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With a Focus on Neutral Tones and European Flair, This 1930s Chicago Home by Wendy Labrum Is Seriously Chic

Interior designer Wendy Labrum recently completed a classic Chicago greystone townhouse for close friends of hers (portrait by Heather Talbert). Top: The living room’s custom curving couch and bespoke Italian-inspired armchairs keep company with a Maison Ramsay coffee table, Serge Mouille floor lamp and Charlotte Perriand Berger stool. The artwork to the left of the 18th-century fireplace mantel is by Daniel Mullen, and the piece atop it is by Daniil Alikov. All photos by Aimee Mazzenga unless otherwise noted

She may have studied art history in college and taken courses in interior design, but Wendy Labrum didn’t set out to be an interior designer. She planned instead on becoming an attorney. Upon graduation, she scored a plum job working in a big Chicago law firm but quickly realized the bar was not for her. Marrying soon after, she switched focus and went into public relations. “I wasn’t great at it,” she confesses.

Two back-to-back strikeouts in the search for a career can rattle a twentysomething’s confidence. Happily for Labrum, fate intervened. In 2005, the company her husband worked for transferred him to its London office for a two-year stint. While there, she soaked up the art and architecture in the city and on the Continent and resolved to build a career based on her own creativity. 

Back in Chicago, she set up shop, quickly growing an interior-design business with the help of referrals. Her own family grew with commensurate speed—she now has four children, the eldest 15, the youngest one. Interestingly, being a mother and a busy professional proved an advantage. Labrum attracted clients similar to her in age and situation seeking a designer who knew how to assemble a stylish interior that was child savvy, crafted with durable materials and affording plenty of storage for toys, tech and games.

While that might have meant turning her circle of friends into clients, Labrum doesn’t like to mix the two. But when a couple she calls her “dearest friends,” who also have four children, asked her to handle the interior design of a historic greystone townhouse they had recently purchased in Chicago’s Lakewood neighborhood, near Wrigley Field, she couldn’t refuse.

Why? “I know them so well. And what they like,” she says. “Plus, they have tremendous trust in me.” 

Another plus was that this was an interesting project. The greystone had been converted from three apartments into a single-family home not long before. Labrum describes that renovation as “bumpy:” Some of it worked well, like the handsome de Giulio kitchen and the new fittings in the bathrooms, but some of it didn’t, like unattractive fireplace mantels and lighting fixtures that clashed with the interior architecture. Other rooms were complete blank slates. 

Labrum paired a clean-lined, custom 15-foot-long sectional and a ridged-limestone fireplace surround of her own design with largely MID-CENTURY MODERN pieces. These include a pair of Afra and Tobia Scarpa Soriana lounge chairs, a black-leather ILlum Wikkelsø lounge chair from Hunt Modern, a French floor lamp from Space Modern, an Italian side table from Novecento, a coffee table from Jean-Marc Fray French Antiques and a pair of stools by Paul McCobb.

Another issue was the contrasting tastes of husband and wife: He favors all things modern, and she loves antiques. So, with diplomatic skill, Labrum wove together elements of both to create a cosmopolitan family sanctuary. 

Executed in deep, subdued tones, Labrum’s weaving of decorative elements is full of verve, interest and intention. In the living room, at the front of the house, her choice of an 18th-century marble surround for the fireplace adds to the home’s sense of history, and her specially designed curved, gray-velvet sofa highlights the architecture of the handsome wide bay. 

A built-in home-office nook between the kitchen and family room features a PIERRE JEANNERET Sénat chair reupholstered in a
Schumacher silk velvet.

The moderne vibe of that sofa is echoed by the custom tobacco-toned-velvet “Italian-style” armchairs and the gilt-and-mirror Maison Ramsay coffee table, while a pair of custom-made steel X-benches with black leather seats straddle the realms of classic and modern. 

A sleek Serge Mouille floor lamp and a Charlotte Perriand Berger stool provide strong modern accents, as does the contemporary art, which Labrum personally selected. In fact, the geometric acrylic painting by Daniel Mullen on the wall is part of a pair the other member of which hangs on the wall of Labrum’s own house.  

In the dining room, a Stilnovo chandelier from 1stDibs hangs over an EERO SAARINEN TULIP TABLE surrounded by POUL KJÆRHOLM PK9 dining chairs for FRITZ HANSEN. The artwork is by Vicky Barranguet.

The adjoining dining area is furnished with an Eero Saarinen Tulip table and Poul Kjærholm PK9 dining chairs for Fritz Hansen, as well as an imposing vintage Stilnovo chandelier that Labrum discovered on 1stDibs. The furniture mix is unabashedly mid-century modern, yet the pieces, with their light and graceful lines, radiate a refinement similar in feel to that of the Louis-style furnishings the wife so loves.

Still, it took some convincing for her, and even her husband, to agree to the purchase of the Stilnovo chandelier, because of its large and striking form. Now, both agree it makes the room. 

A Gubi pendanT LIGHt (one of three in the room) hangs over the granite-topped kitchen island. The ceramic vessel is a vintage Mexican piece.

Though narrow, Chicago greystones are known for having particularly deep footprints as townhouses go, extending far back into their lots. This one is no exception. At the rear of the building, beyond the kitchen, is a large space for a family room, made bright and airy here by a window wall and a delicately geometric bronze balustrade, improvements introduced during the renovation that converted the building into a private home. 

A less welcome addition was a motley assortment of contemporary lighting fixtures above the staircase. Labrum replaced these with a simple trio of suspended glass globes. 

For the family room, she commissioned a clean-lined, 15-foot-long sectional, which the entire clan can sprawl out on while watching movies, and installed white-oak millwork on the wall opposite the sofa to make the space more welcoming. A ridged-limestone fireplace surround of her own design provides a touch of contemporary polish. The other pieces are all mid-century modern. Their neutral tones, quiet fluid lines and plush velvet upholstery and pillows signal comfort and warmth.

Labrum clad the walls of the primary bedroom in a PhiLlip Jeffries charcoal-gray grasscloth, then added an antique LOUIS XVI ebonized desk and coordinating dresser from Antiques on Old Plank Road and another Pierre Jeanneret Sénat chair reupholstered in a Schumacher silk velvet. The ceiling fixture is an Angelo Lelii counterbalance architectural light from Showplace – Luxury.

In the bedrooms, traditional decor comes to the fore. Although sparsely furnished, the couple’s suite is wonderfully moody and dramatic, its walls covered in a charcoal-gray grasscloth. Here, the haute style of the antique Louis XVI ebonized desk and dresser, from Antiques on Old Plank Road, defines the atmosphere, although Labrum mitigates the rigor with a Pierre Jeanneret Sénat chair upholstered in pale apricot Schumacher silk velvet by the desk and a tiny gilt-framed vintage mirror hung off-kilter on one side of the bed. 

The children’s rooms are also traditional, but more playful than the main suite. The triplet daughters, two of whom are identical and one fraternal, got to share their color preferences and see them realized: The identical pair were mad for pink, so the romantic young bedroom they occupy features blush draperies, a Fornasetti wallpaper of billowing clouds and twin gray sheepskin poufs. “It’s a pretty but sophisticated room they can grow up in,” Labrum says fondly. 

Their fraternal sister, by contrast, adores purple. So, she has a bedroom befitting a princess royal, as witness the scalloped, upholstered headboard with puce silk canopy and malachite-patterned wallpaper in smoky lavender. 

In the bedroom shared by the clients’ other two daughters, the FORNASETTI wallpaper makes a statement. The wall light mounted above the beds is by Serge Mouille, the artwork by Rick Lewis, and the beds and sheepskin poufs are custom pieces designed by Labrum herself.

The triplets’ younger  brother, Labrum says, has been “obsessed” with airplanes since he was a toddler. In keeping with his skyward gaze, she chose one of the German artist Thomas Eigel’s plane photos and a star light pendant as the room’s main focal points. There’s also an antique Empire-style dresser with a white marble top and a bold Rug Company Greek-key-patterned carpet, which literally grounds the room. 

“It has been a dream to design this home for my friends,” says Labrum, reflecting on the project. “I’ve already had the opportunity to watch them really settle in and grow as a family through birthday parties, movie nights and casual hangouts. That doesn’t usually happen post-installation, and it has been such a treat.”

Wendy Labrum’s Quick Picks

Flemish tapestry, 16th century, offered by Le Louvre French Antiques
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Flemish tapestry, 16th century, offered by Le Louvre French Antiques

“I love antique tapestries. They bring a sense of history and patina to any space, particularly new-construction homes that need some timeworn elements.”  

Swedish neoclassical alabaster pendant, 1900, offered by Eileen Lane Antiques
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Swedish neoclassical alabaster pendant, 1900, offered by Eileen Lane Antiques

“I love the warm tones in this alabaster pendant. It will diffuse soft light and bring a sense of quiet elegance to a room without demanding too much attention.”

Paolo Buffa center or games table, 1940s, offered by soyun k.
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Paolo Buffa center or games table, 1940s, offered by soyun k.

“I’m a huge Paolo Buffa fan. His iconic pieces bring the right amount of interest to any room and play well in the sandbox with French, Scandinavian and American pieces.”

Otto Schulz for Boet lounge chairs, 1940s, offered by Helmer Design & Antik
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Otto Schulz for Boet lounge chairs, 1940s, offered by Helmer Design & Antik

“These chairs are at once über chic and very comfortable. Their shape envelopes you,  while they are sculptural enough to float in a room. And the texture pairs well with any fabric.”

RDLC Lätt 2.0 console, new, offered by Difane
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RDLC Lätt 2.0 console, new, offered by Difane

“I’m a sucker for interesting marble used in unique ways. I love the shape and color of this table. It’s at once contemporary and organic. I could see it in a mountain or beach house.”

Danish Banana sofa, 1940s, offered by H. Gallery
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Danish Banana sofa, 1940s, offered by H. Gallery

“I love curved sofas. They facilitate conversation and look sculptural in a room. This one could float or wrap a corner.”

Le Corbusier Borne Bétone Petite table lamp, new, designed 1952, offered by Pavilion Antiques
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Le Corbusier Borne Bétone Petite table lamp, new, designed 1952, offered by Pavilion Antiques

“Because every space needs some Le Courbusier. This contemporary cast-concrete version is friendly on the wallet.”

Louis XVI–style fireplace, 19th century, offered by De Opkamer Antique Fireplaces
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Louis XVI–style fireplace, 19th century, offered by De Opkamer Antique Fireplaces

“The shape of this fireplace mantel and the color of the marble are so unique. An antique marble mantel is one of the best ways to bring some drama to a space.”

Italian Louis XV–style chests, 18th century, offered by Cedric DuPont Antiques
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Italian Louis XV–style chests, 18th century, offered by Cedric DuPont Antiques

“I love detailed marquetry work, particularly on commodes and dressers like these. They would be fantastic in a living room paired with contemporary upholstery or as bathroom vanities.”

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