been an exercise in being inspired as you go, surrendering to the flow, and ending in a place you couldn’t see from the beginning. To be honest, we’ve learned so much from all projects leading to here that we’ve arrived at a place where there are few surprises and the lessons learned are all dried up (thankfully). Let’s have a look-see at how it all shakes out!
First things first: let’s get oriented around the basement itself. The basement is a carbon copy of the footprint of the main level of this house, so there’s about 1,400 square feet downstairs, but about 800 of those square feet are unimproved, used for storage, utility, and workshop spaces, leaving about 600 finished square feet that comprise the actual livable area. It’s an open space that has two distinct zones: the workspace we’re showing here and our Family Room. The Workspace sits directly beneath our dining room, so it’s somewhat tucked away from the main cavity itself. While the rooms are open to one another, they function differently and we’ve packed a lot of unique detail into this end of the space (plus we’re just not done with the other end yet!), thus we’ll be teasing how this Workspace relates to the rest of the basement. #sorrynotsorry
Like every other room in this house, there’s some archaeology to explain. Back when a former resident visited us during our Guest Bedroom project, he explained that this space actually used to be a fully-enclosed room, which was his bedroom during his late teenage years. There’s a closet-like shelving niche tucked off one corner of this space today, which was indeed his closet, but there was a hidden panel in the side wall that allowed him to sneak into the adjacent storage space and out through the window in that room for nights of late-’70s Wisconsin shenanigans. [cue our minds running rampant thinking of That ’70s Show.] While that hidden panel is not present in the closet space today, you can still see it from the back side of the stud wall within the storage room, so his information satisfied our curiosity around why there are random latches attached to the plywood blocking. When he last left this house the space was still an enclosed bedroom with a door, so he couldn’t answer when the wall was cut to partial-height and the door removed to open this space to the now-family room.
We presume that this basement was remodeled at the same time as the kitchen, some time in the early ’90s, at which point they gave us the beautiful investment of gyp board on the walls and ceiling, along with recessed lights and linoleum. Now, every house in Wisconsin has a basement, but rarely do you find a drywall ceiling and not-icky-gross carpet, so honestly the level of finish in this basement was a huge selling point to us for this house. The existing assets we purchased were ready for us to layer on our details, and we didn’t even have to break out the sledgehammer on this one!
Okay, we’ve had a couple paragraphs of positivity and gratitude so we’ve earned the right to get out the Burn Book – let’s shade the existing conditions a little bit, shall we? First of all, this is not a farmhouse, so the red-stained-look knotty pine linoleum, perfect condition as it was, was immediately marked for exile. The ’90s-green wall paint did little more than highlight the (expertly-furred) structural beam at the ceiling and the lack of an enclosure on the closet, like many contemporary influencers, leaves nothing to the imagination. And can we get an amen about the bizarre cabinetry in the corner here and get real honest that these are just upper cabinets used as lowers and someone cheaped out and excluded doors on the actual uppers, all of which were just randomly installed in the corner of the room. Ultimately this was meant to be a workspace but none of the outfitting supported putting away all of our ugly tools and materials, and the 11” depth of the countertop, while neat in theory, offered no real functionality.
Not gonna lie, though: while we can rail on the space, it’s where half of our work for this house took place. It’s a great spot to work because there are no windows and it’s cozily quiet, so when you need to flow, this is the place to go. Unfortunately we saved this room until the end, because a lot of hours were logged down here pre-remodel, CADing spaces, modeling rooms, pinning inspiration, and even writing the pieces for this blog. (This room also served as our makeshift kitchen setup during our kitchen remodel and it easily handled coffee makers and food prep for a few months while we did dishes in the laundry room sink.) We are grateful to have this dedicated area to create a space devoted entirely to work; gone are the days of a desk sharing part of a bedroom, or working at the dining room table! With this project we wanted to gift ourselves with the amenities to support the creative things we do, and keep all those parts and pieces neatly contained in dedicated spaces instead of shoved in a closet or buried deep in the basement, so we consciously outfit this room with as much as the room could handle.
As we mentioned earlier, there are no windows in this room, and not a lot of natural light sneaks in here from the other side of the basement, so keeping things bright and optimistic was key. Luckily there were already four recessed lights in the ceiling that are well-distributed so we didn’t have to do much more for lighting in here aside from retrofitting those ol’ power-chugging incandescent fixtures to LED-based units. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone by now that white would be our wall color, particularly in here when light reflectivity is a must-have, but we didn’t want to leave the walls as flat planes, with no architectural character. This is just a four-sided box at the end of the day, so it was imperative to deploy something here to deliver some interest. And, as we promised at the end of our kitchen project, our relationship status with shiplap has updated to “seeing other people,” and we decided that instead of horizontally-oriented detail, we’d go vertical. We’ve gone with a board-and-batten treatment on all the walls in here and are pleased with the results. It delivers a quaint softness to the space, a little bit chunky in form while also quiet in its monochromatic treatment. The focal moment we’re delivering here is the built-in cabinetry at the back wall, something that grew in scale of scope as a result of our kitchen project. Our original concept was just to install lower base cabinets across the width of the wall – simple and straightforward – but while exploring the options in cabinet bodies during the kitchen design we decided to go bigger and really optimize storage capacity in here. In a weird turn of events, we had a lot of fun building the cabinets in the kitchen and wanted to do more! With the low ceiling at 7’ down here we elected not to do any upper cabinets because it would have really highlighted the lower head room, but the full-height cabinets at each end seem to elevate the ceiling height. We did have to customize the install of those tall cabinets because they would not fit with their typical feet, so we lowered the height of the toekick by a couple of inches and wedged them in!
Choosing a finish for the cabinetry was somewhat difficult because it felt not-exciting to use the flat-panel white faces, but we had a significant discomfort around using a wood look with cabinets sitting on a wood grain floor finish, so we took a gamble and elected to go with what is the absolute cheapest finish from a big box retailer and held our breath until the end. To elevate the cabinetry we selected some fumed white oak hardware imported from a maker we found in Belarus; the pieces bring in the warmth of wood that we love and give off an almost mid-century energy with their pure geometry that pops against the neutral cabinet faces. We topped off the base cabinets with the same quartz material from our kitchen, satisfying at least some sort of continuity from architectural finishes at the upper level. The focal moment for us is the wall above the cabinets, where we installed the same 3”x12” stacked tile from our kitchen (are you sick of our boring continuation of the same finishes over and over?), which elevates the area, providing a unique zone of texture in the space, the geometry again hinting at mid-century, the imperfections in the finish of the tile softening the look, and the sheen of the glazing polishing off with some reflectivity. In front of the tile sit two oak shelves that span between the full-height cabinets, giving us a full 14’ of shelving, yet another floating install of our beloved oak, of course. We’ve never had a shelving solution at a scale like this so it feels super luxurious to have so much room for display of our favorite objects and to allow us to actually grow our library of books. There are so many #shelfies in our future, with all of the goodies we’ve stacked onto these bad boys!
Down at the floor we’ve installed a vinyl-based wood-look product, which is not something we imagined we’d ever say, but given we’re in a basement that could take on water at any moment, we decided it was best to play it safe and not put real hardwood at risk. We searched high and low for a product that would look similar to what we installed in our main level, which was a year-long search, and while we still came nowhere near a close match at all, what we selected has a natural oak foundational tone with a blend of warm and cool highlights. It’s a neutral base that allows the Reflected Diamonds rug we selected to really stand out in here. And we feel a little rebellious because we actually chose an outdoor rug, purely for its aesthetic. While it is so soft it’s hard to imagine it exposed to the elements, it is also stout and durable, obviously built for both indoor and outdoor use, so it should stand up to a lot of anxious foot tapping during long work sessions down here!
In the corner at the former closet, we’ve cased out the opening with our typical door trim package for the house, but due to the height of the opening being reduced by a furred-out air duct overhead, we elected to not install a door here and instead we’ve hemmed a Belgian Flax Linen Curtain that spans across to opening, concealing all of the junk on the 18”-deep shelves in there (that is so much good junk cramming btw), and adding a softness and material contrast. Next to the closet, on a short wall across from the built-in cabinets, we’ve landed a furniture moment with the Mid-Century 3-Drawer Dresser, and, not gonna lie, this was a happy accident. The day we took possession of this house we took delivery of a bunch off great new furniture pieces and this dresser was one of them – we love its proportions and styling and thought it would be a great item in our guest bedroom, but alas it proved to be no match for the volume of clothing we have, so we buried it in the basement amongst moving boxes and construction material during this remodel, unwilling to part with something we liked so much. As we emptied the basement for the remodel work down here we landed the dresser here in the workspace and it all clicked as an ah-ha moment and we’re so glad we didn’t get rid of it. Having a furniture piece in here lends a nice texture to the weight of the built-ins on the other side of the room and hidden in the drawers here are all the goodies that comprise a gift-wrapping station. The Light Rods LED Table Lamp on top gives a nice bit of extra task lighting while we’re working in here also.
Now at the center of the room we thought we were going to be clever (read: sustainable… okay, cost-effective) and repurpose a furniture piece for the work surface at which we would sit to work, but had to make an executive decision at the last minute. Our intent was to utilize the dining table that also got ousted from upstairs – another piece we loved and did not want to part with – but once we brought it down here into the finished space we realized that its rectilinear shape in this square room just didn’t feel right, like there was no flow around the room, and it had a wood top that made had too much character screaming for attention. It was clear that a round-shaped table was called for, so we opted for the Slab Round Dining Table (another outdoor piece), and love the coolness that the concrete top brings to the room and the openness of the black steel pedestal base. Throw a pair of the Slope Leather Dining Chair (which are padded nicely for long-duration sitting) on either side and we’ve got some additional caramel tone in the room to round this whole space out.
It wouldn’t be a project at the Midwest Malibu Cottage if there weren’t a gallery wall, so of course we gathered up some more of our favorite recent art finds and photographs to add in the final flourish for this room, including the Chasing Paper Peace Sign Print that is a perfect good-vibes focal point. Dealing with the lower ceiling and the protrusion of the furred beam at the ceiling definitely dealt us some difficulty in laying this one out. In a space like this that is more private and not one of the primary entertaining spaces, we felt more comfortable allow a bit more color and graphic sneak into this configuration. We still believe firmly in the template process in which we arrange the pieces out on the floor, then cut out paper sized to each frame and tape to the wall with marks for mounting nails for each frame, then hang and go!
So this is where you’ll find us working now – knock real loud when you come over ‘cause we’re downstairs! We’ve put together an environment that is pleasant to be within, equipped it with furnishings that allow for comfortable working sessions, and delivered the ability to store the equipment and tools to support our creative work, all into one 11’x11’ room. It’s a great place to collaborate together when we’re working out ideas and cranking out the various projects that we do both together and individually and should suit us for years to come. We recently wrapped a birthday gift down here, and it was such a treat to have everything available for selection in one place, then being able to execute on the countertop instead of crouching on the floor. Another grown-up addition to our lifestyle!
As we said in the beginning, we kind of just went with the flow on this one. For the first time we didn’t have a clear, cohesive concept, just a few ideas that we glued together and bridged the gaps with right decisions. We’ve teased the Family Room a lot in discussion here, and we’ll be back soon after we wrap that one up so we can show you the other half of our basement space, which also happens to be the final(!) interior renovation project here at the Midwest Malibu Cottage. This room really shows the foundations of the clear concept we’ve had for that room, so you can start to imagine what’s still up our sleeves. Until then you can always find more details and background stories on Instagram (@florals4spring / @kielaaron) – we’ll see you again soon for our finale!