A few years after moving into their stocky, cavelike 1970s bi-level 20 miles southeast of Milwaukee, JJ and Eric Edstrom decided it was time to renovate. New to the world of architecture and construction, the Edstroms turned to Johnsen Schmaling Architects. The creative young couple—Eric is a songwriter and JJ is a life coach—provided the architects with a list of must-haves to accommodate their flexible-but-busy lifestyle. The result is a warm, modernist update that embodies their core Midwestern values: simplicity, connection to nature, and strong family ties.
The first thing Eric and I decided was that we didn’t want to increase the floor space. It was the site—not the house—that attracted us when we first saw it, but we decided to keep the original base and replace the top level. Our daughter, Ella, is four, and with a child in the house, it was important to promote connection and communication in our family. We didn’t want her off on another floor or in another wing somewhere watching TV by herself, but we knew that each of us would need our own space. That meant focusing on creating a high-quality interior.
When trying to figure out what that would look like, we went through a lot of books and magazines to get ideas and were very attracted to the clean approach of modernism. There is one thing that’s really important for me, personally, in deciding to go with a modern look. It may seem a bit corny, but I remember watching The Last Samurai and seeing the simplicity of the living spaces in the movie; it practically brought tears to my eyes. It wasn’t really a distinctly Asian aesthetic that interested me; it was more the clean, simple space. I wanted a home that was peaceful.
The problem was that there wasn’t really an exact name for the look that we were after; it wasn’t quite Frank Lloyd Wright, and it wasn’t quite Scandinavian—but those were in the right direction. We relied on the architects to know, of all the hundreds of kinds of windows and doorknobs, what would create that aesthetic. We presented them with a laundry list of what we wanted and let them handle the overall envisioning of it.
Johnsen Schmaling drew the color and texture palette from the site, incorporating a lot of oak and mahogany into the house. The only addition to the original footprint of the house was the small, glassed-in entryway, which sticks out into the wooded front yard. It was a basic bi-level, with no real entryway or foyer. There was no place to take coats in the winter, making it awkward to greet visitors. Everyone was always stumbling over shoes on their way in or out. Eric and I wanted a warm, inviting place to welcome people into our home; it was important enough that it was the only space we actually added.
The main area combines the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen. We liked the idea of doing a pitched roof, which opened up the ceiling. The translucent windows at the top of the wall are filled with Nanogel, an insulating material; they let in plenty of light, which expands the room without adding square footage.
Eric and I work from home, so it was essential that we have a living space for our preschooler and a workspace for both of us. It had to be large enough to incorporate both uses.
The kitchen originally had four walls, so opening it up added a lot to the room. Eric and I aren’t gourmet chefs, so we decided that we wanted to minimize the kitchen and create a much larger dining room. I previously worked in a dance studio and would be gone in the evenings, which made it really important to get back for family dinners. We can also host my extended family for holidays now. The room is more usable; less kitchen, more dining room, and a really nice living area.
The glass panel in the back of the room—a NanaWall—opens up onto the screen porch. That was a big investment; the contractor even suggested that we just go with windows and a glass door, but we wanted the folding glass panels. We vacationed at a villa in St. Croix on a family trip where they had a similar setup, so when the architect presented the idea of the living area opening up like that into the backyard, we were intrigued. Since the goal was to avoid increasing the square footage of the house, we tried to come up with different ways to add a little extra space. With the NanaWall, the backyard became just that. In the summer, Ella can play outside, and no matter what common area I’m in I know that I’m only a shout away.
When we moved back in, I thought, Everything is just this beautiful piece of art. The sense of peacefulness is wonderful. We wound up getting exactly what we were looking for.