When Chicago resident Julia Wood began looking for her first home, she started by searching for a dwelling that needed no remodeling.
That tactic quickly proved frustrating, and she changed her strategy after getting some advice from her father. “He told me: ‘Look for good bones,’” she says. “I gave up trying to find the perfect place and started searching for a home where I could build what I was interested in.”
Using that approach, she found a West Loop loft she could mold to her own needs. She hired Jeff Klymson, founding principal of Collective Office, to make the before her dream after. Klymson also recognized the potential of the place, although it was trying to hide behind some flashy finishes and dated architectural details.
Before the remodel, the loft looked like the sort of place Gordon Gekko of Wall Street might want. “It had a lot of strange ostentation—chocolate-brown walls; lights that were half ‘art,’ half fixture; ornate custom millwork; and a bathroom so full of disparate elements, it looked like a design student’s sample box. The place was in need of a full refresh,” says Klymson.
The architect started by looking beyond the flamboyant, 1987-era details to what made the home special. “It had the feel of the early loft conversions in the city, and it had concrete ceilings, massive columns, and brick walls,” he says. “It’s a really wonderful building.”
He started by playing with the walls. In one area, he removed an outmoded storage-and-dividing wall to make a larger public living space and a more right-sized (smaller) guest suite.
“Before, you walked into the loft and were confronted by a 20-foot wall of millwork that bisected the living space in an awkward way,” he says. “You also had an overly large guest room. By moving it, we gave her a living area that’s generous and a guest suite whose proportions are appropriate.”
Architectural staples of early lofts included walls that stop short of the ceiling. Klymson closed the gaps, raising the walls to the top of the rooms and creating floor to ceiling spanning metal-and-glass doors.
“We wanted to use glass doors that share light, but also provide privacy, so we installed fluted doors,” Klymson says. “Of course, raising the walls provides a lot more auditory privacy, as well.”
In the kitchen, growing the walls provided an opportunity for display: Wood, who is an artist, has been collecting pottery for years—often trading her own works for pieces from other artists she admires. “At first, I started with mugs, which are small, functional and affordable,” she says. “I moved on to larger pieces, but I never had the space to properly display them. I wanted that in the new house.”
To that end, what was once an open-air clerestory above the upper cabinets in the kitchen is now a row of custom metal display shelves holding larger pieces of pottery, each illuminated by hidden lights. Open shelving in the front of the kitchen island holds smaller pieces, including several of the mugs that launched her collection.
In other words, the kitchen is in the same place using the same cabinets, but it’s wearing a different coat. “The kitchen belonged where it was, and it had good, relatively new cabinets,” says Klymson. “My client was loath to tear out perfectly good cabinets, so we painted them, refreshed the hardware by blackening it, added new pull-out drawers behind the cabinets, and clad the island in rift white oak.” Slabs of quartzite make up the countertop and backsplash.
The flooring is also the same—but enhanced and patched. “Before, the flooring was a bright cherry color,” says Klymson. “Where we moved the wall, we had to patch it. Then, we stained the whole thing a light gray color.”
For contrast, the architect specified that the dividing wall should be made of walnut. With built-in shelves and a desk, that wall serves as a library, a place to display art, and an office.
Another storage wall, this one crafted from oak, organizes the entryway. “You used to have to walk all the way into the unit to find a place to hang your coat,” says Klymson. “We added a wall of closets in the entry, as well as a place to sit down and remove your shoes and boots—a feature that’s great in Chicago winters.”
The gaudy light fixtures have been replaced with elements that are simple, but striking. Wood was inspired by Publican and Revival Food Hall, two of Chicago’s hit restaurants, to ask for simple globes as the ceiling fixtures. Klymson suggested hanging them all on the same height and found a fixture from West Elm to make it an affordable endeavor.
“We spent a lot of time testing the right height and looking for the right diameter for the globes. The electrician spent many hours installing the conduit in a spiral pattern,” says Klymson. “The effort was worth it, as it becomes something artistic.” Wood notes that the light quality is superior, and the fact that sections are on different switches and dimmers gives her a lot of control of the atmosphere of her home. “It’s so much better than the track lighting that’s usually in lofts,” she says.
Another notable flourish in the main space: a dining room table that doubles as a ping-pong table. Wood had the piece crafted by furniture maker and artist Brad Reed Nelson of Board by Design. “I took a woodworking class from Brad, and I admired a ping-pong table he built for a New York client,” Wood says. “When I got my own place, I asked him to build one for me. The original table had a leather net, but I thought cowhide would be fun and match my cowhide rug.”
It is these personal touches and exacting details that make the home special.
“When I bought my home, I was nervous about becoming a home buyer and home remodeler at the same time,” Wood says. “But it was much less painful than I imagined, and it was worth it to make the space I live in exactly as I wanted it. Having a home made just for you is an incredible luxury.”
Dan Sullivan of Navillus Woodworks was the contractor and collaborator for this project; Collin Smith from Active Alloys created the bathroom vanity, mirror, and steel-and-glass doors; Daniel Mihalescu from ADC Floors refinished and installed flooring.