Decorator unleashes the potential of her own home

Philadelphia Inquirer

Lindsay J. Warner

24 July 2011

At an age when most of her peers were riding bikes and playing dress-up, Laura Riedel was decorating. As a third grader, she kept a notebook full of design ideas, and she remembers the moment she walked into a friend's house whose living room was decorated "just right."

In her own house, she didn't have it as easy. When her mother told her she could choose the carpet for her bedroom, Laura requested a specific yellow hue, "but when I came home from school, the carpet was gold, and I really had a fit."

"I painted the walls apple green anyway, but it really mattered to me that the carpet wasn't the right color, and that my mother wouldn't replace it," she says. "I guess that should have been a clue that this was going to be a longtime hobby."

At 52, Laura's canvases are bigger. She designs with her husband, Ralph, 54, and their three adult children in mind, but her quest for good design is a constant.

Sometimes, it's an easy fix - she'll even rearrange the furniture in a hotel room or a rented condo if it doesn't feel right. Other times, it's more of a challenge.

When they first looked at a house for sale on a quiet lane in Radnor in early 2006, it was "really awful," Laura says. Built in the 1950s, it looked very institutional, with flat lines, a hip roof, and plain windows. An angled wrought-iron railing fractured the natural lines of the house, magnified by the flat garage roof and unadorned windows.

A generator and a large walk-in freezer gave the place a "survivalist vibe," she says. But Ralph fell in love with the two-acre garden, and Laura saw potential in the property's privacy, light-filled rooms, and newly refurbished kitchen.

With Laura as decorator (she owns a franchise of the national chain Decorating Den Interiors) and working with the design team of Peter Archer, of Archer & Buchanan Architecture, and Ken Cassella, of Cassella Builders Inc., the Riedels initiated a three-part renovation that concluded in November 2009.

The first part of the project was limited: The already spacious kitchen received a few tweaks, and Laura helped her husband design a sleek, masculine media room downstairs. Then, she says, the project "kind of grew."

They knew the low-ceilinged master bedroom needed an update, which they achieved by increasing the angle of the original hip roof and adding dormers that provide light and character to the house's vertical profile.

Institutional windows were replaced by monochromatic stained-glass windows handmade by artist Emily Selvin and patterned after the Tiffany windows Laura and her daughter liked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The 1950s-style flat garage turned into a breezeway with Nano doors that accordion-fold back into the wall for an open-air feel, and a new addition supplies a sunroom, a garage apartment, Ralph's office, and extra bedroom space for their children.

The addition also provides plenty of functional square footage for the family of five. But to Laura, a music major who returned to school to earn a decorating certificate through Moore College of Art and Design, the cosmetic treatment was as important as the space.

"I'm the type who's up at 1 in the morning thinking, 'Oh, this table needs to go here,' and as long as I can move it, I will," she says. And though she would rather decorate after the architects and builders have finished physical renovations, she had a hand in her family's house from start to finish.

Preferring cedar shingles to the original vinyl siding, Laura set the tone for a Cape Cod/Nantucket vibe that was channeled by Archer and Cassella, who designed and built custom molding around each window.

A veranda with wicker chairs overlooking the pool and the backyard completed the look, and the wrought-iron railing that had previously angled down to the pool was updated. Landscaping conceived by Ralph Riedel and Jonathan Alderson curves around the pool and complements several outdoor seating areas.

Inside, the decor is formal, but not fussy. Seeking a feeling of spaciousness, the Riedels decided to move to a more open floor plan by knocking out a hallway and playing up the light-filled living room with warm yellows and floral prints, which give it an air of the English countryside.

The kitchen, with its painted tile and large windows, also reflects a slightly formal but comfortable sensibility.

"It's a real house that is lived in and suits my family's needs - all the great designers use their own houses as their canvases and to do experiments on, so I've done that here," she says.

"I'd love to start at the top floor and work my way through the entire house again, but I'm not allowing myself to do that again for awhile. Otherwise, I would go on forever."

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