A Culturally-Influenced Design – The President’s House at Principia College
In my career, I have had the pleasure of designing homes and offices across the country, from the rural countryside of Illinois to the coastal towns of Florida. No matter the setting or style, I love every opportunity to meet new people and design a space that expresses their best selves.
But it is rare – perhaps even very rare – for an independent designer like me to design a space that will likely play host to people from around the world.
One such opportunity arises when we’re asked to work on spaces at universities – places that inherently draw students, faculty and guest lecturers from places far and wide.
In February, I was one of several designers asked to submit bids for a redesign of the President’s House at Principia College. If you are unfamiliar with Principia, it is located in the charming Elsah, Ill., and enrolls nearly 450 Christian Science students from 36 states and 27 countries.
The history of Principia is fascinating and the campus is downright idyllic as it sits atop the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
Those two things had me excited about the project from the get-go! To say I was nervous and excited about the potential of this opportunity is an understatement!
I first learned of the design opportunity through my partnership with Eye on Design of Belleville, which has been doing work for Principia for several couple decades.
Dr. Jolanda Westerhof joined Principia College as its new president in March and was interested in renovating the President’s House, to both modernize it and better suit her tastes.
Dr. Westerhof described her preference for darker colors and decor with an Asian influence, so my first bid hued pretty closely to these two preferences. But, as can sometimes be the case in a redesign, what a client thinks they want isn’t what they actually come to favor once we start pulling together concepts and materials.
Dr. Westerhof simply wasn’t wild about the look once she saw it on paper.
BUT she was impressed with my work, so we forged ahead. I submitted some new ideas and won the bid! We really hit it off during this initial brainstorming and I think that paved the way for what became a really stunning transformation.
Choosing a Design Theme
The home’s existing decor was very traditional — think heavy florals, dark wood and antique fixtures. In a home with lots of big windows looking out upon the river, it all felt very dark, dated and heavy.
We wanted to pursue more of a transitional feel, and settled on a design that would lighten everything up, with a muted color pallet and lots of organic textures.
This new direction better highlights all of the intricate millwork in the home, which dates to the early 1900s. It also works to draw influence from and emphasize the beauty of the outdoor environment.
Dr. Westerhof also has a really interesting background, having traveled to a number of fascinating places across the world. Given that, and the global draw of the college, we thought it would be inspiring to bring a variety of cultural influences into the design. This really elevated the entire renovation.
One of my favorite things about the project is that we incorporated artifacts and artwork from the college’s personal archives. You’ll see pieces from each of the seven continents represented in different parts of the home.
A Grand Entry Into a Grand Home
When visitors first enter the home, they step into this wonderfully grand foyer. I really didn’t have to do much in this room, except allow the architecture to speak for itself. The custom millwork in this room is just fabulous. But it was in a darker stain, so I painted it and the stairwell treads white to allow the woodwork to really pop and lend a freshness to the entire space. A new staircase runner also brightens this room up.
I followed this same rule of thumb throughout the house — wherever I found a darker wood stain, white paint went in its place! This alone went a long way toward updating the home.
Next, let’s talk about the living room. Previously, it was dominated by those heavy florals and darker colors that I talked about earlier.
And when I say “dominated”, I really mean that. The room felt smaller and dated, and that pulled down the whole look — to such a degree that you barely noticed the gorgeous, sweeping views out the back panel of windows.
Our painters went to work with white paint on the windows, crown molding and fireplace. Then I chose a lighter sage green paint for the walls. The color change made the room feel soft and dreamy.
We used the built in bookcases for showcasing all of those fascinating artifacts from the Principia College archives. Silk grasscloth is used as a backdrop, introducing texture and more cultural influence. I can’t tell you how much fun it was selecting and arranging the accent pieces for those shelves!
We brought in all new furniture from Bernhardt and lamps and artwork from Brody’s in St. Louis. Eye on Design provided the window treatments. Creamy colors kept everything calm and soothing. The piano in the corner and the small sheep sculpture are the only things that are original to the room. I just had to keep that sheep — it is so fun and quirky!
The living room connects to a large, glassed-in sunroom that provides the best views yet of the stunning scenery beyond the bluffs.
The goal here was to make things light and airy so guests could keep their attention on mingling and those amazing views. New carpeting was enough to freshen up the space. We also removed some of the heavier furniture that had crowded the room previously.
Keeping with the Theme
The guest room follows a similar color scheme as the living room. It is soft, muted and rich in texture. And here again, I tried to weave in pieces of history and culture, such as the decorative plates that we used as wall art, which were hand painted by a Principia professor.
Built in bookcases are a real asset to this room (I could go on and on about all of the custom millwork found in this home. They just don’t make homes like they used to!).
And Eye on Design was able to match the cornice window treatments to the bedding. Accessories came from places like HomeGoods and Hobby Lobby.
The previous decor in this room was nice, but in my opinion, this new look is much better for the use of the space. It oozes sophistication and appeals to a wider swath of potential visitors.
Lastly, we have the dining room. I decided to keep the chandelier that was already in the room, because it really is quite stunning. We also stuck with the existing dining room table.
Now once again…check out the millwork! It really is a wow factor in this room, so my only job was to choose decor and furnishings that highlighted what was already innate to the space.
New wallpaper, a lighter colored rug and sleek dining chairs helped transition the room. Pagoda shelves added global appeal and act as breezy display pieces.
This room has the added plus of connecting to the sunroom. Imagine the dinner parties they can have in this space!
More to Come on Principia
I don’t want to bombard you with too much information about the Principia College project, so for now, we’ll stick to the rooms that most guests will see when they visit the home. But stay tuned for a future blog post where I’ll give you a tour of all the other rooms I worked on, which make up Dr. Westerhoff’s personal space! I am also continuing to work on the kitchen and another guest room, so I promise to keep you updated on that as well.