Shining a Natural Light on Great Design
Sunlight makes us happier, kinder, and more creative. Science says so, but Shondi Nickell didn’t need the research to tell her that natural light makes her and her family feel better. When her kitchen appliances began failing and cabinet doors began literally falling off their hinges, she knew it was time to give her kitchen an upgrade.
She and her husband, Jake Nickell, are part of Threadless, a popular and iconic t-shirt retail business that features artist-submitted designs. Shondi serves as the HR and accounting manager while Jake, who founded Threadless, still leads the growing company as CEO. Unsurprisingly, strong design is important to the duo so they hired Shumaker Design + Build Associates to remodel their Chicago Threadless headquarters last year. When the couple with two active children decided to work on their kitchen, they called the firm again.
“We told them we needed more natural light and a mudroom, and it was important that it aesthetically pleasing to us,” Shondi shares. “It was also very important to have a space that felt comfy for us for everyday use, but could also welcome all our family and friends.”
Suzanne and Garry Shumaker, co-founders and owners of Shumaker Design + Build, an Evanston-based architect-led design build firm, know that great spaces provide the backdrop where moments become memories, especially when it comes to areas like kitchens and dining rooms where family and friends often congregate. They immediately began considering how the Nickell family used their space and how they might maximize the tight lot surrounded by high houses.
Green is Shondi’s favorite color and after she showed Suzanne and Garry a collection of art she wanted to showcase in her new space, Suzanne and Garry built a palette from there. They took inspiration from English garden kitchens and considered how to take advantage of the views of the cloistered backyard.
Their solution was clear: they incorporated glass throughout the space in some unusual and clever ways.
Maximizing Space and Natural Light Through Glass
“We added glass windows behind all of the upper cabinets since inviting more natural light into the kitchen was on the top of the list of priorities,” says Suzanne. Green subway tiles, custom kitchen cabinetry and banquette dining nook, and art that hangs opposite and on center with the range hood help elevate the look of this room.
To bring in even more natural light and allow the outdoors in, along the east wall in the sunroom, they installed a NanaWall window with a wide opening. Three sashes create a trifold system which allows the family to open the window to a generous wide eight feet. A retractable screen lowers from the header, providing protection. “We used every inch of the stone slabs we selected, and installed stone at the window sill and cantilevered it out to create an outdoor counter for food or eating,” explains Suzanne.
Creating a seamless flow was an important part of the design. A coffee station was designed as a piece of furniture to feel more like a library. Breaking down walls while still creating spaces with purpose and intention helps make the entire room feel more intimate. The kitchen to the sunroom may be treated as one open space, but each features its own materials so they can stand on their own as well.
Bringing the Outdoors In
To further maximize the space and add softer features throughout, while still creating the coziness Shondi desired, they extended the living space to the backyard. The NanaWall, which is part of the sitting room, opens to the outdoors, making it feel like they’ve gained an extra room in their home that happens to be outdoors.
“This is a family that loves to entertain,” says Suzanne. “The NanaWall opens up the back of their home to allow for extending living space into the backyard. They can use it when they have friends over for a backyard party or another private space for the family to enjoy. The kids love to have camp fires and climb their tree fort so maximizing the outdoor space was important.”
During days and evenings when it’s too chilly to be outside, the sunroom, made using salvaged Chicago common brick and heated floors, lets the family bring the outdoors in. During the warm summer months, opening the NanaWall allows the sun’s rays to beam in and warm the bricks naturally.
Working with clients who appreciate art and design makes it easier to suggest bold materials and even color palettes which include a paint color named Dead Salmon.
“The room came together with a nod toward strong design,” shares Suzanne. “Shondi and Jake came into this design process with their own knowledge and affinity for texture and color since it’s truly part of their business, Threadless. It allowed us to develop and select materials that were sophisticated in terms of texture and color.”
Part of their design process involved bringing in a symphony of materials, and their client gravitated to the warmth of metals, which play prominent role in the space. The material is used in everything from the copper hood to oil rubbed bronze hardware on the doors and windows and even the light fixtures.
Even the butler’s pantry, which was also part of the remodel, was well-thought out. Unlike the rest of the space, this area was designed to contrast the main area. A bit of a darker space than the rest of the space, it features rich tones and peeks slightly into the kitchen as it’s set aside the main area. Again, glass was used in the upper cabinets to help connect the space with the rest of the kitchen area while maintaining that open flow space that was critical to the overall design.
“Every detail and objects chosen were deliberate,” notes Suzanne. “The walls are our canvas and filling in the space is the art, each piece added speaks to the next.”
The result is a space filled with natural sunlight, rich wood grains of oak, warm metal finishes, and comforting hues of greens and blues that flow effortlessly and complement each other.
When pressed to share her favorite part of the kitchen, Shondi admits she has a different answer throughout any given day. “When I enter the kitchen in the morning and see all the lovely morning light coming in everywhere and see all colors I really love, my heart is seriously happy,” she says.
“Sitting with a cup of coffee in the new ‘sunroom’ area and checking in on work is another highlight,” Shondi adds. “When my kids come home from school and throw their stuff in the mudroom, I'm so happy we finally have one! I also really love the functional thoughtfulness. I never thought I'd love a pull-out pantry or hidden broom closet so much. Now that it's getting nice out and we can open the large window to enjoy the outdoor/indoor space with family and friends is my new favorite thing. And all the natural light is allowing the indoor jungle I've always wanted to really begin to thrive.”
Dead Salmon paint color was used for the walls and trim and while some clients might get turned off by the name, Shondi had the opposite response when Suzanne and Garry revealed the name that she and Jake were drawn to.
“I love the Dead Salmon paint color used for the walls and trim, from the color itself to the story behind the name,” adds Shondi.
These days, it’s not uncommon to see Shondi and her family using their kitchen space as a true living space. Whether it’s three generations of family gathered around the island, cooking and baking during the holidays, or considering their plans for the weekend while sipping coffee, the light-filled area welcomes and invites both reflection and connection.