Chicago designer Wendy Labrum spends a lot of time figuring out where to hide the Legos. (And the Magna-Tiles, and the Thinking Putty, and the PlayMobil…) Not only is she raising four kids of her own, but she also tends to attract the same demographic among her clients.
“We’ve become quite adept at designing smart for families,” Labrum says. “Toy storage is key, as are durable fabrics kids can touch with grimy hands that will clean up easily. If people spend a lot of money on design, they like it to feel lovely and sophisticated—not like they live inside a preschool.”
Her latest project, an 1889 red brick row house in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, exemplifies the designer’s take on child-friendly elegance. Even the formal living room welcomes the littlest family members, with playthings cleverly concealed inside a custom cabinet and a television tucked behind a two-way mirror. (The space can shift from kid zone to cocktail hour in a matter of minutes.)
“Space is so precious in the city. We wanted to really use every room in the house,” one owner says. (She and her husband are young professionals and have a set of four-year-old twins.) “No matter how crazy the house gets during the day, each night, we put everything back in its place and return to that sense of clean and calm.”
The couple purchased the home for its beautiful backyard, not so much the interior, which had been stripped of its original details through a series of contemporary renovations. Labrum set about isolating which changes to keep while restoring a bit of authentic Victorian character.
“All of the old mantles were gone,” Labrum says. “The fireplaces were oddly made out of drywall. But there was a very cool custom glass banister that spans all four floors—an architectural focal point. And we liked the modern kitchen cabinetry. The goal was to take some of those cool, contemporary elements and marry them with period details more appropriate to the house.”
Labrum sourced vintage and custom marble mantles—including one for an extra fireplace a previous owner had sealed shut. “In this little kitchen sitting room area, the molding followed a bump out on the wall, but the wall itself was blank,” Labrum says. “Looking at it, I realized there must have been a fireplace there at some point.”
She asked the contractors to keep digging until they found it, and then they retrofitted the chimney with gas. “It’s one of my favorite cozy spots in the house,” the owner says. “In the winter, we use it every single day.”
To tie in the very old with the very new, Labrum wove in pieces that nod to some of the eras in between, designing a custom scalloped headboard for the primary bedroom. It’s paired with a matching credenza. Many of the big decisions the clients left up to Labrum. “With our last home, I was really involved in the process,” the owner says. “This time around, I had just gone back to work with twin toddlers at home. I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands.”
One facet that did require some coaxing? Labrum lobbied hard for the rich color palette. “I don’t typically design with a lot of bright, bold colors, but I felt like this house just needed it,” Labrum says. “The clients were so wonderful and trusting. They let us push them out of their comfort zones.”
“I give Wendy so much credit for that,” the owner says. “I naturally gravitate toward neutrals, but my office is red. We have a red powder room. Our living room has some greens and orange…. It’s not what I would have originally chosen, but I think it served to warm up the whole house, and I’m so glad we did it.”
Now the busy family adores the jewel-toned refuge. “We travel a lot,” the owner says. “But we love coming home.”