Southerners are getting savvier in the way they live―from building green to scouting antiques deals on eBay. In Kansas City, interior designer Ben Sundermeier does his part to help style-conscious homeowners give an urban locale a shot. But Ben doesn't just talk the talk. His own home is an ultra-hip loft that was once a group of rooms in a hotel. Completely overhauled, his digs display all the collective coolness that you would expect. But don't assume this designer values style over comfort. Ben knows how to blend both, and it shows. We asked him to spill his secrets for putting together a dreamy downtown space.
Q: Tell us, how do you turn a less-than-impressive space that was once a hotel into a comfy home?
I was very particular about staying true to the original bones of the place. I wanted to keep the structural shell―floors, ceilings, and walls―as exposed as possible. The coffered concrete ceilings in my loft, for instance, were great and didn't need to be covered up. All the new air-conditioning, plumbing, and electrical systems are hidden in a soffit. Other than that, what you see is what you get.
I chose to stick with two or three color palettes to keep the space from looking too visually complicated. All the walls and ceilings are painted the same neutral color―but not a stark white.
Q: Your concrete floors are top-notch. What's the trick to warming them up?
I covered the floors with a warmer gray latex paint and then waxed them several times. The wash of color, rather than a stain or polyurethane, is more environmentally friendly with less fumes and odors. For the sitting areas, I threw down rugs to create some softness underfoot.
Q: You have a great mix of traditional and contemporary things. Is that hard to pull off?
I already had about 50% of the furnishings, and in this space I challenged myself to use them in different ways and in different rooms. That's the thing: Hold onto what you like, sell or toss what you don't, and add from there. Don't make preset rules, only to be limited by them. I enjoy using furniture pieces that have a double-duty purpose because they allow an open space to function as the situation calls.
Q: Got a favorite piece?
The painting hanging above the first sitting area as you walk through the front door. The space needed a large element to tie it together. It reminds me of a cross between a cityscape and an abstract. Because I pulled the colors into the rest of the room, the painting doesn't overwhelm the space.
For some furniture, I liked the shapes and lines, but I didn't care much for their upholstery, so I slipcovered various chairs. Besides being easy to clean, slipcovers are a great way to establish a comfortable, relaxed look.
We love the way you have different seating areas set up through your loft. Any reason for this type of arranging?"] I enjoy entertaining, and at any party, people break off into groups. So, in a way, I'm acknowledging this by setting up three sitting areas in my loft, which work well for larger groups. I often light just one area when entertaining a small group. It helps say, “Sit here,” without me having to tell guests anything.
Q: Tell us about that happenin' fireplace!
An eye-catcher, isn't it? Because it's ventless, I basically could have built it anywhere in the loft. It just made sense to become the focal point for the main seating area. Because there are no walls or divisions, you still need some kind of visual anchor.
Q: We see you skipped the mantel. Why?
I love the fact that there is no mantel because it creates a very strong, graphic look. For the grate, I used heavy rusted iron strapping, which keeps the firebox open below.
Q: Let's talk about your master bath. How did you ever come up with the idea of using mirrors to separate the vanity from the tub?
Natural light is important to have anywhere in your house, especially in your bath. It's helpful to be able to look out and get a sense of the weather. For the four large windows, I installed motorized shades, but most of thetime they're open. Because I wanted to maintain the views, I puzzled for some time on how to hang mirrors at the vanities without them blocking the sunlight. That's when the idea of installing them as individual panels came to me. It keeps everything open and bright from both sides.
Q: Why do you think loft living is becoming so popular across the South?
Surprisingly, many of my clients who choose to move into a place downtown are baby boomers who are experiencing empty-nest syndrome. The things you give up to live downtown, such as mowing the yard or replacing the roof, aren't a bad trade-off. You're within walking distance of great restaurants and other attractions. You don't have to seek out the action―it's happening around you.
"Dowtown Comfort" is from the February 2008 issue of Southern Living.