Lisa and Kurt Niederloh were starting fresh with their newly blended family. The next step was finding a home in Hastings that they could furnish, decorate and call their own.

But when the couple were house-hunting two years ago, the choices of properties didn't feel so fresh.

They considered the ample pool of new homes in the area, but "many of them were cookie-cutter, and there weren't mature trees," Kurt recalled.

Discouraged by the market, they decided to explore a low-slung brick rambler built in 1993, which sat on a secluded wooded corner lot across from the Hastings Country Club golf course.

With four bedrooms, it was big enough to accommodate Lisa's teenagers, as well as having Kurt's adult children visit. But inside, the home was a 1990s time capsule steeped in stale golden-oak woodwork, tan carpet and popcorn ceilings. The cramped kitchen and other rooms were dark, closed-off and disconnected.

The Niederlohs initially planned only to open up and update the kitchen with new finishes, cabinets and appliances. Their go-to guy was David O'Brien Wagner of SALA Architects in Minneapolis, who had designed a new cabin for the couple near Cross Lake. "I like how David's work is stripped down so you can see all the natural wood and materials," Kurt said.

But if they knocked down walls, how would the old and new living spaces flow together visually and aesthetically?

"David gave us ideas that were more transformative than just the kitchen," Kurt said. "It would have been hard to make it in sync with the rest of the house."

Wagner's new floor plan lets in abundant light, improves flow and circulation and creates visual connections from the front entry, through the living room and out an expanse of glass to the backyard patio.

And to tie it all together, Wagner designed streamlined modern soffits lit with LED lights that define each zone, as well as adding architectural character. "The floating soffits really help unify the spaces," he said.

Wagner's rich natural-material palette gives each space layers and depth — with a modern flair. He mingled warm Douglas fir, walnut and oak with a textured metal panel above the fireplace and stainless-steel rods supporting bottles in a built-in wine and coffee bar.

Light and shadow

"Chiaroscuro," an Italian term referring to the treatment of light and shadow in artwork, also guided Wagner's design of the home's interior aesthetic.

"The light and dark play off one another," he said, referring to the white and black accents that draw the eye in each room. "The contrasting elements create an extra dynamic between the materials."

In the kitchen, to Kurt's surprise, they were able to re-use the oak floors, which was a cost-effective way to help express Wagner's chiaroscuro vision.

"We could keep the floor and give it a new look, as well as tie it to the new color palette," he said. A hardwood floor specialist stripped the golden-oak stain and "acid-washed" the wood, adding a light, white-tinted finish.

For the kitchen cabinets, Lisa was set on trendy white enameled doors, while Kurt wanted visible wood grain. Wagner bridged their tastes with dark walnut that allows the vertical wood grain to show through, combined with a set of light whitewashed cabinets. "I'm happy I compromised," Lisa said. "I like the softness of the whitewashed fir."

Lisa did get her generous-sized kitchen island equipped with a centrally located cooktop. "When we entertain, we want to be able to talk to people and have a communal cook area," she said.

Wagner repeated the whitewashed fir wainscot on the kitchen counter wall facing the dining room, as well as framing the front staircase leading to the lower level.

He also echoed the kitchen's handsome walnut in a cabinet dividing the kitchen and foyer, and a "walnut box" that houses the new powder room.

A step leads to the sunken living room, which still has its vaulted ceiling and half-moon window. But updates include a white-tinted oak floor and a cozy built-in bench on one wall, providing seating for reading and lounging. The dated gas fireplace underwent a complete transformation. Wagner replaced the bland stone-tiled surround with a mottled black steel panel that "really pops and looks like art work," Kurt said.

The renovation was so seamless that only a single Douglas fir column in the kitchen marks the spot where they removed a load-bearing wall. Wagner carved a niche in the soffit, cabinetry and countertop to bring attention to the functional role of the column, he said.

"It's an unexpected playful element from something that is necessary to the design," Wagner said.

For their expansive renovation, Kurt and Lisa made it a priority to use local materials and artisans, such as Hennepin Made blown-glass light cylinders above the dining-room table and kitchen island. "We wanted to reduce our environmental impact as much as we could," Kurt said.

Lisa filled the revitalized spaces with clean-lined modern furniture in a grayish-blue and teal color scheme, sprinkled with chartreuse and yellow accents. "Now it feels like a new house," she said.

The Niederlohs are well on their way to a fresh start, due in part to their choice to reinvent a 20-year-old rambler rather than build a house — even though they had to endure dirt and disruption for about three months.

"I really like the elements of surprise," Kurt said. "I think, 'Wow!' whenever I come in."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619