Boston Renovation Accents Minimalist White with Rich Felt Murals

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By Justin Ellis
In Boston’s South End, a design-savvy couple creates a clean-lined home with a textural surprise.

Late afternoons at Chris Grimley and Kelly Smith’s Boston apartment are illuminated by a warm glow. It’s a familiar, busy time of day for many parents, when the kitchen becomes a hub, and the kids come in for a landing: dinner, bath, and bedtime. 

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Chris Grimley and Kelly Smith transformed a cramped apartment into a family-friendly home. The room shared by Mae, three, and her little brother Roen, one, features a custom prototype mural by FilzFelt, their mother’s textile design company. The carpet is by Flor, and the child-size chair and Amoeba table are both by Jens Risom for Knoll.

It’s also the point when this apartment’s seven-foot-tall windows send sunlight bouncing off the walls, ricocheting from the white concrete floors through to the kitchen on the opposite side of the space. 

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Brightening the kitchen was a renovation priority. The cabinets are custom, the sink is by Kohler, the ceiling lamp is Jasper Morrison’s Smithfield C for Flos, and the Castore pendants are by Artemide.

It’s a minimalist oasis in white, with appliances and cabinets hidden to keep clutter, and the curious hands of the couple’s children, Mae, three, and Roen, one, at bay. Of all the renovations Grimley and Smith have done in the apartment, the kitchen is the most treasured. "I think it would be really hard to convince us to move now," Smith says. "Just because of the kitchen."

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In the dining area, a trio of Beat pendants by Tom Dixon hang over an Eames table for Herman Miller and Saarinen Executive Armless chairs from Knoll. Flat Onyx Black paint by Glidden sets off a Corbin Smith photograph. “It’s like you’re erasing things by painting,” Grimley says of the inky hue.

Grimley and Smith have lived in the apartment since 2008. There was never any question where they would settle in the city; they’ve each worked or resided around Harrison Avenue, a busy main artery for the neighborhood, for 15 years. The question was what the design-minded couple—Grimley is a principal at design-and-architecture firm over,under, and Smith is a cofounder of textile-product manufacturer FilzFelt—would do to find a creative space and make it their own?

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Smith, Grimley, Roen, and Mae gather around a Polder Sofa XL by Hella Jongerius for Vitra. The marble Saarinen side table is from Knoll and the Slow chair is by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra.

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During the renovation, Grimley and Smith added built-in storage to keep clutter in check.

Serendipity came in the form of a housing program targeted at first-time buyers that allowed the purchase of a 1,250-square-foot two-bedroom condo in a six-story complex built in 2006. The location was their main priority, and the price made it hard to pass up. Still, it was a year-and-a-half process to make sure they qualified for the apartment. And securing their home was only the first of many challenges. 

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"When we moved in, the apartment was really closed off and didn’t have a lot of qualities that we wanted in the space: an open flow, free movement," Grimley explains. The couple renovated the apartment over a period of four years, spending $55,000 and doing as much of the pro-ject as they could themselves while calling on a friend, Gary Knell of Studio FKIA, for contracting help.  

They originally planned a six-phase renovation, starting with the floors and working their way up to a complete overhaul of the kitchen. Early on, they pulled up carpet and painted the concrete floors on their own. They took their time, but ultimately had to speed up their schedule to prepare for the arrival of Mae. 

Changing the flow of the space entailed knocking down bothersome walls while adding others. They created an additional doorway in the second bedroom, attaching felt-lined sliding doors to both entrances to help direct light through the space. To solve the apartment’s storage problem, they reframed existing corners to add custom shelving for books and toys, and to create an entry nook that offers a quiet pause upon crossing the threshold.

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Felt-covered sliding doors made of acoustic substrate separate the children’s room and living area.

They stuck to a simple palette of black and white for the walls, which, combined with the open floor plan, gives the space a kind of horizontal depth akin to a 3-D puzzle, with a floating wall that separates the kids’ bedroom from the living room.  

"The architecture of the space was always considered background," Grimley says. Onto that canvas they added colorful furniture like the vibrant green Hella Jongerius–designed Vitra sofa in the living room. 

The showpiece is the "felt wall"  in the children’s room, a floor-to-ceiling cascade of six-inch wool triangles in orange, black, and gray created by FilzFelt, which not only sells quality German felt, but also creates installations. It’s an ever-evolving, experimental arrangement. In the one-of-a-kind prototype, CNC-cut felt triangles are adhered in place but movable—a
feature that has not been lost on the children, who’ve started rearranging the triangles themselves. "We’ll be out somewhere and I’ll be like, ‘Here’s a triangle in the stroller,’" Smith says with a laugh.

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A bunny mobile by Flensted hangs over the crib, while the felt mural provides a soft and colorful backdrop. The Excel floor lamp in the living room is by Rich Brilliant Willing.

That kind of flexibility is the cornerstone for the family. As the South End becomes home to more upscale shops and businesses, they know it would be pricey to find another home in the neighborhood to fit their needs. They plan to stay around for the long haul, Grimley says, and they’re already thinking of ways to build individual spaces for the children as they grow up. 

"Everything’s an evolution," Grimley says. "The kitchen is kind of sacred; everything else is open for reinvention."