There’s only so far the modern imagination can go within the walls of a typical Colonial house. “We made it as modern as we could,” Andrea Walker remembers, enumerating changes like removing plantation shutters and eliminating a traditional fireplace mantel.
Those cosmetic efforts seem quaint while looking at the soaring glass walls and open-plan architecture of the new Bannockburn (Bethesda) home Andrea and Jeff Walker share with their children, Max, ten, and Chloe, eight.
With the help of architectural designer Stephen Shum of Workshop11 Inc, the couple designed their dream house—and filled it with Andrea’s own art, as well as furnishings and lighting Jeff made himself.
It was a long time coming.
After they decided they wanted to live in a home that better expressed their sensibilities, the couple drove through countless neighborhoods looking for a rancher-style house to overhaul. They wrote down the addresses of ones they liked, and sent a letter to each owner—hundreds of them in all, Andrea says—explaining the Walker family’s situation and asking the owner to consider selling.
“We simply want to raise our kids on a great street in a great neighborhood,” the letter read.
Finally, they heard back from a homeowner who said her neighbor might consider selling. The house was more than Andrea and Jeff had hoped for: a midcentury ranch style at the end of a cul de sac, with nothing but woods out back.
“I think it’s rare to find this setting,” says Andrea, 41. “You can’t really underestimate the specialness.”
Scoring the property was the final piece to the puzzle—the couple had already been interviewing architects and builders during the neighborhood search. They hired Shum, whose geometric, modernist aesthetic they admire, along with his artistic touches, such as deep-red mahogany paneling on his exteriors and hand-forged steel interior accents throughout.
“Stephen’s an artist” and not just a builder, Andrea says, pointing to the home’s sculptural steel banisters, steel-lined niches in the living area, and the steel accent wall that frames the fireplace and television.
She can identify with that inclination. She leads strategy development at a large professional association by day, but is also a talented artist in her free time. She was drawn to painting early on by her art-teacher mother, who made paintings for her childhood room and hand-painted a floral border on her ceiling to match the flowers on her bedspread. Now, Andrea’s work can be found displayed on Max and Chloe’s walls.
Likewise, Jeff, an attorney for the federal government, finds his outlet in his workshop—the one he meticulously organized in the basement of their new house. Designer Shum is a “closet perfectionist,” Andrea notes, just like her husband. “Those two got along like nobody’s business.”
“We were able to push each other,” Shum says of the collaboration. For example, Shum made sure the dining-area design would prominently feature the chandelier Jeff built and strung along with help from Chloe’s small hands. Shum also had Jeff’s first furniture creation, a bamboo console, in mind when he arranged the second-story loft, which is Max and Chloe’s domain. In Shum’s home workshop in Potomac, the men built the striking live-edge zebrawood vanity that highlights the main-floor powder room.
It was easy for the design process to involve the kids, who were already immersed in modernism from helping Dad build a contemporary hutch for Max’s guinea pigs and a doghouse for Chloe’s stuffed pup.
They were totally vested in the new house, Jeff says, even from the beginning, when they decorated bricks taken from the original house and rode their scooters through the site before construction started. As the new house took shape on the footprint of the old one, Chloe and Max chose the tile that accents each of their bathrooms. Chloe also took apart a colorful light fixture that was too big for the scale of her bedroom, and with her dad’s help restrung it to fit.
When Andrea ordered some kid-friendly faux deer heads to hang on the wall in Chloe’s room, she decided to appropriate them for the living room after they arrived. “They were too cool” to hide away, she says. “Our style is modern, but we also like a little whimsy.”
The living room has another nod to childhood: The Harry Bertoia wire-frame Diamond chairs that belonged to Jeff’s best friend’s family when he was growing up. Years later, when his friend’s mother sold her house to retire in Florida, she gave the vintage pieces to Jeff, knowing he’d always admired them.
Moving through each space in the house—there are few walled-off rooms—Andrea describes them in terms of experiences she’s shared with family and friends. “The no-walls approach is really about family, and us being together,” she says. “Because we are apart during the day, we like to be together when we’re home.”
She refers to hangouts on the screened porch; homework sessions on the huge kitchen island; morning cuddles with Chloe on the office sofa; Max playing catch with his dad from the glass-rail balcony; Chloe practicing gymnastics with friends in the living area. “We wanted to make sure every part of the house is used, and that it’s us,” Andrea says.
Stephen Shum credits the Walkers as much as his own team for the final result. “It’s always a fun experience to work with people who are that involved in a project—there’s a sense of ownership you create [with the clients] that’s pretty invaluable,” he says.
“We’re so proud of this house,” Andrea says—as are the kids. Chloe’s favorite space is the loft, where her mom’s Lichtenstein-inspired portrait of a woman hangs prominently. “It’s a pretty cool house,” Max adds, noting that his bedroom is his favorite retreat. “It has more space to do stuff, and I just like how it looks.”
Walker Family Favorites
Favorite Local Home Stores:
Daniel Donnelly in Alexandria—he made the ottoman in our living room—and Room & Board, where we’ve spent many hours testing furniture and finding inspiration.
Best Online Shopping:
Next On The Decorating List:
Night tables. We still have the ones my parents bought when they were married.
The Clarisonic Mia 2 skin-cleansing system. I’ve been trying out lots of products for the “not getting any younger” crowd.
Favorite Family Destination:
Cities. Recently, we took the kids to San Francisco and New York, and they happily walked miles and miles. In Times Square, Chloe said, ‘I was meant for this!’
Favorite DC Museum:
The Hirshhorn. With kids, the National Museum of Natural History.
I Love Modern Design Because:
It feels creative, unique, and uncomplicated.
Best DIY Decorating Advice
Marry a guy who develops a passion for designing and building furniture. And use a variety of textures and colors that make you happy.
I’ve recently gotten into redesigning pieces of jewelry that belonged to my mom and grandmother. I feel their love and strength when I wear them.
All the toppings at a fro-yo bar. Those chocolate rocks are my favorite!