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
We welcome you back to our Midwest Malibu Cottage, where we last left you, like a dramatic faux-drama cliff hanger on a reality TV show cutting to commercial, in our basement after showing you our Workspace, and we’re back from break to show you the exciting conclusion! No, seriously, this is the series finale, because this is the very last project in our interior renovation, where we’re going to show you the perfect mic drop, a big ol’ room to chillax at the end of this long endeavor – our Family Room. It started as just a vanilla, three-sided box buried in the earth but we’ve layered in a lot of consideration and detail to create for ourselves a spot to host comfy get-togethers and we’re ready to unveil!
Before we get into things, we’ll do a quick recap of our basement setup to orient you to how our basement space works. We have about 600 square feet of finished space down here, which is split into two distinct spaces, our Workspace and then this large open area that sits directly beneath our Living Room footprint. How lucky are we to get to create another lounge space for ourselves? And while this may be basement space, this is definitely not your average basement for Wisconsin because it actually has natural light, albeit through one smallish window and an egress door that opens out onto our rear patio, but it was beyond any other finished basement space we ever toured when house shopping so we snatched it up! And the fact that we purchased a basement space that had already been converted from its original paneling and carpeting, sporting an incredibly cost-saving foundation of drywall and linoleum, made this a super easy project to execute. This was not some relic of a rumpus room that needed an overhaul, it was essentially a blank canvas waiting for us to modernize and customize for our lifestyle.
And that lifestyle we imagined for ourselves in this room was inspired by our dear framily that adopted us since we came to Wisconsin and have an ultimate family room themselves, setup with deep, comfy sofas, an endless supply of blankets and pillows, a satisfying fireplace, a big ol’ TV that streams any content you want, and, the best part, a sweatpants-required dress code. Many a cold, Winter night we have spent with them in that delicious room, laughing, watching karaoke foolishness, brief dance parties with the kids, eating burritos, munching popcorn, watching half a movie before nodding off to sleep but pretending you’re not – spending a night together connecting and sharing experiences. And in Wisconsin you’re trapped inside for a good third of the calendar year, so having a room like this to recreate is crucial, we’ve come to find, and now we have one of our own. No longer do we have to couch surf on Friday nights, because we can host ourselves, and we think we’ve packed in all the ingredients to host one helluva movie night!
In our final room at our Midwest Malibu Cottage, we wanted to embrace our Cali-quaint vibe in-full, one last time, as a means to combat the considerable darkness of this environment. We know we’ll spend a lot of time down here through the grey, limited-daylight Midwest winters here, so we conceptualized a space that would feel like a beachside cabana, shaded from the summer heat and ready for lounging after a day in the sun. If you’ve stuck with us for a while, you can probably guess the formula we’re about to show you: white and wood! But this time we’ve tried some new things since this is a unique space in our home, and we’ll walk you through all of the whys. At the end of the project, we look back on the comments guests have made, and the most common word used by people who have come down here is “coastal,” so we’ll qualify our work as a success on execution toward concept, and maybe the most rewarding thing we’ve heard was when the countertop install guy walked down here and said, “I’ve never seen a basement like this in Wisconsin.” ::bicepemoji::
The noteworthy architectural change we executed here, as we did in our Workspace, was a board-and-batten-look wall treatment, something we’d been crushing on in Pinterest and Instagram, and we saw as an opportunity to do some heavy lifting for us. The ceiling height down here varies but averages around just 7’-high, which is pretty cramped, so again we turned to white as the color for the wall and ceiling to blur the lines a bit, and then create some verticality with the wall treatment. We evaluated from the beginning if the look would work across both the Family Room and the Workspace, so we could ensure continuity within this open space’s two distinct uses/zones. Easy to execute, we merely nailed prime-grade pine furring strips to the face of the existing drywall, capping it at the ceiling with a 1×2 molding, and the hardest part was really just the tedious caulking of all the edges. Okay, so it was a bit complicated ensuring that the spacing between the batten strips provided for equal spacing at each wall length, which necessitated modeling each wall, locating all interruptions like electrical receptacles and light switches, then calculating how to get equal breaks that avoided all of the interruptions but also stayed similar in dimension to all other wall segments down here – literally each wall is a different rhythm but it feels imperceivable to us (hopefully!). Another trick we pulled to play with trying to stretch the perceived height of the room, was to switch our baseboards from the 5.5”-high boards throughout our main level upstairs to shorter, 3.5”-high pieces; those extra two inches give the vertical strips just a tad bit more opportunity to elongate. It’s great to have some texture down here now, and the board and batten look embraces the cottage part within our home’s name.
We discussed briefly the floor we installed in our Workspace, how the coloration was a hard-to-find solution we had to settle on, but we wanted to expand a little more in this story about the why. Our basement has signs that water had been an issue here in the past; this house sits in the side of a hill and our sump pump runs throughout the day, keeping things dry from the water hanging out beneath the slab. So while we feel protected, we still wanted to play it safe, thus we elected to stay with a vinyl floor covering, this time a 6”x24” plank with a believable texture and a pliable dimension which allowed the material to conform to the slope of the slab. There are three floor drains in the basement, and of course one lands right in the middle of the space, at the bottom of the stairs; the floor in both the Family Room and the workspace slope toward this drain, and while it’s ugly, it’s a good insurance policy in the event some catastrophic event occurs! We installed the planks running across the narrow width of the room, and it’s incredible how the grain orientation helps to broaden the perceived width of the space. We did do some testing of the material installed in a herringbone pattern but felt it was too of-the-moment and that we’d tire of it long-term. The finished product lends an almost sandy look to the floor, really vibing with our mood for this space. We installed this ourselves, in the course of about one full day of work, setting up an assembly line of Kiel cutting and Andrew installing, and it was so easy and gratifying that there were zero arguments or episodes! Not sure if at the end of this we are just delirious or we actually learned how to work together harmoniously?
An un-fun decision we had to make down here was for the flooring finish at our stairs. They previously wore a dirty coat of fatty-loop berber carpet that had seen better days, and while it made Andrew itch, we kept it around until this remodel was complete so it could take all the up-and-down traffic thrashing, with materials coming up and down the stairs, and our constant furniture moves. We wanted to be a 100% carpet-free house but we learned the hard way at House One, after you remove carpet from stairs and watch your small dog slip and fall down a couple stairs (a couple of times) and then run to hide in shame, that carpet serves a function far more important than aesthetic. So we did a quick search here locally and actually selected a commercial-grade, low pile loop carpet, under which we had the thickest, cushiest pad we could find installed. The colorway holds hands nicely with the vinyl flooring in the basement, with fine straight lines of highlights. We scowled internally at the thought of buying carpet but love hearing our chiweenie scurry up and down the stairs with great speed – worth every penny!
In a space like this with long walls and few window penetrations, just filling it up with furniture pieces was not going to feel right, particularly on the exterior-facing wall, which is so long, not just one piece would even look right. We’d been ogling floating credenzas in living spaces for a while now, but didn’t have a place to put one until we totally geeked out on cabinets during our Kitchen project and realized we found our opportunity. Over twelve feet of cabinets are hung down the length of the wall and topped them with the same white quartz that we’ve used elsewhere, then finished them off with the same oak door pulls from our Workspace project, in an attempt to unify the finishes and details of built-in components throughout the basement. We did have to make provisions to respond to the baseboard heating units on this wall, so chose cabinet bodies sized to allow about 18” of clear space above the heaters to allow the warmed air to flow out into the room (and not catch the cabinets on fire); we wish the cabinets could extend lower but sometimes safety and efficiency have to trump aesthetics. The cabinets are mounted at a height that allowed the countertop to flow into the window area, effectively extending the depth of the sill and giving us a really nice opportunity to have some live plants down here. The entire installation allows this wall to have a purpose with a dimensional look of permanence: the cabinets offer storage for blankets and goodies to support the lounge lifestyle in here, the countertop hosts accessory objects (and will make a great buffet-hosting spot in the future), and then the configuration lends itself as a datum line for the minimal gallery wall we installed above.
The undeniable centerpiece of this room is the large sectional sofa in the middle. Never, ever have we had a sofa this large, as we’ve never had a room this scale coupled with the ability to be dedicated solely to sitting. We were admittedly picky with sofa aesthetics and function – this thing needed to have deep seats and a tall-enough back to lie slothily in total comfort, while accommodating a lot of bodies at once (two grown sleeping adults at a minimum), while still looking tidy and cool yet still warm and inviting. A lot of our inspiration searches showed us slipcovered sofas in the sun- drenched Malibu spaces we saw, but we didn’t feel that aesthetic was entirely us, so we endeavored to find a more crisp solution, and stayed selective in our search, scouting pieces that felt light any bright but not too feminine, and used Sketchup to model three or four of our final options before we made a decision.
We found our perfect match in the Serene L-Shaped Sectional, a three-piece setup that’s almost 9’-long on each side, and fits perfectly into our room. (Sadly, it’s no longer available at West Elm, but the Harmony Down-Filled L-Shaped Sectional is extremely similar.) What we love the most about this sofa is that it’s unique, with the strong styling of the thin arms and their pinched fabric, yet it’s quiet and doesn’t scream for attention. It’s covered in a durable, oatmeal-colored upholstery in a soft pebble weave, and the back structure is low so it doesn’t fight for space, but it’s scattered with eleven pillows, perfect for finding just the right spot for yourself in whatever mood/mode you’re in. We can easily fit five adults on this thing, and if we have even more guests, we’ve plopped in the Slope Leather Lounge Chair, whose caramel-toned leather and minimal steel base nicely punctuate the open space (while also tying into the chairs in the adjacent Workspace), and should even more seats be needed, three poufs tuck neatly away under the floating credenza in the room. One arm of this sofa, when laid upon in full-on napmode, looks right out the window in here, so we’ve already contemplated weekends in winter, lying here watching snowfall, nestled under multiple blankets, watching trash on the TV or reading books in peace – not that we’re looking to summon the forthcoming Wisconsin winter by any means!
And yes, we’re going to write an entire paragraph about pillows, because we went maybe a little wild? Eleven pillows look great on the sofa but we thought that if comfort was key for a space like this, even more cushioning should be available so everyone present can make whatever nest they need. Since this was our last room, we had just one more chance to satisfy our penchant for acquiring pillow textiles so we had to go big, and ended up adding another thirteen pillows, so there ends up being about two dozen cushy options on this guy! Playing off a piece hung on the wall behind, we went for a variety of pieces in watery blues, punctuating with others in rust and caramel colors. Ultimately, we found a sofa that serves the functionality we desired, while having a form, fit, and finish that become a monochromatic backdrop. And again, as we’ve done in the past, by going neutral with our large-scale investment we allow ourselves the ability to bring in color in small accessory form that can be easily switched out when our tastes change. We’ve accessorized around the seating in here with some tables we love, most significantly the Pedestal Coffee Table, another outdoor piece we fell in love with for its cool tones, its round shape allowing for ease in movement into the sofa seating, the grey of the concrete tempering the space with its cool coloration, all coordinating also with the table in the Workspace down here. It’s one of our favorite pieces in the room. To serve the lounge chair we popped in the Cosmo Side Table in white, another round form that sits quietly in service, allowing the chair to command attention of the eye.
And, finally, next to the sofa is an end table we built because we couldn’t find the just-right piece; we needed a narrow width but a long depth and wanted to bring some of our oak into the room, so we conjured up the very last of the oak plywood scraps laying around here (more about oak plywood coming down below, btw) and hooked ourselves up with the perfectly-sized piece, in the exact finish we wanted, with some detailing we’ve always drooled over, and it was FREE, a word seldom coming out of our mouths through this process. The entire furniture arrangement in here sits upon a couple of rugs that we’ve layered together, another happy accident, discovered when the original 10’x13’ rug on the bottom just screamed for too much attention, so we threw over it a piece long-stored in the basement storage room with no intended use, merely to calm ourselves down, but once we saw it in-place it just felt right so it stayed where it was. (So actually we suppose that was kind of another free item in a sense and trust that by this last room we have grown tired of buying, buying, buying and welcome any kind of clever reuse solutions!)
At the terminating end of the room lie our fireplace and TV installation. The fireplace sits beneath our Living Room fireplace but strangely was clad in a different stone than the one upstairs – we found the color of the stone aligned with our preferences, and we loved the realism of the soot on the opening above, we so we decided not to paint this one and allow it to anchor this end of the space. This became the natural location at which the TV, the entire functional purpose of the room, would want to land so it could be viewed while also being able to see the fireplace in action. There was a small amount of discord about this TV, though: Kiel wanted the largest thing that would fit on the wall, while Andrew preferred something a little smaller, less visually-weighted. In the end we compromised and elected to choose a size that was tastefully-sized for the wall and as thin as our budget could afford, while also saying, you know, if you’re gonna do a Family Room, go big or go home. So 65” was the winner here, and it’s wired into the wall so that all of its equipment is concealed in the neat dark indigo cabinet below. It’s a pretty nice experience to get settled down here and get immersed in a movie! We did consider a few different ways to do an architectural focal component on the wall for the TV, but the weight of the fireplace adjacent, coupled with the furred-out air duct that notches out the top of the wall (the furnace is directly behind this wall and feeds right up into the ceiling in that 45° bump), made us feel that less is more in this scenario.
Okay, so we do now have a basically-white sofa and we know the risks we are up against, so we knew we had to make a safe zone for food consumption, and the solution is multi-purpose, a bar we created at the transition zone between the Workspace and this room. We mentioned with the Workspace that there was a kneewall that was created when the former bedroom down here was demo’ed, and it sat there as the dividing line between the two spaces, really serving no purpose, but we saw an opportunity and seized on it. The partial-height wall was just the right height to host a countertop, so we thought we’d throw one on it and call it a day, but while shopping for said material, we both suddenly felt a need to make it a little more than a floating plane so first Andrew suggested oooh let’s do a waterfall edge on it and then Kiel decided to push it even further and have the same material flow up the wall as well. The result is this folded ribbon of oak plywood, which becomes a bit of an architectural installation than just a bar. We have long wanted to experiment with layering plywood and leaving the edges exposed and this was our perfect opportunity. We’ve put some Alden Counter Stools around this and find that we’ve created a moment that acts as a gate between the spaces, but serves them both, as we’ve both eaten meals at this bar and worked at it. This was something we conceived together, in the moment, around 2pm one Sunday afternoon, and we hurried home and had it executed by 6 o’clock that night. #noragrets
It’s hard to ignore the undulating ceiling down here. Yes, it’s great that it was all drywalled, and cleverly so – someone took the time to fur our around the main HVAC duct artery that delivers air to each room of the main level, while also maximizing height elsewhere – it’s still low and even though it’s whited-out, it still is what it is. Fortunately there was a lot of recessed lighting installed at some point (17 cans to be exact), and they were thoughtful enough to put them on a four different circuits. We yanked all of the incandescent fixtures from the housings and added in LED retrofit kits, and to set the scene for events we have down here we wired all of them to wirelessly-controlled digital dimmers that can be controlled from our Apple TV, so once you’re settled on the sofa you can go lights-out from our phones and when the movie’s done they’re right back on with a tap. But maybe the most important thing to us in the lighting scheme here is that there are so many lights, so well-distributed, that there’s no need for any lamps, which means no cords dangling around, equaling more available surface space for pretty things to look at.
To keep this space light and airy, we elected to go minimal on the miscellaneous, non-furniture components for this room. The first thing we actually purchased was the large wall art for the wall behind the sofa, a sketchy watercolor set of waves, which brought about the various blue shades that you see popped here and there in our textile choices, and was a big decision for us to permit color in this space – perhaps after the wallpaper success in our Powder Room, we’ve softened our monochromatic preferences somewhat? Everything else in the space, though, from accessory objects to other items on the wall, are all in mostly geometric shapes or organic colors/textures. A favorite secondary piece we stumbled across is a wall hanging of sculpted layers of cut seagrasses, an item with distinct lines but an organic softness, and added some acoustic sound deadening to the room, while being perfectly-scaled to the wall at which it is mounted – we are very conscientious to the gallery scale rule, which guides that items on a wall should be no more than 65% of its total width. At another wall we elected to use Amigo Modern Bent Metal Wall Hooks to display loose items we love, like a vintage California flag and a ridiculously-thick wool blanket we came across recently (which we fight over when it’s sofa time).
Wow, you know, you don’t realize how many solutions you make within a room until it comes down to telling the what, the why, and the how. It all happens so fast that you don’t even realize how many decision points you encounter; this entire basement space took us about four weeks of work, which was one of our shorter projects, and it ended up being one of the lowest cost-per-square-foot projects as well. Most satisfying about this space is that it is multi-functional: there will be plenty of laughing and talking and activity in here but it’s also a great place of peace for even meditation.
Once again we made for ourselves a room designed to fit our lifestyle and enjoy to its full potential.
And, with that, we’ve reached the end. Not just the end of this room, nor of the basement level, but of the entire renovation of the existing spaces here at our Midwest Malibu Cottage. This was a project we signed up for, committed ourselves to in entirety (as much as two otherwise full-time-employed people can afford), surrendering to the cause and going to work on 2,000 square feet for eighteen months; a whole-house renovation is a lifestyle more than it is a project.
So now that we achieved our goal we get, for the first time in this house, to live the lifestyle we designed for, no longer carpenters and project managers, but as the family we intend to be. There are still future plans for us here, as there’s acreage to landscape, a utility space that needs to be made a proper Laundry Room, and future bedrooms and garage space to add on, but for now we’re going to enjoy the fruits of our labor and just be still. The whole concept for this home was to incorporate all of the feel-good components from our California life into our new life here in this Midwest landscape, and at the end of it all we do feel really good. We’re proud of ourselves for holding on tight and riding this wave to the end, for the skills we developed, for the time we spent together (good, bad, and ugly), for all the mishaps and landmines stepped on and the lessons they taught us, and then grateful for the understanding and encouragement we received from friends and family that we’ve ghosted for the past year and a half as well as from the online world on-screen. Not sure what’s next other than just being alive and well in this home, but who knows – two years ago we had just finished remodeling House One, said the exact same thing, and look where we are now!
We can do hard things. They take sacrifice, but we are a good team and we, together, have what it takes to conjure a vision and stick with it to the end. It started with hope, may have eventually worn us down, but nothing worthwhile is easy.
Develop a concept, design with purpose, make a plan, stay true to your filters, pace yourself, humbly ask for help, take care of yourself in the process, and pause occasionally to reflect upon your wins both big and small. You may not know everything but you already have everything you need to take the first step.
Thanks to everyone for following along with us through this journey. Maybe we’ll see you soon, and until then we’ll still be spilling more behind the scenes color about this room and the house on Instagram (@florals4spring/@kielaaron) so reach out and say hello, but be patient, because we might be watching a movie.