It’s island time for one Golden Valley family, and they don’t have to travel to Jamaica, Bora Bora or the Maldives for their enjoyment. All they have to do is go home.
An architect-led remodeling of the family’s kitchen means that they now have a wavy, 17-foot-long island that folds like origami sides. Aesthetically pleasing, this piece of statement furniture also is efficient and functional. A place for meals, ad-hoc working and a central station for the family’s comings and goings, it is the convivial heart of their home.
“We spend the majority of our time at home in the kitchen,” homeowner Tessa Wolff said. “We eat there, do art there, chat and hang out. It’s the central part of our home.”
It can be difficult for designers and architects to get that part right. That’s because “there are more demands on the kitchen than on any other place in the home,” said architect Ben Awes. “As architects, we accept the challenge to make it all it can be.”
Awes and his team from CityDeskStudio designed the renovation, called Stitch in Time, which won a Home of the Month honor from the partnership of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Star Tribune.
Charlie and Tessa Wolff bought the bespoke four-story house near Theodore Wirth Park in October 2018, becoming its second owners. It was designed and built by architect Rick Moore in 1989 for his family.
“It’s a very strong concept of squares that are rotated 45 degrees, so the house looks like it has diamonds everywhere,” Awes said. “Those details show up on the exterior, in the living room, through all the railings of the house, through the corner post of the three-story atrium in the middle of the home. It’s rare to see a house where the concept of the home extends through all the smallest details.”
That distinctive faceted design immediately drew the Wolffs, who have backgrounds in advertising and IT staffing.
“It’s pretty striking from the outside and is surrounded by old-growth trees,” said Charlie, a creative director of an advertising agency. “When I pulled up to see the house the day it went on the market, I texted Tessa saying I don’t know if we needed to go inside. I was just so taken with it.”
They did go inside, and there the romance continued. They were smitten by the modern design, the privacy offered by the trees and the natural light that flooded the home, including into a three-story atrium.
The woodsy setting and strong architectural language appealed to both Charlie, originally from leafy Dellwood, and Tessa, whose father, author, woodworker and journalist Spike Carlsen, had built the Stillwater area home she grew up in. It, too, had an open concept with balconies and lofts and a stairway running through the middle.
“This house echoes back to both of our childhoods,” Tessa said.
But the kitchen in their new home bugged the couple, the parents of toddlers, and the architects alike.
That’s because, in the words of architect Awes, “the kitchen was landlocked and failing at its primary job of connecting the spaces of the home together.”
It was closed off from other spaces on the floor, including the vaulted atrium and a TV/office area that served as a mother-in-law pad.
It also was too small for the scale of the house, Charlie said. And, importantly, it didn’t have the same architectural language as the rest of the house.
“The old kitchen didn’t have that flow that was conducive to the way we live,” Tessa said. “We have two little girls. It needed to be opened up so that we could really live in it and move around.”
They decided that they needed to hire an architect. Awes, who had won numerous accolades and had worked with both Ralph Rapson and Julie Snow before founding his own practice, came highly recommended.
“We didn’t want just some sycophantic people who would sort of take our money and do what we wanted,” Charlie said. “We wanted someone who would challenge us and do what was right for the house. That’s why we hire people — for their brains, opinions and expertise.”
The first challenge came early for the Wolffs, after they had seen about a dozen potential layouts drawn up by Awes and his team, including architect Chris Bach. The couple started seesawing between a couple of sketches when Charlie asked a question that Awes wishes his clients would ask more: Is there anything here that we’re missing? Is there a favorite that they’re not responding to?
“Ben and Chris pulled a design that we hadn’t really considered, and, surprise, surprise, that’s the design that’s now in the house,” Charlie said.
Charlie serves as the family’s main cook and grocery shopper. He prepares Asian and vegetarian cuisine, including dal.
“I’m really good at making grilled cheese, and that’s about it,” Tessa said. “I can make a killer bowl of cereal. Charlie keeps us well-fed.”
The architects’ work included installing a baking counter behind the island with a convection oven and a smaller speed oven that the family uses like a microwave.
There are also two sinks, one for preparation that also has a filter for drinking water. There’s a knife block built into a prep drawer where Charlie does most of his dinner prep.
A pandemic project
The demo happened in March 2020, just as the pandemic shut down everything. For the next six months, while workmen pounded away upstairs, the family life was centered in the basement.
“We were home 24 hours a day with two kids and two of us working full-time and no kitchen,” Tessa said. “We had a hot plate. Every day we got to go up and see what the workers had done. It was a bad time for sure, but it was also special and super-memorable.”
One of the biggest challenges that the Wolffs faced was over the color scheme for the cabinets. They wrung their hands about that for six months.
“We were going to go to the safe default Scandinavian choice, which is wood and white, but our architects were pretty adamant that these cabinets should not be white,” Charlie said.
After looking at 3-D models in virtual reality, they settled on mauve.
“Tessa and I agree on most things, although we give each other veto power,” Charlie said. “But that was a decision where we both landed on that color. It added to all the other more neutral, warm tones.”
They also were on the fence about whether or not the stove would have a slat wall that allows the family to see to the front door and that would admit light. It has tempered glass backsplash.
“At first I was freaking out about how hard it would be to clean, but that was mostly my mother’s voice in my head,” Charlie said. “Anytime she sees something interesting in a house, her first thought is, ‘Well, yeah, but can you imagine cleaning it?'”
The family also opened up a side of the house to see the flora and fauna. They added one window and made the one already there bigger. Now, they feel like they live in a nature preserve.
“One of the things we learned in two years before doing the kitchen renovation which I wouldn’t have been able to anticipate is that the area outside the house is basically a wildlife highway that goes from the neighborhood to Theodore Wirth Park,” Charlie said. “We see fox, deer, turkeys go through there. The original plans had a wall of cabinets, but we realized we needed a window there.”
The island also helps with a bit of culinary hat trick. It has enough storage space for everything in the kitchen to just disappear. Charlie credits Awes and company for their ability to “listen and to work collaboratively. They were really good partners all the way through who pushed us when we needed to be pushed.”
Now the Wolffs and their daughters, Louise, 7, and Priya, 5, get to live in a remodeled home that exceeded their expectations.
“Just to be able to interact with Charlie while he is cooking — that has been really awesome,” Tessa said. “We can be in the kitchen doing dishes, and we can see the girls playing. We have an eyeline to them, and that gives us a little more independence.”
It has been nearly two years since the renovation, and the Wolffs have gotten into a groove. Because of the age of their kids, they don’t expect to be cooking too many fancy meals for a while. But they did have a chance recently to see how their new kitchen, with its island centerpiece, works for larger gatherings. The occasion was a wake for Charlie’s grandmother.
“It was the first time we did something like that after the kitchen was done, and it was the perfect place for entertaining,” Tessa said. “I’m a big Oprah Winfrey fan, and she always says that when you walk through the door of your house, the house should rise to meet you. It should be your safe and happy sanctuary. I feel that way about our home.”
Stitch in Time
Project type: Remodel.
Project size: Less than 1,000 square feet.
Cost per square foot: $175.
Designing firm: CityDeskStudio.
Project team: Ben Awes, AIA; Chris Bach.