I’ve got the perfect bright and colorful home today to cure your winter blues. Today’s Living With Kids post welcomes Mara Duckens. Mara and her family live just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconson in a charming Victorian full of sunshine, original art and bright colors. Mara also runs a non-profit organization that helps special needs kids, and she’s got some really lovely things to say about really seeing kids for who they are. Welcome, Mara!
Hi there! My name is Mara Dučkens and I am thrilled to invite you into my colorful home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During the day, I am the Executive Director of a wonderful nonprofit organization that provides education, therapy and support services for children who have special needs. In the evening, I am a fun-loving, relaxed family gal, who craves time with my husband and daughter. I am married to Kevin Kriehn, an Executive Creative Director, and together we are the proud parents of a free-spirited eight-year-old girl who is always on the go.
Kevin and I meet in the summer of 2003 on a blind date. Correction: Kevin was on a blind date, and I was in the same place at the same time. When we saw each other across the crowded room, it was love at first sight! Lucky for me, he and his date had already concluded that they would just be friends. Kevin and I started seeing each other, and when we realized how much we had in common — travel, literature, movies, art, politics, life goals — we knew it was meant to be.
On a pink sand beach in Eleuthera, we married six months after our first meeting…and our life has been one huge adventure ever since. This month we celebrate 14 years of marriage (happy anniversary, honey).
When we found our gorgeous 1896 Victorian, it was also love at first sight! Clearly, we are very decisive romantics. It was the huge windows, incredible woodwork, and high ceilings that charmed us most. However, the place needed some TLC. Our home was dark and cavernous, in part because the previous owners had painted over the windows. Much of the initial work was cosmetic — scraping paint, updating the wall and ceiling colors, and putting in new lighting fixtures.
After our daughter was born, we had the upstairs bathroom, kitchen, and exterior of the house completely renovated. Her arrival brought so much joy and exuberance into our lives, and we wanted all of our spaces to mirror that energy. It is such a colorful, light and happy home. We have lived here for 12 years, and we just love it.
I am writing this post in the middle of a Wisconsin snowfall so you wouldn’t know it today, but our outdoor spaces are a highlight of our house. We have a beautiful rain garden in the front yard enclosed by a sculptural free-form rock wall. The rain garden attracts monarchs, honeybees and hummingbirds throughout the warm weather months.
Our back yard has a native woodland garden with musclewoods, highbush cranberry, ferns, and coneflowers, a stone patio, raised vegetable beds, a sandbox and a tree house for our daughter. There is absolutely no mowing necessary, and we love it that way! It helps us make the most of our time together.
I think our daughter loves the landscaping most of all. She grows raspberries and tomatoes all summer, and her friends love coming over to play in the tree house or race along the top of the rock wall. I will have to send Design Mom updated photos in summer, when everything is in bloom.
Our neighborhood is Murray Hill, which is on the east side of Milwaukee not far from the shores of Lake Michigan. This area of the city is lovely. We are nestled between Lake Park and Riverside Park, two urban green spaces designed by renowned landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted around the same time our house was constructed. The neighborhood is filled with stately trees and beautiful gardens. It is a wonderful place for young families because of the quality public schools, restaurants, shops and easy access to nature. On weekends, we rarely use our cars because everything is within walking distance. If we want to go downtown for dinner or a play, it is less than 10 minutes by Lyft or taxi.
Our interior spaces are bright and colorful and have a sense of whimsy about them, but they are also clean and streamlined. We are minimalists at heart who like our things to have a place and a purpose. However, this discipline has evolved over time and continues to be a work in progress. Over the years, we have gotten rid of so much stuff: pillows, photo frames, decorative boxes, architecture magazines…you name it. When we became parents, we wanted to simplify, and I think we are much happier living with less.
Our main gathering spaces are designed to maximize family connections, from our comfortable living room, to our heirloom dining table that grows to seat 12, to our kitchen configuration. On most evenings you will find us helping our daughter with her schoolwork, playing board games, writing and illustrating stories together, or having friends over for dinner. During the school week, we avoid screen time, and enjoy finding ways to entertain each other.
One of the unique aspects of our home is all of the artwork. Before working in the nonprofit sector, I was a fine art student, and then an Art History graduate student, so infusing daily life with art is something I love. Our family goes to galleries, antique centers, University art shows, and juried festivals throughout the year. We love the pieces we bring home, and we get true pleasure from supporting working artists.
I’ve had friends come to me saying, “Will you help me find art for my home? I’m intimidated.” My answer is Yes! Always yes. Art can be accessible to families of all income levels, it can personalize your living space, and it can help you see the world with new eyes.
I do have some favorite spaces in our house. The first is our kitchen. This room came to life with the help of interior designer, Cynthia Musickant. Those fantastic tiles make me smile from ear to ear. The simple quartz countertops, stainless steel appliances and warm wood tones are the perfect complement to the patterns in the room. There is no better way to start my morning than by watching the light dance around the kitchen as I enjoy a cup of coffee and a good book.
Another favorite space is our blue staircase. Everyone who visits our house comments on it. The stairs are a little bit of Santorini in the middle of Milwaukee. When I gave the color swatch to our painter, he asked me if I was sure about it – he was concerned that it looked an awful lot like his blue painter’s tape. I was sure! While our front stairs are quite formal, these are playful and do a great job connecting the kitchen to the second floor.
Finally, I love our daughter’s room. She is an energetic, curious and artistic child, and her space reflects that. It is a special environment where she can dream about the world, explore her interests, and develop her sense of self. The photographs that hang on her walls are of children from all over the world. The eyes of each child are breathtaking, reflecting the hope, curiosity, vulnerability, and optimism that all young people experience. Too often society fixates on the things that divide us or make us different, but the hopes and dreams of children unite us.
When our daughter was born eight years ago, it felt as if my heart stretched wide open. Kevin and I thought, “This is it! We will never love more than we love today.” Then we woke up the next morning. With every day that passes, we watch our little girl’s interests and talents deepen, and we watch each other evolve as parents and partners, and it makes our love grow more and more.
I wish someone had told me that I would never truly understand the depth of my parents’ love, until holding my own baby. My dad was really sick when my daughter was born, and he died just before she turned one, so the whole experience of simultaneously becoming a parent and losing a parent was really profound.
I remember watching my daughter play one day, overcome with emotion. I thought, this is how much my mom and dad love me? Wow! If I understood that sooner, I think I would have done things differently. I would have listened more, argued less, and spent more time talking about life and holding hands. Thankfully, I still have my mom here (she lives about 15 minutes away), and witnessing her close-knit relationship with my daughter brings me immense joy.
Outside of our home, children are at the center of my career. Leading a nonprofit organization that serves children with special needs is truly a privilege. I also write articles about the joys and challenges of parenthood. It is my belief that there is magic inside of every young person, and my work is about recognizing their unique gifts and abilities. It is letting children know, I see you, I respect you, and I am so glad to walk this Earth with you. My work energizes me, and I bring that back into my home at the end of the day. I am exceptionally lucky to have two parts of my life that fuel my soul and support my creativity.
For me, home is an oasis. It is the sacred place where I connect with the ones I love most in the world. Things here are very comfortable and lived in, it is not about creating an illusion of perfection.
As my daughter grows up, I hope she remembers home as a warm, safe, nurturing place that gave her room to be original. I want her to remember the impromptu dance parties, messy art projects, family traditions, and books before bedtime…those little moments that always brought us back together after a long day. And as she grows and has her own family, whatever form that takes, I hope she always finds comfort and happiness returning to this place.
Thank you, Mara! This is such an inspiring home and so many great inspiring words too. I love what you wrote about communicating with children that “I see you, I respect you, and I am so glad to walk this Earth with you.” Sometimes as a parent it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking your kids are just miniature versions of yourself and it can be frustrating when they don’t act in the way you expect them to. It is a good reminder that everyone is on their own journey, and as an individual, their journey looks different than yours.
I also love a house full of original art! Why is it that original art is so intimidating to buy sometimes? I love bold and beautiful statement pieces (hello, giant blue head!) that feel unique and give a home a sense of personality. I also love the idea of supporting working artists — the more people that we have supporting artists, the more artists we will have creating beautiful art.
What are your methods for buying art for your own home? Do you find great pieces at galleries or online? What does what you choose say about you and your style?
Living Room side table
Dining Room painting by Sasha Kinens
Kid’s Room pendant light by Ikea
More of Mara’s lovely life can be found on her blog or follow her on Instagram. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, gay parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.