As an interior designer, Darby Schroder looks forward to tackling just about any home improvement project. But when she and Geordie, her husband, finished renovations on their Belmont Road home a couple of years ago, she thought they’d created the house of their dreams. “It had everything we needed for a family of four,” she recalls. “I really thought we were done with major renovations. Then I found out I was pregnant with our third baby, and I knew we’d have to move again.”
Just a few months later, after purchasing an English Tudor home on Lake Katherine that she’d admired since she was a child, Darby was back in renovation mode. Only this time, she was almost seven months pregnant. With just a two-month deadline, she quickly got to work. By the time they moved in July, the house had been renovated and, for the most part, redecorated. Less than three weeks later, baby Bud joined the family.
The transformation is stunning. “The house was gorgeous, but it was dark,” explains Darby. “All we really needed to do was open things up and lighten the colors. The bones of the house were incredible. It already had so much personality!”
In this case, that meant that the home’s cased openings — doorways surrounded by woodwork — were all raised a foot or so to allow for more openness, height and light. The couple also chose to tear down walls between the kitchen and the den and to add doorways to the living room, dining room and kitchen. Throughout the ground floor, pale colors on the walls — pearl grey here, oyster white there — create an air of calm while unifying the newly-opened rooms. Not everything was changed. In the hallway, the original grass cloth wallpaper still covers the walls. It’s impossible to tell that just a year ago, it was metallic black instead of bone white.
“I chose soft colors because they act as a breath of fresh air, and you tend to not get sick of them,” Darby says. In contrast to the walls, dark floors anchor each room. In between, unexpected plays of texture, tone and style create interest. In the foyer, for example, wallpaper printed with a tone on tone trellis pattern in a putty color is a striking backdrop for the oversized multilayered mirror that hangs over an antique desk set with silver pieces. A light fixture resembling a flower bathes the room in a pretty glow without adding any more shine to the scene.
In the dining room, the problem wasn’t light but a chair rail that had been hung lower than the couple liked. But instead of removing it, Darby added wainscoting to the walls and heavy crown moulding and painted everything a medium soft grey.
“All the new woodwork created texture on the walls,” explains Darby. “Now, the chair rail is just part of the overall pattern.” She also tweaked tradition with her collection of silver trays: instead of displaying them in a traditional cupboard, Darby hung them on the wall and used them as artwork. Light comes from a rustic chandelier made of iron and wood rather than crystal. “One of the hardest things was mixing our casual lifestyle with the formality that this style of house demands,” Darby notes. “I thought that a traditional chandelier would make the room too fussy.”
Darby also used scale to convey comfort. In the formal living room, she replaced traditional wing chairs with an oversized pair. To make them even more casual, they’re slip-covered instead of upholstered. “They’re big, with soft lines, but still structured,” explains Darby. “That’s why they work. Scale is important. We ended up selling most of the furniture in our last house because even though the style could have worked here, the scale was all wrong. These bigger formal rooms would have swallowed those pieces up. In the den, we had the opposite problem and had to scale down.”
The biggest changes took place in the kitchen and den. When the wall came down between the two rooms, the family was left with a long, relatively narrow kitchen that merges directly into the den. Done in shades of taupe, cream and grey, the den is comfortable yet interesting thanks to subtly-patterned rugs, drapes and throw pillows. As in the dining room, Darby painted the walls, woodwork, built-in shelves, mantle, French doors and ceiling beams a dove grey. Above wainscoting on one wall, cream stuccoed panels serve as a backdrop for a collection of paintings. The colors also visually tie the room to the kitchen, which has woodwork painted in the same creamy shade with walls and cupboards in grey.
“For this narrow space, it had to be simple or else it would look choppy,” says Darby. The kitchen is also home to two of her favorite finds and inspirations for the space. The first is a seafoam green apron-front farmhouse sink, which adds a pop of color to the neutral room. The second is the geometric tile backsplash that runs the length of the cabinets and the area behind the stove. Called Moroccan quatrefoil, it’s an ornate shape that, when installed with matching grout, becomes a near-neutral pattern that’s quietly exotic. Coincidently, this same shape was part of the original ironwork throughout the home and yard.
Just past the kitchen, a playroom sits beyond an open doorway in a space that was formerly a sunroom. “Three little children means lots of stuff,” says Darby. “We needed a room to contain it, but we didn’t want it on the other side of the house. The sunroom was beautiful, but we gave it up to give the kids a place to play that’s close to the hub of the house.”
And how did she do it all in just two months? Although Darby has had a lot of practice transforming homes over the years, both for herself and her clients, she still takes the time to develop a formal plan first. “We had two months to pull this one off, so I knew I had to be completely organized,” she says. For Darby, the first step is always the same: creating a budget. “It’s not fun, but you’ve got to figure that part out,” she says. “It drives the whole process and helps to make decisions because you know what you are working with.”
The next step was figuring out and prioritizing what areas were most important to this phase of renovation. “This is where you think about how you live in this stage of life, and how the house can support that lifestyle and be most functional,” says Darby. “Natural light and opening up the choppy spaces were most important to us, so that’s the direction we took the house.”
Once the steps were taken to create better overall flow, Darby moved to the next step: creating the home’s style file, a large notebook that contains every bit of information she could gather and record about each room in the house. “This is the legwork that helps things stay on schedule,” she explains. “Take the time to measure every room including windows, alcoves, space between windows, counter and ceiling heights, outlet placement, lighting dimensions — anything you might need to make a decision when you’re not at the house. As you make decisions about fabrics and colors, add them to the notebook.”
With only two months to finish the job, Darby set strict deadlines for herself — and stuck to them. “It’s so easy to second guess yourself,” she explains. “If you set a deadline, it will force you to stick with your decisions so you can move forward to the next step. Picking and unpicking wastes time and tends to cost money. Don’t be wishy washy!”
Darby also suggests bringing a professional designer into the process. “Taking on a project like this is a full-time job,” she says. “A designer will vet colors and fabrics, which speeds up that process for you. Instead of looking at a dozen paint chips, they can narrow it down to two or three because they know how every shade reacts to light. They can also steer you to fabrics that will survive your children and animals as well as aesthetically pull the space together.”
Most important, though, is to fill the house with special, loved objects. “Whether it’s a piece of art, a rug or a light fixture, if you love it, use it to guide you,” she says. One of Darby’s inspirations was her funky kitchen sink. “It’s not like anything else in the house, but I saw it and knew I would adore it every time I looked at it,” she recalls. “And you know what? I do.”