A subtle makeover infuses this Medina home with organic beauty
Styled by Lynn Ostrowski
After 16 years, Phil and Louise Engel saw their 1987 Medina home as something like a favorite pair of shoes: well-used but still comfortable, even beloved in its familiarity. But once two of their three daughters left home, the couple began to see things in a different light. It was like noticing the creases, scuffs, and worn-down soles in those shoes. The heart of the home—the kitchen—had a muddled work pattern, a small island, and a walk-in pantry with so many angles it was virtually unusable for storage. And what good was a spacious, supposedly luxurious owners’ bathroom if it felt cold and dark? Then there was the décor, which could be described at best as an unintentional mix of southwestern and Colonial. ¶ The Engels knew an update was in order. What they got from architect Rick Lundin, principal at Lundin Architects in Minneapolis, was a total transformation without any major demolitions or additions. While most people remodel to fix what they don’t like, Lundin took a contrarian approach with the Engels. “My first question was, ‘What’s beautiful and functional? What do you love about your home?’” he says. ¶ Phil and Louise, being glass-half-full type of people, had a list: the sense of openness in the living room and owners’ bedroom, the clean lines, the southern exposure, and sunlight. They also really liked the idea of doing more with less.
At 3,000 square feet, we felt our house was big enough,” says Phil. “We wanted it to feel like a home, not a mansion.” He’s an endodontist, and speaks with the kind of reassuring calm that you’d want from someone who specializes in root canals. Louise, youthful and vivacious, is a former dental hygienist (not surprisingly, they met while they were both attending the University of Minnesota’s dental school). She adds, “We wanted the home to reflect what is outside,” nodding toward the woods, wetlands, and pond just beyond the small backyard. “We didn’t want French Provincial on the prairie.”
Lundin saw a home that didn’t just need an update; it needed to reflect its owners, who, he says, “had more diverse interests in architecture and style than the house expressed.” As soon-to-be empty nesters, the pair also needed the house to work in multiple ways: for them alone, for visits from their daughters, and for larger gatherings (Louise, one of nine siblings, cooks for as many as 50 family members during the holidays).
The design that Lundin developed with interior designer Vicki Nolan, principal at Vicki Nolan Design in Minneapolis, involved a couple of big changes and, just as important, a slew of minor—even subtle—modifications. One major goal was to consolidate and open up the main-floor living spaces, chiefly by removing the wall between the dining room and the kitchen. The subtlety came in defining the spaces—living, dining, entry—with light oak trim on the walls and ceiling and strips of light oak laid into the dark-stained wood floor. A single post was added to mark the fourth “corner” of the entry area near the front door. “Our eyes and brains read these cues,” says Lundin. “They create the suggestion of separation.”
He used rift-cut oak trim to complement the existing quarter-sawn oak: “It looks more contemporary, so it pushed what was here to look more contemporary, too,” he says. He also replaced the beveled ranch-style window casings with flat, slightly wider trim to “pop the windows out, give them distinction.” He also substituted wood squares for the Colonial-style cannon balls atop the stairway posts. The cumulative effect of all these seemingly minor touches modernized the spaces in both appearance and function.
The cavernous living room presented its own challenges. Its two-story, steeply angled wood ceiling was an attempt at drama, but it lacked character—a lesson in the liability of open, undefined space. Lundin and Nolan reduced the scale by adding a simple, powder-coated bronze chandelier and breaking up the expanse of the ceiling with vertical battens in rift-cut cedar. Another simple trick: a thick wood beam replaced a slim stone mantel, and made what was once a featureless fireplace a focal point. The Engels initially hesitated to add more wood to a home already filled to the brim with oak, but now they see Lundin’s big picture. “The wood details give everything enough context, as well as something special,” says Lundin.
Meanwhile, Nolan’s bold move was to apply radiant orange Venetian plaster to the living room’s other expansive white wall. The risk paid off: Its warm glow enhances the light with a kind of depth you won’t find in a flat, painted surface. The vision for the interiors drew on the Asian style and influences in some of the Engels’ favorite furniture, including a pair of California mid-century chairs handed down from Phil’s parents who owned department stores on the West Coast and redecorated frequently. The clean lines of the furnishings, combined with the unadorned wood and the Engels’ desire to bring outdoor colors and textures inside, resulted in a mélange that the designers and the Engels came to call, “Prairie Zen Fusion.”
Photo by Maki Strunc Photography
The kitchen, originally designed by someone who “probably didn’t cook,” says Louise, required a more complete reworking. She requested more counter space for herself and the friends and daughters who cook with her. Lundin’s design grouped the appliances along one side, which allowed for more and larger windows on the south wall to capitalize on the scenic views. It also solved a perennial party problem: the jam-packed kitchen. Overhead, a tongue-and-groove ceiling with an organic design adds an aesthetic softness.
Lundin continued opening up the main level by removing the doors to the seldom-used sunroom. He also reconfigured the rest of the living space, reducing a needlessly large bathroom to powder-room size and adding an entertainment bar next to the dining area. A room addition off the garage holds conveniences now considered de rigueur: mudroom, laundry, storage space, and a sewing table.
Upstairs, he worked similar, subtle magic on the owners’ suite, another oversized room with little sense of scale or comfort. He added soffits that draw the eye down from the vaulted ceiling and straightened dysfunctionally angled walls in the entry, opening up closet space and allowing for custom display cabinets. “The house can be a work of art, but it still has to have a place for the picture of the family at Disney World,” says Lundin. Nolan added a chaise lounge in the bay window for a reading area; a TV area is defined with custom cabinetry and two petite but comfortable armchairs. She set off the bed by inlaying within the wall-to-wall carpet a large square with a different texture in the same color.
The bathroom, with yet another angled wood ceiling, once felt oppressive. New maple cabinets, along with matte floor and wall tiles, now bring in light and warmth, and a gorgeous slab of marble covering one entire wall of the shower replaced an unused air-jet tub as the focal point, its veining echoing the tree branches outside the large window.
What Lundin loves about this remodeling project was that “every little nook and cranny was considered.” He wasn’t driven by speed. “I could run my hand over everything, and let the ideas and opportunities come out,” he says. Today, even three years later, the Engels keep discovering new things to appreciate.
Julie Caniglia is the editor of Walker magazine in Minneapolis.
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