No-demo renovations can have a big impact

Elizabeth Johnson is a CPA-turned-stay-at-home mom and her husband, Chad, is an engineer — right-brain people who know what they know and, more importantly, know what they don’t know.

When they moved back to the Houston area six years ago, they wanted to be in The Woodlands and found a home that fit their family. They knew their house wasn’t necessarily stylish or completely functional but had no idea how to go about changing it.

So they got excited when they saw an item up for auction at a charity event: a consultation with interior designer Caron Woolsey of CW Interiors.

Their quick consultation turned into a bigger job as Woolsey helped the couple work through updates and new furniture and accessories for much of the first floor of their home.

Throughout the pandemic, home remodelers and interior designers have been busy, a trend that’s expected to stay strong throughout the new year. Everyone seems to want things lightened, brightened and made more comfortable.

“We started small, thinking we were going to change the carpet in the primary bedroom and maybe the carpet in the formal dining room,” Elizabeth said. “It was in the early days of COVID, and we started talking about everything, the kitchen and a bar, adding wood floors.”

The project took just six weeks, since it was the front end of the pandemic and you could still get furniture and materials quickly.

Both Elizabeth, who soon will be 48, and Chad, 48, agreed that some of their furniture should stay, but other changes — paint, hardware, lighting, furnishings and accessories — could make a big impact, even in small doses.

Their style is fed by their small-town upbringings — he’s from Elk Mountain, Wyo., and she’s from a small town north of Kansas City — where nothing was ever very fancy, and everything was practical and functional. A simpler and more subtle farmhouse style was their goal.

The couple, married 16 years, met years ago when they were out of college and living in Houston; they then lived in a series of other cities before moving back six years ago with their three daughters — Emma, now 14; Claire, 10; and Molly, 8.

They painted everything — walls and cabinets — and changed flooring throughout. Carpet and ceramic tile flooring are gone, replaced by wood floors and rugs.

The rugs were a lesson for Chad, who wondered why he should spend money on beautiful wood floors — then cover them up with rugs.

“It seemed like a crazy concept to me to get rid of carpet to put wood down and then put rugs on them,” Chad said, laughing as he admitted defeat. “I lost that fight.”

Now he appreciates their form and function. Not only do they add color and texture to a room, they also help define living spaces and, for anyone walking barefoot, they make a home much more comfortable.

At the front of the Johnsons’ home was a foyer with a typical oak banister. Conscious of the couple’s budget and the extent of work ahead, Woolsey urged them to paint it — white balusters and a black handrail — a much less expensive alternative to refinishing.

Shag carpet on the stairs was replaced with carpet with a neutral herringbone pattern. A lantern-style chandelier and a pair of sconces in matte black finish the space.

An antique dresser that was already there was accessorized with a blue and white ginger jar, a small lamp and a plant. “Every space needs chinoiserie, even if it’s just one piece and small,” Woolsey said of the finishing touches.

A study at the front of the home was dark and dreary, with stained-wood built-in cabinets, brown walls, wood-tone window blinds and 12-inch, builder-grade floor tile.

The home’s new wood flooring was extended into this study, and its built-in cabinets are now painted white and styled beautifully with things that matter, instead of being filled to the brim with anything and everything.

Once again they got a rug to fill much of the room, and an old leather chair and ottoman live here, too.

A rustic, antiqued brass light fixture looks perfect hanging from the center of the room, but it was the subject of a lot of wrangling.

Originally, the room had a ceiling fan, fixtures that men generally like and interior designers generally try to replace. They may be great for creating a breeze on a veranda or outdoor pavilion, but they can be an eyesore indoors.

Chad wanted to keep the fan, and Woolsey’s job was to change his mind.

“Elizabeth really wanted a light fixture for the study, but Chad saw zero reason for it. I said, ‘What if we could find the most rustic light ever?’ and he said he’d consider it,” Woolsey said. “I had to make him a partner in the decision … instead of saying this is what you need to do and why.”

She finally found one that was more rustic, with an aged finish, and he agreed.

“It’s rough-hewn, and he loved it because it showed craftsmanship,” Woolsey said, noting that it works well with the much-lived-on chair and ottoman, plus mementos such as an animal skull from Chad’s hunting days and the cornet he played in junior high school.

The kitchen update was more cosmetic, with new paint and hardware for the cabinets, a new sink and lighting over the island and above the sink. While the perimeter cabinets are white, they opted for Restoration Hardware’s Light Silver Sage, a pale blue-gray, for the island. They replaced brown stone counters with white quartz and a butcher block top for the island.

In a project full of “saves” and “splurges,” the wood counter was a major “save.” Because it didn’t cost much, the couple knew that if they tired of it quickly or didn’t like the way it held up, they could easily change it later.

You can see the laundry room from the kitchen, and its builder-grade tile flooring and orange-brown counters were an eyesore. Now it has tan-gray print floor tile that’s much more attractive and counters similar to those in the kitchen.

Small changes made the primary bedroom more livable, replacing a sofa that ate up too much room with a small bench made of wood and sisal, and adding decorative pillows, art and plants.

Chad hated to get rid of that sofa because it and a couple of other pieces of furniture came with the house as deal sweeteners when they were negotiating the price. To get rid of them felt like a crazy move — losing something he worked hard to get.

Woolsey felt like the spacious room had great light, but you couldn’t appreciate any of it because the sofa ate up so much room and was never really used.

A few new things in the dining room freshened up a space that everyone who comes in the front door sees. They already had a china cabinet and a white table, so Woolsey brought in new chairs and a light fixture, mixing black and white with natural fibers, as they did in the kitchen.

A pair of upholstered hostess chairs mix with four wood chairs painted black and two more chairs that are a combination of black metal frames with wooden seats. The chandelier has a black-matte cage with natural fiber wrapped around its stems.

The Johnsons are the first to admit that if they had to select chairs on their own, all eight would match exactly.

But Woolsey wanted to achieve the farmhouse look they preferred, delivered in more subtle ways, such as the casual mix of black and white and touches of natural fibers.

In the formal living room, the Johnsons had sofas that they liked, so Woolsey finished the room with everything else, a rug, tables and accessories that include a mirror, lamp and sconces.

In Woolsey’s initial presentation to the couple, she suggested big changes to the powder bathroom, a boring box with brown walls and an ugly light.

Knowing the couple was more than a little afraid of color, she suggested adding white paneling to the lower part of the walls and installing Thibaut’s lively Honshu wallpaper (in the Robin’s Egg colorway) above. A new pedestal sink with a farmhouse-style faucet, a pretty mirror and a two-globe light fixture finish the room into a little jewel box.

When Woolsey first mentioned wallpaper to the Johnsons, they had a “deer in the headlights” expression, she said. She assured them it wouldn’t be old-fashioned wallpaper and its color and pattern would be offset by the paneling.

“We’re pretty dorky. I’m an engineer and she’s an accountant, but we love our house now,” Chad said. “We can let the kids and the dog run around and not feel like they’re going to mess it up. It’s amazing to walk through the house and think this is ours.”

Their daughters love the changes, too, and are urging their parents to get started on updates for the second floor, where their bedrooms are. Claire’s 11th birthday is coming up, and she’s already asked for a new paint color and bedding.

“I enjoy sitting in the house now,” Elizabeth said. “It’s so pretty, and I love it — instead of sitting there thinking I should change it.”

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