Cookie-Cutter No More: Reimagining Old Designs for a New Millennium

Recently, Styleblueprint.com published the below article where Ridley is interviewed on how to best update houses from the era of the “suburban surge” – 1980-2000.  Thanks to the author Stacey Wiedower whose words we reprint here.

Tray ceilings, wainscoting and carpet, carpet, carpet. In the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, home construction saw a massive surge as American suburbs expanded. Square footage soared, but design didn’t advance at quite the same pace.

It was the era of the McMansion, when houses went up as quickly as builders could turn them around. And inside, homes of this era have a lot in common.

“I think Nashville was behind the times, style-wise, and many houses even built into the 2000s are really ’90s or late ’80s houses,” says Ridley Wills, founder of Nashville design-build firm The Wills Company. “Every house had these brown, thick finishes, lots of roofline, lots of architectural features going on.”

BEFORE: This carpeted stairway bound by wooden bannisters is classic ’80s design.

AFTER: By getting rid of the sharp angles and wooden handrail, and swapping out wood for iron for the bannister, this reimagined staircase has a more refined, updated feel.

Today, a different sort of revolution is taking place in the residential landscape, with a focus on smart design. Instead of maximizing space, it’s about taking the space you have and using it to its max potential. Instead of mirroring your neighbor, it’s about infusing your space with your own unique personality.

In other words, cookie-cutter is out.

That’s why, for The Wills Company, these ’80s, ’90s and early-2000s houses represent not a page from the design past, but an opportunity for the future. More and more clients are coming to the firm asking for a revamp of their homes’ tired ’90s-era style.

“We’re doing one right now with big, huge rooms and a big, huge, circular staircase,” Ridley says. “It’s a young couple in there, and they said, ‘What do we do with this?’ They’ve got four boys, and they needed more room.”

The goal for The Wills Company is to help the family open up the space while also minimizing adornment and lightening the finishes — essentially, taking that 1990s space and making it read 2018. “They have one of everything in there — a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s a hodge-podge of styles,” Ridley says. “The more we can simplify, the better off it’s going to be stylistically.”

Certain features of ’90s-era homes, like built-in TV niches, are over and not coming back. Others, like tray ceilings and built-in bookcases, will cycle in and out of style. But for a house that reads right now, overloading on architectural detail is out, Ridley says.

“We did another house off Granny White,” he says. “It had more vaulted ceilings than you can imagine, and that’s very typical of that period. We kept the high ceilings but got rid of all the fancy detailing, and that helped.”

BEFORE: Note the multiple levels in this tray ceiling.

AFTER: The same bathroom has scaled back crown molding while the ceiling height remains unchanged.

Something else that helps is to focus drama into one room or one feature so it makes the intended impact. For example, in a 2018 space you might see a charcoal fireplace wall in a house otherwise painted all white. In the ’80s and ’90s, though, drama exploded from every surface.

“Every room does not have to be vaulted and uber-special,” Ridley says. “Focus on where you want that drama to be, and let the other spaces be less. It gives the space that has drama all the more drama. When you do every room with a vaulted or tray ceiling, it gives no specialness to the rooms that do have it.”

We all know openness is the hallmark of modern-day design. On every HGTV show, in every shelter mag and on every home design blog, open and airy spaces abound. And typically, the first thing a homeowner charged with updating an ’80s or ’90s space wants to do is open it up.

That’s important, Ridley says. But the renovation also needs to fit the size, shape and style of the house. “You can be more communicative between the rooms, but you need to let it be the house that it is,” he says. “Don’t try to turn it into a New York loft because it’s not going to be a New York loft no matter what you do. Edit it down. Get rid of some of the fussiness of it.” That alone, he says, will help the space feel more open.

Another way to open up a space is to focus on its entry point. In many ’90s-era homes, for example, rooms with 10-foot ceilings are accessed by 6-foot, 8-inch doors. “Sometimes just raising the doors helps in these rooms to open up the space,” Ridley says. The same goes for bathroom countertops, which trend several inches taller than in the ’80s and ’90s.

BEFORE: French doors and a relatively short archway (in comparison to the tall ceilings) make the space feel cluttered and claustrophobic.

AFTER: Getting rid of the French doors shown in the “before” shot and heightening the archway are both impactful ways to make the space feel more open.

BEFORE: Note the recessed lighting and the height of the bathroom countertops.

AFTER: The recessed lighting was swapped out for tasteful sconces, and the countertop is slightly higher, a simple swap that makes a big impact.

BEFORE: This is a textbook ’80s his and hers bathroom — a luxury of the era.

AFTER: The same space has an updated feel thanks to a new, taller countertop, modern fixtures and new flooring — a tasteful blend of both hardwood and marble.

Flooring is another fix that can help turn a tired ’90s design into a modern-day space. In the ’90s many rooms were carpeted, including living rooms, dining rooms and sometimes even bathrooms. Now, hardwood rules the day. Adding hardwood flooring, painting wood-tone trim and changing out light fixtures and hardware are easy updates that go a long way, even without a full-scale renovation.

Another easy update, of course, is paint. The jewel tones of the ’90s and Tuscan hues of the 2000s are out, replaced by cool neutrals like white, cream and gray. “Paint can make a huge difference,” Ridley says. “Edit down, get it cleaner, get the lines and details consistent throughout the house.”

The 1980s, he adds, were the era of “Dynasty” and “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” He credits (perhaps blames) these nighttime television dramas for giving rise to an era of “more is more.”

“It’s all of that era – sequins, beads,” he says. “Everybody was trying to create that in their own house. That’s fun from a nostalgia standpoint, but everything doesn’t have to be the fanciest thing.”

Even if your home screams ’90s on the outside, inside it can be a clean-lined, relaxing retreat that speaks to the modern era. “Your house is not going to be this uber-modern home on the outside, but the interior decorating can be,” he says. “Interior design can go a long way in a house like that, and it’s worth investing in the decorating.”

For example, he and his team recently worked on a house with a giant living room with vaulted ceilings and an ornate center staircase that divided the space — in other words, drama from floor to ceiling. The homeowners struggled with where to place the furniture.

“There was no wall good for seating, and no one wanted to sit in there because it was so cavernous,” he explains. “So we made it into a grand, wonderful dining room. You can consider repurposing rooms — they don’t have to be what you thought they were. And the dining room is an example of a room that can move — it’s just a table. Most new houses don’t even have dining rooms.”

Along these lines, Ridley’s number one tip is to take the cues your home is already giving you, apply your taste and style, and think about ways your house can embrace the way you live. Pare it down to the essentials — that’s what modern living is really all about.

“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” Ridley says. “It’s also about simplifying. What do you like about the house? Let’s work with that.”

To learn more about The Wills Company, visit willscompany.com.

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