Resourceful, hands-on homeowners update their century-old house for modern living, with help from a TV design pro.
Last year, Bruno Bornsztein and Alicia Lacy did something controversial: They painted the dark-stained woodwork in their century-old Dutch Colonial a crisp white.
That might not sound like a radical act, but Bornsztein and Lacy aren’t just any couple. They publish the DIY and home decor websites Curbly.com and ManmadeDIY.com, and their own home improvements are shared with thousands of readers, many of whom weren’t thrilled when Bornsztein revealed their plans for their woodwork online.
“Our readers are purists when it comes to woodwork and think it’s a sin to paint it,” said Bornsztein. “But it’s our house, and we’ll be living here for 30 years.”
The couple’s home makeover has been a labor of love. When they bought the 1907-built St. Paul house, it offered a wealth of DIY potential. It had been vacant and neglected, with visible water damage. But it also offered a good floor plan, a beautiful coffered ceiling and a fireplace with a Mission-style Craftsman mantel. Four bedrooms upstairs offered plenty of room for the family, which, at the time, included a toddler and a baby on the way.
“We love old, unloved houses and want to fix them up,” Lacy said. “We’re the crazy cat people of old houses. We went into it so blind, but we were optimistic and driven by the potential it had.”
With Bornsztein as general contractor, they demolished and gutted the main floor and part of the upstairs, put in a new furnace, and rewired and replumbed the whole house. It was backbreaking, painstaking work, he recalled. “We had to take down each one of the trim pieces of the coffered ceiling, number them, and put it all back together.”
Then they made the controversial decision to paint the woodwork, to make the space “brighter, younger and modern,” Lacy said.
With the main living spaces updated, the couple focused on the “dinky kitchen tucked into a back corner.” The cupboards and walls were lemon yellow, and counter space was minimal. To expand the kitchen and create a Minnesota must-have mudroom, they built a 600-square-foot, two-story addition on the back of the home. Upstairs, the extra space gave them a spacious master suite with a walk-in closet and bathroom. At the last minute, the couple decided to vault the ceiling in the bedroom. The raised roof and window added some cost, but makes a big impact, said Bornsztein. “The room feels bigger — and more special,” added Lacy.
Being a DIY guy, Bornsztein pitched in on every project, hiring some out and enlisting friends to help with others. He stripped, sanded and painted woodwork, hung wallboard, laid tile and did demolition.
“I’m handy to a point, but I’m not comfortable with building a whole new structure,” he said.
The couple were ready to finish their makeover and integrate the old spaces with the new, when they had a fortuitous encounter with a Los Angeles celebrity designer. Last winter at Alt Summit, a conference in Salt Lake City, the couple mingled with other design and lifestyle bloggers. They clicked with Emily Henderson, a Los Angeles designer who won a season of HGTV’s “Design Star” and pens a sassy style blog. After a couple of glasses of wine at a cocktail party, “Bruno and I floated around the idea of Emily designing some of the rooms in our remodeled home,” Lacy recalled.
Bornsztein was excited by the prospect of collaborating with someone he considered a gifted designer. “Emily has such good taste and an amazing eye,” he said. “And she was really fun.”
The couple returned to the Twin Cities expecting nothing to come of their social-hour decorating discussions. But after they recruited a sponsor for the redesign of the “Curbly” family home, which they would document on their website, they called Henderson. She was on board.
“I’m always looking for projects that offer good portfolio work,” said Henderson. “Bruno and Alicia have a big following, good taste and style — and I knew I would have fun that week.”
Yes, one week. Henderson’s assignment was almost like an HGTV reality show: Furnish and decorate four rooms — living and dining, sunroom and master bedroom — in just a few days. Henderson compared the process to a “fast art installation.”
“Their home is traditional, so I wanted it to feel classic, but at the same time, bring in some eclectic midcentury pieces,” she said.
Weeks before Henderson came to town, the couple organized their ideas on Pinterest and sought Henderson’s advice, via e-mail and Skype, on purchasing the main furniture pieces. When she arrived, the trio went on mega-shopping trips everywhere from West Elm and Ikea to thrift and vintage shops. They also mined online sites and designer wholesale sources to fill in with accessories, lighting, artwork and fabrics.