This Candy-Colored Revivalist Mansion Outside Chicago Brings the Drama

Nancy Hass
Photo credit: Eric Piasecki

From ELLE Decor

When the Chicago-based architect R. Michael Graham was asked to design a grand, traditional house in the city’s suburbs for an aesthetically fearl­ess couple who had together built an esteemed real estate empire, he knew one thing: It could not be a pale period imitation. There were already too many of those around, teardowns replaced with poorly executed, ostentatious mansions—lots of square footage with little soul or taste. From their years in the business, the clients understood what it meant to be respectfully committed to a project of such scale, and they knew what cut corners looked like; they were too sophisticated to accept a compromise. “I was aware from the beginning that I wanted to create something 100 percent real,” says Graham, who took his inspiration from the early-20th-century Anglo-American country houses that the architectural firm Mellor, Meigs & Howe designed outside Philadelphia. “Every detail is as it might have been built when houses were made like that.”

Photo credit: Eric Piasecki

The couple, who arose from humble beginnings and are now in their 60s, had, over the years, taught themselves a great deal about interior design and art to complement their knowledge of construction. While they wanted the house to have the sort of graciousness, fine-bore craftsmanship, and proportion one might have found during the era that F. Scott Fitzgerald conjured, the wife did not want the residence to seem like a gilded museum stocked with antiques or to feel like just another safe, neutral-hued estate.

Photo credit: Eric Piasecki

To that end, Graham introduced them to Steven Gambrel, a New York designer and ED A-Lister well known for blending classic calm with pulse-racing color and deliciously wild, expressive gestures. “There really couldn’t be a more perfect place to do what I like to do,” says Gambrel, who marveled early on at how far down into the details the homeowners had let Graham drill. “When you have a house like this, where every stone, every corner is honed to perfection, and collaborative clients who have confidence, you can take the interiors to an incredible depth.”

Photo credit: Eric Piasecki

Gambrel, who trained as an architect, regards color with an almost incantational fervor, an instinct that is on vivid display in the 16,000-square-foot residence. A master of blues especially, he combines shades and intensities in ways that seem utterly fresh; among his signatures are upholstered pieces with as many as three or four different fabrics, each adding dimension. From the vast formal dining room, with its glossy Dutch-blue walls and custom Louis XV-style chairs with backs upholstered in a lime-green ikat, to the violet-lacquered bookshelves of the wife’s office, his palette adds levity and light to the opulent surroundings.

But Gambrel also understands that the eye needs to rest. And thus, the rooms alternate between richly stimulating and airily tranquil. The calm living room, for example, has paneled walls striated with pale blue-gray tones, the family dining room is in shades of silver, and the master bedroom is awash with variations of taupe, frost, and wheat.

Photo credit: Eric Piasecki

Conversely, below ground there is a vast entertainment area with a private bowling alley—a nod to the couple’s sense of fun—where the walls are upholstered in a bloodred velvet. “I wanted there to be a feeling of transformation as you go through the house,” the wife says. “I think design can evoke emotions, and I wanted to have the full range here.”

Like many significant early-20th-century houses (as well as the Irish and English castles that inspired them), this one is configured around a long gallery—painted in a vigorous teal—to showcase a lifetime of art collecting. The couple favors midcentury British painters, but they also treasure the works they bought as art neophytes in the early years of their marriage, mostly in Paris’s Clignancourt flea market. Gambrel urged them to mix the more modest works with the distinguished ones.

Photo credit: Eric Piasecki

Every house has one room that embodies its spirit most essentially, and while that is often a living area or a bedroom, in this case it is the kitchen. For many elaborate homes with bold decor, such spaces are the Rubicon that owners cannot cross. But here, the couple dove in joyously and with abandon: Their kitchen could stand as Gambrel’s dernier cri. Its ceiling and walls are covered in handmade glass tiles in shades from aquamarine to jade; fumed, ebonized, and waxed oak floors are custom cut in an Escher-like pattern; and the centerpiece is a vast exhaust hood enameled in forest green. Even Jay Gatsby might have balked at such daring, but the effect is monumental and intoxicating. “I’m not going to say it didn’t take some convincing,” recalls the husband, “but every day I’m glad we said yes.”

This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE

Photo credit: Eric Piasecki

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