Think about the last time you stood anxiously in front of a new sofa in a furniture store, staring it down like you were in a Wild West shootout and it was the nemesis that would be the undoing of your carefully honed design sense. Then multiply that sensation by about a million, and you know what it feels like to design a whole house from the ground up. Are your palms sweating yet? Ours too. Starting from scratch is a daunting task even for the most home savvy among us—from the boatload of technical knowledge involved, right down to the sea of decorating decisions you'll need to make.
And that's exactly why we asked Chicago-based architect, decorator, and design-build firm founder, Linc Thelen to break down ten of the most important things to consider—from materials and architectural details to color schemes and countertops—with a just-completed vacation home on the shores of Lake Michigan as his stunning example.
1. Know Your Vernacular. The home's façade boasts distinctive farmhouse stylings, but their subtle execution ensures it doesn't feel like a set piece. The steeply sloped frame, standing seam porch roof, and single windows on the main house borrow from the country vernacular without leaning too down-home for the lakeside setting or the modern interiors.
2. Go For Durability. The distinctive exterior appears to be white-painted cedar—a traditional choice for a home of this style. "But with the winters here, you'd have to repaint the house every few years," explains Thelen. So he cleverly recreated the look with pristine cement board, a no maintenance surface perfect for a second home in a harsh climate.
3. Create a Motif. A repeated shape, no matter how subtle, ties a design together and keeps even a simple exterior from feeling too cookie cutter. The "x" shape used on the front porch railing is picked up again on the garage door. Inside, the dining table base and the bunk room's sliding barn door pick up the pattern.
4. Get a New Bestie. Thelen's advice for building a home from the ground up? "Really get to know the [architect's] work and take the time to feel comfortable with them, because it’s a long term relationship. You’re probably gonna spend two years of your life with this person."
5. Leave Room for Spontaneity. As a design-build firm, Thelen's business guides each of their homes from blueprint to finishing touches, but that doesn't mean every last decorative detail is selected in advance. "The process has to be organic. If it’s too contrived it feels phoney."
6. Don't Take It Literally. The farmhouse is just steps from Lake Michigan, but its seaside references are subtle and spare. A cheeky fish print wallpaper in the kids' bath recalls Midcentury graphics, the bunk room's single beds indulge in a simple rope accent, and two artfully distressed oars hang on a wall.
7. Be a Pinterest Professional. One of the first things Thelen does with new clients is create a shared Pinterest board to download all of their ideas. "I’ll tell them to collect as many images as possible and use those to see what they gravitate towards and what specific elements we can recreate."
8. Indulge in a Summer House-Only Space. Vacation homes often get short shrift when it comes to customization, but Thelen chose to create one room specifically for days spent lake- and poolside. A full bathroom with direct access to the backyard allows guests to use the facilities without tramping through the house, and offers two showers—one indoors and one out.
9. Design For Your Real Life. Kid– and dog-friendly surfaces were a must for this busy household. In the kitchen, the countertop is made of soapstone, a staple surface in confectionaries that can be sealed with mineral oil and won't stain. The floors throughout are whitewashed so they won't easily show wear and tear.
10. Keep it Simple, Stupid. Designing a home start to finish in one go is incredibly daunting. Thelen suggests choosing a color scheme, and letting it be a constant loose guide for the many choices that come with the process. "The whole house follows a blue-and-white theme," says Thelen, "but the different materials, textures, and patterns keep it from feeling to planned."
To see more of Linc Thelen's home projects, follow him on Instagram: @lincthelen7