When you were growing up — whether in the city or the country, apartment or house — you probably wished for something different someday, didn’t you? Brenda Skeel can relate. After spending her childhood in newer, single-story homes, the style she dreamed of and finally scored as an adult for her own family was the complete opposite: a quirky, sometimes drafty, always happy home built sometime in the early 1900s. Of course, she sometimes still craves modern. But the challenges and resultant gifts from her charming old home are abundant enough to remind her that home is where her heart is. And it lives here. Friends, welcome to Brenda’s home tour. Please enjoy it!
Q: Please tell us all about the family who makes this house a home!
A: Our house is shared by me and my husband Reid, our children Max (age 11) and Madde (nine in 14 days as of this writing — not that we’re counting!), and our two dogs: a St. Bernard named Rocket, and our rescue project/terrier mix Mrs. G. My husband and I met walking our dogs in college, so pets play a big part in our family life and also add to the joy and chaos in the house.
Our lives seem to revolve around play. Max loves sports and will play anything where he can hit something with a stick and watch it fly, and Madde plays the piano and drums. We also keep board games and cards in the dining room for easy access. Needless to say, the house is rarely quiet when we are all home!
Q: Where does your home live, and how did it come to be yours?
A: Our home was built in the 1920s or 30s, and is right in the middle of downtown urban Shepherd, Michigan, population 1500. My husband and I appreciate the character of old houses, and this is the only house we have ever owned. Honestly, growing up my family lived in single-story newer houses and I always wanted a quirky old house with stairs!
The house just feels good; it has big drafty windows and big rooms, but is somehow still cozy. I also think old houses take color well, and I love color! The house is on the same block as all of the public schools so there is a flurry of activity each day, and a small town is a great place to raise a family!
Q: Do you feel obligated to stay true to the age of the home and its decor? If so, does that limit your choices or give you more freedom?
A: This is the thing I have found to be the most difficult about making design decisions. I am an architect, so I totally appreciate modern design and covet the houses I see in places like Dwell Magazine. However, the house, neighborhood, and the rest of my family like things that are a little more traditional. At the same time, while I don’t want to live in a museum, I have always appreciated antiques and things with character, history, and a good story!
I decided to mix eras with the thinking that all styles from the past 80 years were in the house at some point, so any era is fair game. Because we are so close to the school, I decided to use the idea of school and antique Dick and Jane books to serve as design and color inspiration. I also use antique toys that belonged to my husband and I (sigh…our toys are now antiques!) along with the kids’ former and current toys as accessories. The school idea allows me to mix in some modern, more industrial-style things with antique furniture and toys.
Q: What is your favorite room in the house? What makes it so special?
A: I love all of the living spaces for different reasons, but honestly my favorite room in terms of design and function is our tiny first floor bathroom. We don’t have a laundry room or separate sink, and I always hated washing dog dishes, paint brushes, and other messes that come with kids in our big kitchen sink. When we renovated the bathroom, we decided to put in a retro service sink originally designed in the same era the house was built. The bathroom is inspired by a retro school janitor’s closet, and everyone who comes over loves the big fat sink!
I also really love our entryway. Again, not a place to hang out, but it functions really well! We added built-in lockers at the base of the stairs, and as long as stuff fits in your locker, I don’t care how full or messy it is inside. It makes clean up so much easier, and I’m proud of the fact that they fit the house so well that most people think they are original.
Q: What is your approach to living with kids? Is there a designated area where they have free reign to make messes and exhibit their creativity?
A: I think it is really important that the kids feel like it is their home just as much as ours. The house wasn’t built with a separate family room or finished basement for the kids. Consequently, our living room has been all different types of things as the kids have grown, from a football stadium to an art store to a dance floor. Currently, they have been practicing “Minute to Win It” games, like cup stacking, so everything happens in the living room! This fact tends to reign in many of my design impulses because everything in the house gets used by everyone, so furniture either needs to be high quality and really durable, or inexpensive and replaceable.
Q: As they grow older, do you see them paying more interest to the design and decor in their surroundings?
A: We just redecorated Max’s room this past summer to make it more fitting for a middle schooler. He really wasn’t interested in helping with decisions, and is the easiest client I have ever had! I ran my ideas by him and he would just shrug and say “okay.” We ended up doing the room in gray and brown with white sports stripes on the walls, and accents of orange and red. He was truly happy, appreciative, and so excited when the room was done; again, best client ever!
My daughter would re-do her room every month if we could! Her style changes monthly as well; her cute little girl room has been overrun with her drum set and her desire for zebra and animal prints, so it is due for a more fitting update. Her tastes are definitely more Barbie Dream House than my own, and she is convinced our house doesn’t have enough sparkles! I do remember feeling the same way at her age, and actually agree that would be a pretty fun way to live!
Q: How does your home work best? What do you like others to feel when they spend time in it? How about your family, too?
A: We have been in the process of renovating for the past five years, but with each big project, the house feels better and better! We started with the lower level so it would be nicer to have guests over, but we really mainly just have the kids’ friends over. We are so busy during the week and see most of our friends at the various activities we attend, so when we are home, it is nice to just have a place to relax.
The house is decorated informally with things that are unique and reflect our taste and the taste of our extended family. Reid’s mom gives us needlepoint pillows every year, and we have framed childhood artwork that was special enough to be saved by our moms. We don’t purchase accessories or artwork; everything in the house is homemade or something that has special meaning to us, and most of it can still be played with!
Q: What do you hope your kids remember most about their childhood home? What are you trying to teach them with the design and decor you’ve chosen?
A: I hope they remember having fun here, learning a lot, and that this was a safe place where their interests were always supported. Old houses aren’t designed for kids the way many modern houses are, but it is good for the kids to learn how to take care of the house as they play. Asking Max not to play with a ball in the house is like asking him not to breathe, so I have had to allow that to happen more than I would prefer, but he also is also learning to be more careful than he might like to be! Madde has always had a strangely powerful attraction to Sharpie permanent markers over any other washable markers, so we have had our share of Sharpie incidents as well. We all work together to keep the house clean and maintained, and the kids have seen the house change as we have renovated so I hope they will learn to value their own homes and create special and unique places when they have their own children.
Q: What is your favorite part about living with your own kids?
A: It’s incredibly fascinating to see how their interests change over time. As a designer, I love finding a good solution to a challenge, and each stage of development brings new things to figure out. We are getting ready for our first large slumber party in a couple of weeks, and we are learning to communicate with a middle school age boy as well. So it’s never dull around here, and that’s really the best part of having a family-oriented home, and what keeps me from getting too sad about them growing. I feel like I’m always looking forward to what’s next!
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish I had known…
A: …that the house will never be finished. I have learned that owning a house with kids involves a process of making continual improvements. I’ve also learned to be more confident in my own choices. I love everyone else’s houses, and always think “Wow! That’s so cool! I wish my house looked like that!” Especially when I see really modern houses!
But for me, the answer to that has been to look for design ideas that are unique to our family and our lifestyle. If I was the only one living in the house, it would look very different and I would probably recreate more of the things I like that other people do. The process of creating a home that suits four very different people with different tastes, hobbies, and functional needs has meant looking for answers that are unique and personal, and will continue to evolve. So there will always be something new to design, and always something to look forward to!
Thank you so much, Brenda! I loved your words, especially these: “If I was the only one living in the house, it would look very different.” It’s a challenge, albeit a wholly rewarding one, to decorate a house that makes everyone in the family feel at home. It’s an even bigger challenge to swallow your own design desires and create a space where your entire family recognizes parts of themselves and their own style wherever they look. Nice job, Brenda.
Friends, I’m curious. How would your home look different if you were on your own with no other tastes or opinions to consider? (Hmm. Sounds rather sad when I put it like that, doesn’t it?)