Empty Nesters Opt for New Condo and New Style

Don and JoAnne Heltner were ready for a change in 2012, but neither anticipated just how big those changes would be.

Recently retired, the couple decided to move from central Illinois back to Minnesota—where they had grown up, met, and married—to be closer to family. They sold their traditional four-bedroom home in central Illinois and bought a 1,800-square-foot condo at Loring Green in downtown Minneapolis. “We felt like we didn’t want to move into a suburb because people there would already be established, and it would be harder to break in socially,” JoAnne says. “Plus, downtown is dynamic, with all the restaurants and entertainment options.”

Saarinen, table, Hans Wegner, chairs, George Nelson, saucer
The marble-topped Saarinen tulip table, Hans Wegner wishbone chairs, custom blue-lacquer bar cabinet, and George Nelson saucer pendant show off Don and JoAnne Heltner’s new mod style. (Spacecrafting)

Along with their new location and urban lifestyle, the Heltners chose a completely new aesthetic. “We had had a very traditional look, and some of our furniture was 30- to 40-years old,” JoAnne says. “We decided it was time to update.” Don proposed they go even further and replace all their furniture. “Why not just start fresh?” he says.

The couple decided to go for it, hiring Lucy Penfield and Stephanie Lalley of Lucy Interior Design in Minneapolis to assist in their new beginning. When the designers investigated the Heltners’ new home, they found solid structural bones in the condo. A previous owner had removed some of the walls, leaving a large living space flanked by a galley kitchen and a bedroom-bathroom wing. A wall of sliding glass doors opened onto an east-facing balcony in the master bedroom, allowing morning light to penetrate the space. The clean layout seemed to call for a simple and clean design. Plus, there were other reasons not to get too fancy: The Heltners’ young grandchildren visited often, so the design choices had to be durable and kid-friendly.

acacia table, minneapolis, condo
Drama in the dining room comes from the 8-foot, live-edge acacia table, patterned chairs, and the view outside floor-to-ceiling windows. (Spacecrafting)

To help the Heltners distill their needs and design preferences, Penfield and Lalley began a process of investigation that presented the couple with a range of possible paths. When JoAnne referenced a poster of a Jasper Johns painting that she’d bought years ago, the color palette emerged: cobalt blue, sunshine yellow, brilliant reds. The couple also responded enthusiastically to Danish modern furnishings, gradually choosing furnishings and accessories that might surprise some of their old friends. “I felt like Lucy and Stephanie were very good at understanding how we make decisions in the process,” Don says. “We like to look at options. We like to have time to think about things.” Adds Penfield, “It doesn’t look all that radical, but for them it was a giant leap.”

nicollet mall, chair, minneapolis, condo
This corner is reserved for a comfy chair with a view of Nicollet Mall. (Spacecrafting)

The entryway’s walnut bench and funky red-and-yellow rug signal the fun ahead to visitors. Step around the corner, and the main living area comes into view: Two off-white sofas and a pair of low-backed blue chairs surround a 6-by-4-foot custom-made coffee/cocktail table. Crafted of white oak, the table is both a conversation starter (“That’s gorgeous!”) and a sturdy workhorse (it’s large enough to accommodate a mini Calder sculpture, kids’ games, and a tray of adult beverages and snacks all at once). A wall-mounted flat-screen TV and a custom-built media center (made of walnut to contrast with the white oak) complete the fourth side of the central square. A pair of blue Tiki-style hand-glazed porcelain lamps and two brass reading lamps illuminate the space.

oak, coffee table, condo, minneapolis
A custom white-oak coffee table is the centerpiece of the crisp, bright living room. (Spacecrafting)

A handful of custom-built pieces were used throughout the project, Penfield notes. In the kitchen, a custom-made bar cabinet finished in a thick aquamarine lacquer stands alongside a marble-topped Saarinen tulip table. In the dining room, an 8-foot-long slab of acacia wood used as a table bears a live edge studded with bits of original tree bark. “A custom builder wasn’t in the budget,” Penfield says, “but as we went along, Don and JoAnne came to appreciate how much character a custom-built piece could add to the environment.”

The designers found ways to incorporate both high- and lower-end furnishings and accessories. Two circa-1960s stools, well-priced finds, were reupholstered with punchy red-and-white fabric that gives them new energy.

walnut, console, condo, minneapolis
A spare walnut console gets a punch from vintage stools reupholstered in red and white. (Spacecrafting)

JoAnne says friends and family are impressed by the warmth and coziness of the design. And the decision to use materials like faux leather, wood, metal, and Lucite means the furnishings also hold up well when the Heltners’ grandchildren put it to the test.

For Penfield, it was satisfying not only to see the end results, but also to watch her clients’ taste be articulated and transformed. “As they got into it, the process, the feeling, and the palette evolved,” Penfield says. “The project became something other than what it was originally intended to be. It unfolded like a painting—and that was exciting.”

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