A tour of an 1880s Victorian home with historic charm and modern details

When Emily and Dan Kirchner’s house hunt in River Forest, IL, began their search for a home, they knew a cookie cutter wouldn’t cut it. With its leaded glass windows and original millwork, the Victorian era of the 1880s they landed on is anything but. However, it was also painted from tip to toe in shades of terracotta and didn’t fit the couple’s dreams of super clean, modern (for Dan), lively, collected, and not too perfect (for Emily).

To help them realize their vision—and make sure the home was functional and comfortable for four kids and a dog—they turned to designer Megan Opel. “Emily didn’t want her house to look decorated right away, and she wasn’t in a rush,” says Opel. Over time, Opel has helped orchestrate the couple’s inspiration and collections, mixing it with a housewide base of creamy white paint, black accent pieces, and a few hand-picked contemporary furniture pieces and durability.

Dan Kirchner with his wife Emily, children Chloe, Eve, Andrew, Madeleine, and Izzy’s dog.
Nathan Kirkman

Emily is a self-proclaimed booze lover who is, in her words, a “Facebook market obsessed.” Meanwhile, her husband Dan prefers the more modern design. They define their common appearance as Parisian: a jumble of antiques from different eras and styles atop the elegant architecture of their home.

Dan favors modern pieces with clean lines, like the large hallway pendant and Eames Hang-It-All coatrack; Both are in black to mimic the original front door and leaded glass side lamps.

Nathan Kirkman

To help their groups feel united and create a flow between rooms, Opel relied on a narrow palette of white, black, and dark gray (presented in the dining room rug and in brass, leather, and wood trim).

“If everything was old, the house might look like an antiques store,” says Opel. Case in point, this dining room set of antique crystal chandelier and custom stand table and Eames dining chairs: something old, something new, something modern (and erasable too). Really happy marriage.

When you’re looking for something in particular, Opel tells local antiques dealers to keep an eye on it. That’s how the 1930s toy store display case ended up here.

Nathan Kirkman

Opel has updated the original sculpted shelf with new white paint and black marble tiles—a high-contrast update to the soft-gray hue there before.

Megan Opel, designer

“It’s okay to try things in different rooms and see what works. The beauty of decorating in neutral colors is that you don’t have to make plans.”

— Megan Opel, designer

Nathan Kirkman

The entire house, including the original carved wood balustrades, got a new coat of paint: adobe from Restoration Hardware. “The very creamy white is perfect for an old house with high ceilings,” Opel says. “The brighter white would have looked sterile.”

She paired the iconic Nelson platform stool with a tattered antique Oushak rug to create “cool tension” and littered the staircase with black and white graphic panels. When searching for antique rugs online, Opel chats with the seller to confirm the piece is vintage (not just vintage) and requests additional photos or even videos of its selection.

Nathan Kirkman

Opel specified sturdy new sofas (with stain-resistant fabric), rugs, and lighting so they could go some distance in the crowded family room. She mixed in an antique marble-top coffee table and a pair of ottomans she found on Etsy and re-covered them to coordinate with the new fireplace surround. “For pillows, I like to splurge on designer fabrics, then buy zippers and tape online and bring all the supplies to my dry cleaning tailor to sew for about $25,” Opel says.

Emily Kirchner, Homeowner

“I love decorating and designing – it’s the love of my family.”

– Emily Kirchner, homeowner

The distinctive Opel design approach is displayed along the shelf: an extra-tall antique mirror surrounded by a vase of foliage and sculptural objects. Fill a vase so that the height of most of the stems is about two-thirds the height of the mirror. For the shelf design, mix the shapes: chests, carved notebooks (check real estate sales for leather-bound books), or a bowl with a string of glass beads.

Nathan Kirkman

The black spindle bed (new Jenny Lind’s new look) is made in a go-to style by Opel: plain white sheets, a comforter with a pair of European pillows (use a triple for a king bed, opposite), a single cotton pillowcase, and a pleated quilt. “They can easily change quilts and pillows so the room grows with them over time,” Opel says.

The pine floors were painted a dark brown, so the couple weren’t afraid to repaint it white. “Now you feel like you’re in an artist’s studio,” Emily says.

Nathan Kirkman

“Dan’s style is very modern, and Emily’s is more romantic,” Opel says. She softened her elegant black iron bed (a remnant of their former home) with fluffy cotton quilts, artfully patterned pillows, and layered rugs. Opel uses knotwood throughout the house for some French flair for deco. “Guaranteed, each piece has its own unique style,” she says.

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