Geometric Patterns, clean lines, a Lego wall and pops of color: Inside one Ann Arbor home where decade-spanning styles blend seamlessly
BY JENNIFER LOVY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRETT MOUNTAIN
Here’s a design dilemma: How do you decorate a home that stays true to the mid-century era while adding a modern twist? It may sound tricky, but Elin Walters and Christian Ward pulled it off.
The couple, who live in an unconventional tri-level residence tucked away in a modest Ann Arbor neighborhood, achieved this goal through clean lines, pops of color, repeating geometric patterns, and large windows. They also incorporate mid-century elements like cork flooring, laminate kitchen countertops, and furniture crafted in the 1950s.
“I’m drawn to the combination [of styles] because the two blend seamlessly,” says Walters, who knows a thing or two about design — she’s the owner and principal designer of Exactly Designs in Ann Arbor. “Mid-century modern design was so forward-thinking in its time, almost as if what was designed in 1950 looks like it was developed in 2022. I love the simplicity of the aesthetic while not compromising interest.”
Decade-spanning styles coexist beautifully inside the pair’s 1,950-square-foot home — but nailing the look took years. When Walters and Ward purchased the home in 2009, they started a journal of all the improvements they hoped to create. Building an addition, renovating the front porch, installing new gutters, and refinishing the wood floors were first on the to-do list (which took seven years to complete).
The top priority: redesigning the staircase, which Ward, a real estate agent, found clunky. The new-and-improved floating steps, with a steel mono stringer, oak treads, and a glass railing, represent the couple’s biggest splurge, with a price tag of around $8,000. “I felt that a lighter, floating effect would dramatically improve the space,” Ward says.
Aside from the staircase, Ward wanted to enlarge the front windows in the living room, taking them down to the floor to let more light in and create the feeling of “bringing the outside in,” he says. “We were amazed by what a dramatic effect that simple change made. It was one of the best decisions in our house renovation.”
Another eye-catching feature is a half-wall — covered in Legos — that divides the front entryway from the dining nook and the rest of the kitchen. It took the couple and two of their kids, now in their late teens, a few years to collect all the blocks and construct the wall. (The inspiration came from a magazine photo of a Lego-covered kitchen island that Walters stumbled across years before they bought the house and filed away for future use.) “Whenever someone felt moved to add a few more rows, the wall began to grow,” Walters says. “It’s fun to think of the slow progression and the many hands that worked to create it.”
The wall’s geometric, colorful, clean look is a good metaphor for Walters’ design style: classic with a touch of flair. “[Mid-century designers] were always looking for new materials and applications and interesting things,” says Walters, who lists Vladimir Kagan, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, and Eero Saarinen as some of her favorite designers from that era.
The couple’s furniture (which includes a glass coffee table by Kagan) combines vintage pieces, new reproductions of classic mid-century works, and IKEA pieces. And Walters isn’t afraid to incorporate items from unsuspecting places: Once, a few blocks from their house, she discovered a round ottoman a neighbor had discarded on garbage day. Based on the tapered legs, Walters recognized that it was from the mid-century period and felt she could revitalize it with new foam and fabric. The ottoman now sits in their living room.
The child of antique dealers, Walters, who’s turning 50 this year, didn’t embrace her flair for interior decorating until she was in her early 40s. (She started her company in 2016.) “I never entertained doing anything creative with my life,” she says, adding that she didn’t think she could live up to her parents’ talent for design. (She has degrees in psychology and education.) “Then I started honing in on it, fixing up this house and really enjoying it.”
The house features several nods to Walters’ family. In her lower-level home office, a colorful 1950s painting by her grandmother adorns one wall. There’s also a vintage-inspired wood desk that she designed and her 91-year-old stepfather built during the pandemic. “My stepdad is always looking to make something that will be used and loved,” she says. “[He said], ‘Why don’t you design something you love, and I will make it happen.’”
But of all the labors of love that went into the home, building a 670-square foot addition was by far the most significant. The construction allowed the pair to create a main bedroom and second living room in the back of the house. The space, which sits on a heated concrete pad, is built around a vintage orange Majestic Malm fireplace and divided by a partial concrete wall that floats in the room’s center. (There are bursts of orange, Walters’ favorite color, throughout the house.) “In the winter especially, it’s a cozy place to be with the heated floor and the crackling fire,” Walters says.
She likens the space, her favorite in the house, to a “retreat” — but in reality, that’s how the entire home feels. “This was a fun project for both of us for many years,” Ward says of the renovations that made the couple’s house truly their own. “We are so happy with how comfortable it feels.”
Read about more beautiful Metro Detroit homes here.