(This article was first published April 30, 2003)
After a long day at the aerobics studio, Capt. Fitness loves to come home and collapse on the sofa. If he can find it. Turns out that aerobics king Doug Melroe’s partner, A-list hair stylist Denny Kemp, has a mania for moving things around. And trying out new furniture.
“I think we’ve gone through like 15 sofas in our 15 years together,” Melroe said with a major eye roll.
Kemp, soft-spoken and often outfitted in Prada, has an apt counterpoint in Melroe, who recently posed for promotional photos in little more than briefs and a pair of angel wings.
“He’s flashier and more outgoing than me,” Kemp said of Melroe, “but he’s also very practical, where I am impractical.”
That balance has played itself out in their do-it-yourself approach to decorating the turn-of-the-century Minneapolis home they’ve shared for 12 years. After filling its spacious rooms with a rolling assortment of antiques, upholstered chairs, heavy rugs and Stickley furniture, Kemp and Melroe took a hard turn to mid-century modern design a few years ago.
“When the house and the furniture were both old, it wasn’t fun — more like living in a stage set,” Kemp said.
As currently configured, the rooms of the Colonial Revival house by architect Harry Wild Jones (see accompanying article) vibrate with drama and daring. The grand rectangle of a living room off the entryway boldly pairs two Mies van der Rohe Barcelona daybeds, all tufted black leather, with a chrome-and-glass coffee table, an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair in white boucle and an Arco floor lamp. A Julian Schnabel silk-screen hangs above a marble fireplace flanked by built-in bookcases.
So OK, Kemp and Melroe have placed classic pieces by the big cheeses of modernist design prominently in the most important room
of a house that features such traditional touches as paned French doors, bay-window columns, heavy moldings, even ornamental plaster ceilings. Instant eclecticism, or mega-mismatch?
“At first I went all modern, but that wasn’t me, either,” Kemp said. “I needed a mix.”
He got it by adding an edited assortment of antiques and by searching for compatibility and contrast. “Really, the roll pillows on the Mies daybeds are very French,” Kemp said. And the smooth planes of a veneered, high-legged flip-down Empire desk (probably 19th-century) work surprisingly well in the living room.
The backless leather platforms may not be as comfortable as a traditional sofa, but their lines and pedigree appeal to both men.
“I don’t care if it’s comfortable so long as it looks right,” said Kemp, owner of Denny Kemp Salon on E. Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. “If it doesn’t look good it can’t be comfortable.”
Comfort or no, a favorite Sunday-morning activity for the busy couple is lazing one to a daybed while going through newspapers and the latest style magazines, Melroe said.
`What are we doing?’
There can’t have been much time for lying around, given how much work the owners have done themselves since they first took a gamble on the 6,500-square-foot house on a once grand, then blighted stretch of Pillsbury Avenue.
“When my Realtor first took me there, it looked like the Addams Family,” Kemp said. “I could see where it was going to go, but we thought, `what are we doing here?’ ”
The house, which could cost $1,000 a month just to heat in January, had most recently been divvied up into offices for a mental-health clinic. Getting it into residential shape again “was a lot of hard work,” said Melroe, who has a background in advertising and interior design in addition to his years teaching aerobics at the Firm.
When he and Kemp moved in, they yanked out enough carpeting to fill the carriage house in back, stripped wallpaper and vintage felt wallcovering and threw out 12 window air conditioners. They hired pros to refinish the floors and repaint the exterior.
Inspired by shelter mags, the pair set out to source ideas at favorite Twin Cities haunts, sometimes snagging pricey antiques, frequently dragging home gems in the rough. The house has a desk and several credenzas from the PPL Shop, the northeast Minneapolis junk-furniture store. Kemp rescued a contemporary steel sofa from a Dumpster behind his salon, then had it reupholstered in leather-look beige vinyl.
“Finding that perfect thing and turning it around and making it look great, that’s part of the passion of it,” Melroe said.
One of Melroe’s favorite rooms is the master bedroom, and it’s easy to see why. Nearly 30 feet long and painted a medium gray, it has a pair of Barcelona chairs and a fireplace at one end and a sunny parlor at the other. The adjoining bathroom has floor-to-ceiling white tile and an original 9-head shower stall.
Unable to find what he fancied to flank the custom-designed black-leather bed, Kemp commissioned matching bedside parsons tables in thick slabs of acrylic, then parked ornately carved lamps atop each.
White oval in a dark room
The dining room, where the couple hosts a family Thanksgiving each year, has enough head-high curly-birch paneling to fill a swimming pool (such as the one Kemp and Melroe built last year in the back yard).
Like a meteor traversing the night sky, the dark room is bisected by a white oval tulip table designed by Eero Saarinen, with matching chairs. The “legless” design makes the stone surface appear to float above the parquet floor. In a pure Pop flourish, two French bronze figures sit on bright-orange Plexiglas cubes on a sideboard against one wall.
A pass-through pantry leads to a wood-floored kitchen with stainless appliances, a Viking stove and a breakfast nook memorialized when it was used to shoot a scene with Frances McDormand for the movie “Fargo.” The house has been backdrop to numerous commercial photo shoots as well.
Their newfound love of contemporary furnishings led Kemp and Melroe to look hard at a midcentury steel-and-glass house in Golden Valley several years ago. But when that deal fell through, they decided to rededicate themselves to their current location by putting in the pool. By this summer they hope to have the carriage house converted to a pool house, creating an urban oasis of eclectic design in the inner city.
Amazingly, it’s all been done without professional help. “I never used a designer,” Kemp said. “I have to personally see and select things. Lots of things are accidents, but I know what I want.”
And in this house he has found it, for now.
• Claude Peck is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Architect Wild Jones designed for Minneapolis well-to-do
The architect of the house owned by Denny Kemp and Doug Melroe wasn’t quite a Cass Gilbert, but he came close. Harry Wild Jones
(1859-1935) designed a State Capitol for St. Paul. His version was a contender before the commission went to Gilbert.
A Michigander educated at Brown University and M.I.T., Jones came to Minneapolis on his honeymoon and stayed. Within a few years, Jones, whose office was in the Lumber Exchange building for his entire career, was getting commissions to build stately homes for affluent clients in fast-growing Minneapolis.
His best-known Minneapolis buildings still standing include Butler Square in downtown Minneapolis, the Lindsay Warehouse (now a residential building) on North 1st Street, two churches (Calvary Temple and the Scottish Rite Temple) in south Minneapolis, the Washburn Water Tower near 50th St. and Lyndale Av. and the chapel at Lakewood Cemetery.
Cutting a dashing figure in his Vandyke beard, Jones attracted clients who sought large homes in Kenwood, near Lake of the Isles and farther south. His own former home still stands at 5101 Nicollet Av. S.
The Kemp-Melroe house was commissioned by insurance executive Leonard K. Thompson in 1903, and cost $9,000. Its clapboard siding, Ionic columns, symmetrical facade and dentil detailing indicate the Colonial Revival style popular at the time. In 1916 Jones designed the 2-story addition on the south and east sides.