Photos by Spacecrafting
When Thomas Wilson and his wife, Jen, first moved from Minneapolis to Orono in 2013, they were looking for a little more privacy than the busy city could offer them. The two found what they were looking for in a beautiful property near the Luce Line State Trail, surrounded by trees and overlooking a wetland, and the house—while a bit bland in terms of design—promised plenty of space for a growing family.
“We bought the house primarily because it was part of an association with boat slip access to Lake Minnetonka,” admits Thomas, chuckling. “It had good bones and a good soul, though. The design is also unique in that it doesn’t have a basement—instead of stepping down when you walk out the front door, you can walk straight out onto the patio.”
Still, the residence (a traditional four-bedroom, five-bath) needed some work. Built in 2004, the completion of the original construction process had been an unfortunately hurried affair, and many of the finishing touches left much to be desired.
“The light fixtures were ones you could get at Menards for about $22,” says Thomas.
“I remember walking up to the fireplace mantel and noticing a gap between one of the decorative wooden supports on either side and the wall. I pushed on it and found out they had never even been nailed in!”
After settling in, the couple started out their renovations small with a simple powder room refresh. They met with Senior Designer Billie Marie Tharaldson and Lead Designer Lacy Hughes of Wayzata-based Julian Design Custom Interiors and loved the end result of their first collaboration so much, they decided to continue working together. Over the next several years, the team tackled a series of smaller projects, including redoing the Wilsons’ three-season porch, designing their young son’s bedroom, and converting a spare bedroom into what the family now calls “the escape room”—i.e., a multidimensional space that acted as a home office for Jen to work in during the COVID-19 pandemic, an area for Thomas to build his Legos (one of his favorite hobbies), and a place for him “to be kicked out to when I snore too much,” he says, laughing.
The larger remodel that was recently completed began in much the same way: The microwave (a “literal college dorm microwave,” according to Thomas, and another of those hastily added final details) burnt out, and he and Jen decided to move the new one out of the main kitchen and into the walk-in pantry. “It sounded like such a simple request at the time,” Hughes reminisces, “but, of course, it quickly turned into something much larger.”
But Hughes and Tharaldson quickly discovered there wasn’t room in the pantry to accommodate the microwave due to the two fridges that were being used to house the owners’ 300-bottle wine collection. So, the design team’s first mission was to find a new space to store the wine. Since the house didn’t have a basement, they suggested creating a space beneath the empty stairwell, which, at the time, was being used as a feature wall containing the living room television and a rarely used fireplace.
“It really was the perfect place. The stairwell is in the middle of the house, away from sunlight, and was already connected to the outside wall for ventilation access,” says Thomas. “Within days, I cut holes in the sheetrock to see what was under the stairs, and I was like, ‘Yup, this is happening!’”
Meanwhile, the design team got to work gutting the pantry, retrofitting cabinets, and installing new shelving to store the couple’s large collection of smaller appliances and serveware. “We engineered it to maximize storage—there was a lot to pack in there!—but we also wanted to make it pretty, not just practical,” explains Hughes. “We envisioned Jen walking in there multiple times a day, possibly with guests, so we wanted to make sure it was not only a functional space that utilized every square inch but also a display piece.”
Then, while moving the wine over, the team noticed the kitchen’s tile-and-grout floor was in serious need of a refresh. They decided to remove the tile and install the same walnut hardwood flooring found in the adjacent living and dining rooms to create a more seamless flow throughout the space. Since the Wilsons were planning on moving out for a few weeks at this point in the process, they figured they might as well take the opportunity to complete some more work in the kitchen, and the domino effect continued.
“The kitchen was beautiful; there was nothing wrong with it, but everything was cherry-colored wood—the cabinets, floor, molding. It just felt very heavy,” says Tharaldson. “We wanted to bring in some different color and update it without making anything look too brand-new and pristine.”
Countertops and backsplash tile were both replaced, and an elegant mosaic tile feature—which inspired a new palette of colors and textures—was installed behind the stove. A wall of cabinets housing the hidden entrance to the pantry was repainted in a light gray to break up the color monotony, and the island received a matching multilayer, hand-painted finish and a sparkling Perla Venata quartzite top, giving the entire space a fresh take while maintaining its traditional design.
Renovations spread to the living room next: Since the television needed to be moved to make room for the new wine display, the design team was forced to rethink the entire layout to reorient focal points, capture views, and make sure the flow of the space could comfortably accommodate the family of three as well as larger groups for entertaining. A dinette area located off the kitchen that used to contain a huge 150-gallon aquarium was converted into a cozy sitting area, and large windows and sliding glass doors were installed to open up that corner of the house and allow views of the gardens and wetland to shine through.
“We were really careful to reuse what was already there—rather than ripping out cabinets and putting in a new island, let’s refinish them with paint and a new top; instead of adding more space onto the house, let’s find ways to work within the existing footprint,” says Tharaldson. “It was a great lesson in reimagining the space and getting creative with the existing elements.”
The final area remodeled was the couple’s bedroom and closet, located on the second level right above the new sitting area. Since work was already being done to cut in the new windows and doors below, the two decided to add more windows upstairs as well, along with expanding their small balcony. New lighting, furniture, and finishes—including a shimmering mural wallcovering designed by Minneapolis artist Patrick Pryor—completed the refresh.
In contrast to the original construction process, plenty of thought was put into the house’s finishing touches this time around. Keeping with the “decorative, yet functional” theme, stylish but stain-resistant fabrics were chosen with the couple’s young son in mind. A spherical pillow adorning the living room daybed often doubles as a soccer ball for him as well, and decorative chests house Thomas’ collections of Legos. In addition to these playful considerations, Tharaldson and Hughes also infused the decor with hints of art nouveau design inspiration to match their clients’ love of the unexpected combined with their desire to honor tradition.
“Art nouveau was a transitional period out of the Victorian era, a little exotic with more color and curves,” explains Tharaldson. This whimsical design style is reflected beautifully in the rhythm of the swirling kitchen mosaic, the circular table and hand-knotted rug in the formal sitting room, and the beautiful botanical wallpaper situated above the 7-foot-tall wainscoting in the dining room. “These fun elements were a great way to transition the house to freshen up the space and keep it youthful without messing with the integrity of the traditional architecture,” she continues. “After all, we want the space to stand the test of time and still look like it belongs in five, 10, 20 years.”