Creative Simplicity


Written by Brett Levine

Photographed by Graham Yelton

 

For creative director April Mraz, innovation is about understanding potential. For her new home in Mt Laurel, she began with the expected and then worked to make it truly her own. “The house plans were actually from Southern Living,” she explains, standing in the entryway anchored by a bold series of graphic numerical prints from Spicher and Company that cover an entire wall. “I worked with Town Builders, and with architect Clem Burch, who redesigned the interiors to create the structure and flow that I wanted. I loved the exterior,” she continues, “and I knew that with a few creative revisions I could have the spaces I had always imagined.”

After an incredibly short build—they broke ground in April and moved in September—the house is more than she could have anticipated. Architecturally, it is two residential wings separated by shared living spaces and a kitchen. “I wanted one space for myself and another for my son,” Mraz says. “I thought this was a wonderful way to give us each a sense of privacy and community.” Unifying the entire home is a color scheme focused on a series of warm greys. Dark grey cabinets, trim, molding, and beams are offset by light grey walls. “I was concerned at first it might feel too cold,” she says, “but the furniture and the floor coverings are really warm and in fact, the greys themselves are warm, too.” Even the floors have a custom wash with a just a hint of grey.

One of the home’s most exceptional features is the custom cabinetry found throughout the kitchen, the laundry, the mud room, and the bathrooms. “All the cabinets were designed by Ben Spradley of Sylacauga,” Mraz explains. Spradley understood what you might term the home’s “cottage simplicity,” constructing doors with simple square trim framing with elegant frosted glass. This tendency toward simplicity is echoed throughout the home. “In general, I tried to work with pattern and repetition that worked off the square,” Mraz says. “In my own design business, I am always focused on repetitive patterning, so I tended to emphasize these ideas in places like the dining room light fixture or the various floor coverings. To offset the business of each of these spaces, I wanted the actual architecture of the home to be as clean-lined and in many ways as hard-edged as possible. Actually, during the design process the two standard answers were ‘no rounded edges’ and ‘paint it grey.’”

Obviously the approach worked in part because Mraz understands that the true drama of a room comes as much from its furnishings as it does from its design. In the dining room, a curved banquette-style bench pairs with a round table to create two of the four seats for an intimate dinner. Even more whimsical are the Seletti Palace place settings, ceramic “buildings” that come apart to reveal a serving piece and stacked plates and bowls. “I really like the humor of them,” she says. “They are beautiful design objects, but they are also incredibly fun.” Next to the Seletti settings is a series of cast bottles that Mraz and her 7-year-old son created with materials found on site. “We literally cast some of the trash we found on site with mortar that was used to set the porch flagstone,” she shares. “It was really my son’s idea. And it was really incredibly beautiful.”

This ability to see the beauty in something others might throw away led Mraz to undertake one of the home’s most distinctive projects. Her son’s room includes a wall clad entirely in wood salvaged from pallets used to deliver materials to the jobsite. “I asked the contractors if they would please keep the pallets so I could salvage the wood from them,” she says. “To be honest, I really had no idea how hard it would be. But I was determined to do it. Five weekends of work later, I had separated, sanded, and stained the wood from 15 pallets, which was enough wood to have a finish carpenter come in and install the wall. Now I just have to make the wall display boxes with the wood I have left.”

Mraz’s unconventional approach to unusual wood accessories extended to the sliding doors that separate the dining room from the den. “There was some discussion of whether the doors would be sliding doors or French doors,” she explains. “Most of the other doors in the house are pocket doors, and apart from the pantry door, where I wanted to have that restaurant feel, I really prefer pocket doors where I can. But these doors were more unusual.

“I had a reasonably limited budget for custom doors, so I knew I had to think creatively. I spent a lot of time looking around the wonderful antique stores and salvage yards we have locally, but I had not found what I wanted. I started looking on eBay, and I found these,” she says, gesturing. These are a pair of wooden gymnasium doors salvaged from a Catholic High School in Cleveland, Ohio; she found them for only a few hundred dollars. A closer look reveals that the glass on each is mismatched, adding more character. “Unbelievably, my brother-in-law was in Cleveland visiting family, so I managed to talk him into bringing them back!” Mraz says.

This combination of luck, vision, and passion is what most characterizes her home. “What I tried to do throughout the process was balance the places I really wanted to explore new design ideas with areas where I knew that I simply needed something that was beautiful and functional.” She shares her choices in the kitchen as an example. “I chose quartzite instead of marble for most of the kitchen countertops because I believe they will be more durable,” she explains. “But I also tried a new granite finish called ‘leathering’ on the island because it should make it easier to maintain.” She paired these choices with a simple tile for her backsplash.

After being in her new home only a few months, Mraz knows that this is precisely the home she envisioned. Standing on her back porch, gazing over the landscape, she notes the sleeping porch. “I put my hammock up last weekend. Sleeping porches are one of the elements of traditional architecture that Mt Laurel really encourages,” she explains. “I designed the back porch with no stairs because I didn’t want to block such a beautiful view. Now I just imagine the sleeping porch, summer evenings, and the beauty of Mt Laurel. I feel like I really do have the home of my dreams.”

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