MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE my Netflix has been co-opted by a Beauty and the Beast-obsessed 3-year-old, but to me, there’s a smidge of Beast’s-castle magic on display in Izabella and Brandon Simmons’ place.
And here’s why: When you walk in, you see it for what it is—an open, minimalist, Scandinavian-inspired haven that’s full of light and white and gorgeous furniture. But if you linger a while, and especially if you get the nickel tour from the couple themselves, the objects filling the rooms will start to emerge from the fray. They’ll start to take on a life of their own, because they’re not just objects. Not to Izabella and Brandon.
Let’s start with That Mirror—that gilded, French-salon-worthy antique beauty on the wall in the dining room? “That was bequeathed to us by a wealthy couple whom we don’t know,” Brandon will tell you, “because they just threw it out. Once a year, in the Kenilworth neighborhood of Chicago’s North Shore, the upper echelon get rid of their stuff after their basements flood, and that’s where we found this.”
“See that part at the bottom? It was rotten, completely,” Izabella will pipe up. “Brandon’s mom helped me glue it back together and regild it.”
There are plenty of other stories, too—the Royal Copenhagen china sourced at loppis (the equivalent of garage sales in Izabella’s native Sweden), the table they uncovered while scouring the attic of a Chicago-area Masonic lodge, the settee stripped raw and reupholstered in 200-year-old Danish fabric, the prayer rug bought at a Brooklyn auction. While you or I might have a few special treasures speckled around our places, almost every single thing in the Simmons house has been searched out and hand-selected, pondered and carefully considered. (There’s a relatively short list of off-the-shelf pieces, like the Hans Wegner fishbone chairs and a handful of items from Ikea.) It’s all here because it meanssomething to the couple. Because it’s had a life.
“I’m always drawn to the Scandinavian feel, but at the same time, I feel it’s very cold—it’s very new,” Izabella says. “I’m not into that. I wouldn’t go and order $20,000 of furniture from Design Within Reach. We’re the kind of people who prefer to redo something ourselves.”
That might be a pair of antique milk-glass pendants or a Craigslist four-poster bed. Or it might be a vacant, rodent-infested, 1940s-era house on Country Club Boulevard in the Heights, as was the case in the summer of 2012.
ON EITHER SIDE of the Simmons’ third floor, which is divided into Brandon’s office and a playroom for their kiddos, there are floor-to-ceiling windows built into the pitch of what was once an attic. From these windows, it’s possible to look out over the neighboring homes, and here’s what you see: a whole lot of new.
I ask if they’ve seen any houses on their street demolished and then rebuilt, which is a common practice in the Heights.
“Oh, gosh, yes,” Brandon says looking out over a sprawling red-brick home next door. “There were two houses there. And the house directly behind us was torn down, too.” Five years ago, that’s likely what would’ve happened to this house, had Izabella and Brandon’s names not ended up on the deed.
They were house-hunting in Chicago at the time, and had realized it was time to pull the plug on finding a house they could afford in the mainline of Chicago. Little Rock, where they had family, seemed a logical place to land. They had careers that allowed them to work from anywhere—Brandon’s a wind-energy exec, and Izabella’s a contributing editor for interior-design site Remodelista—and they had a 4-year-old and a newborn. While home in Arkansas for a holiday, they fell for the Heights. It wasn’t long before Izabella had her eye on a place: a 1940s two-story that was still quite stuck in the 1940s. But it had bones, she could tell. She could see what others, like their realtor, couldn’t.
“She insisted that we not buy it,” Izabella says, handing me a ceramic mug of coffee. It’s a winter morning in their marble-and-white kitchen, and the orchids on the windowsill are throwing shadows on the silestone counters. “She was like, You’re biting off more than you can chew. You need to walk away. Bad idea. It had been on the market for a long time. I mean, there were rodents living here. It was really bad. Most people who had looked at it were contractors that were going to tear it down.”
A few months later, she and Brandon tell me, the family arrived in Little Rock with a U-Haul and some big-picture ideas: They wanted it light and bright. They’d move some walls, reconfigure the space to make it more open and family-friendly. They’d paint and refinish the floors and enlarge the kitchen. They’d turn what was the formal dining room into a garage, and they’d make up for losing that square footage by finishing out the third-floor attic. They were ready for a remodel, but what they got was a full-on renovation. “Do you want to see the before pictures?” Brandon asks.
I do. And looking over his shoulder as he pulls them up on his laptop, I’m shocked. The original home was boxy and choppy, with labyrinthine rooms you had to maze your way through. The light from the back of the house had no chance of reaching the front, and the windows were small, the mouldings heavy. It’s unrecognizable as the place I’m standing in today.
“Our contingency fund was depleted probably three times,” Brandon says. “We weren’t anticipating some of the scope. We didn’t realize we were going to have to rewire the entire house. All the insulation, HVAC, moving of walls, sewer, plumbing, everything was replaced.” He stops on a photo of the kitchen. “Ugh, I can feel my blood pressure rising just looking at these!”
They were “green,” as they say, and they weren’t working with an architect or a designer, something they caution me against, should I ever care to renovate. But they knew what they wanted, and they knew the devil was in the details.
“Oh, the floors. We bleached them three times,” Izabella says, looking down at her feet. “They were red oak, and I wanted them to be lighter. We played with all these stains—it was horrible.” Other things were done on the fly. “We changed the kitchen layout at the last minute,” Brandon says. “I fell in love with this stove, and I came home with it, and I was like, OK, now we’re putting a gas line here.” But whether it was a last-minute call or a laborious trial-and-error effort, it was all done in the name of getting it right—of surrounding themselves and their family in a place and in objects that spoke to them. That told their story.
And walking through the house that, five years later, Izabella can finally call “finished,” it’s easy to get a sense of that story. In the library, which was Brandon’s only must-have, his collection of antique fly-fishing books fills the floor-to-ceiling shelves. In the master, linen curtains sewn by Izabella’s mom hang from copper-pipe fittings the couple fashioned into rods. In Elise’s room, a mobile made by artist and antiques-maven John Bell, whom the couple count as a dear friend, hangs above a 19th-century Swedish daybed. Upstairs, German Playmobil toys share space with a Knoll butterfly chair. Every inch of their home is known, elevated. And though there’s no semblance of that 1940s two-story, the soul of the place remains.
“It’s roughly $10,000 to have a big machine come and make a house completely disappear,” Brandon says. “That’s staggering. We spent multiples of that trying to redo things to make it work in the old environment. The original owners have come back multiple times—multiple branches of the family tree—to thank us for not tearing it down.”
“I never thought about tearing it down,” Izabella adds. “We are searchers. Our generation in Sweden now, they buy everything new.”
“Here, too,” Brandon says. “A lot of times, people will go in and gut a place and everything’s brand new as if they were going to Pottery Barn. And we’re at their garage sales going, Oh look at all these things we found! Rusty old metal bins—this is great!”