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Wide Open Spaces

A contemporary home goes family-friendly in Bucktown.

The master bedroom’s walls are plastered in black for a cozy, den-like effect.

Jen and Richard Dresden were a Chicago couple on a mission to build, and they needed to do it fast. They’d been living in a rented Lincoln Park condo with their two children, and they were eager to settle down in a dream house of their own. After a lengthy search, they’d finally pounced on a double lot in Bucktown that was close to the right school. It was midsummer, and they hoped their real-estate find could become a full-fledged construction site by winter.

“We wanted an open floor plan with high ceilings, and we wanted it to be really solidly built,” says Jen, who still had nightmares of the water issues they’d experienced in a previous home. The Dresdens were thrilled when Ken Brinkman, an architect at the Chicago design-build firm Environs, said he could make that happen.

Brinkman began by identifying the pros and cons of the lot. “It was wide and situated along a side alley, so there were good opportunities for sunlight,” he says. “But it was a little short—just 100 feet deep—and there was the world’s largest electrical pole right up near the front. Lots of wires and transformers, just very unattractive.” Plans were quickly drawn up for a contemporary, 6,000-square-foot, L-shaped house oriented toward an interior terrace and a private backyard. There’s an attached three-car garage; a mudroom with a steel sliding barn door; and a two-story, floor-to-ceiling corner of windows—cleverly placed just out of view of the offending pole—that fills the house with a wonderful swath of natural light.

Environs has its own in-house interior designers, but during the course of her research, Jen had come across the website of the Wicker Park firm Project Interiors and fallen in love with their work. She later discovered that Aimee Wertepny, the firm’s founder, was a student in a Pilates class she taught. After the two chatted about design ideas, it felt natural to bring Project Interiors into the mix.

“The sheer size of this home opened up a world of possibilities,” says Wertepny, who collaborated on the design with her colleague Marissa Wingo. “We played around with ceiling heights, window dimensions and locations, and we worked with Ken [Brinkman] and a fabricator, Milk Design, to create a staircase with a vertical rod system that spans three stories—it’s pure guts.”

Jen cites the staircase as one of her favorite things about the house. “It helps give the sense that everything flows; it feels like the top floor is connected to the bottom floor,” she says. “It’s a cool visual trick. It almost looks like a harp.”

Another of Wertepny’s ideas was cooked up to minimize wear and tear on the home’s hardwood floors. Jen was concerned that because the house would often welcome their kids’ friends, the route from the front door to a rear door leading out to the terrace and yard would likely take a beating. So Wertepny installed dramatic, 8-foot-wide, slate-gray porcelain slab tiles that create a durable, striking pathway between the two doors. “It feels like a boat dock with massive horizontal planking,” Wertepny says.

When it comes to aesthetics, the Dresdens are firmly in the modern camp, but their goal was a contemporary home that would still feel warm and inviting. “Aimee combined a lot of different textures, so it doesn’t feel like we’re living in a Design Within Reach catalog,” says Jen. Everything in the house—from walls covered in black plaster or shredded fabric, to an Organic Looms rug so silky it nearly glows, to an interlocking Lucite coffee table designed by Wingo, to the high-gloss white cabinetry in the kitchen, to a dining room chandelier made of draped chrome chains—seems to say “touch me.” Much of the furniture needed to be specially built to suit the large dimensions of the home, a job that fell to local fabricator Barron Custom Furniture. But Wertepny and Wingo were also open to utilizing some of the family’s preexisting pieces, including a bean-shaped lounge chair that they recovered in strips of denim from the Dresdens’ old blue jeans. The piece is now a hyperpersonalized, eye-catching standout in the living room.

“Nothing’s too matchy,” says Jen. “I love being in my home. I love the way it feels and I don’t want to leave it.” When she comes back after being away even for the day, she says she still can’t believe her family lives there. “It’s everything we ever wanted.”