Home Decorating Architect John Gilmer’s House Rules: 11 Renovation Lessons to Live By

Architect John Gilmer’s House Rules: 11 Renovation Lessons to Live By

Over 10 years ago, architect John Gilmer and Annie Selke met on an architectural tour of Sweden and hit it off instantly. “There was a day when the group was supposed to get on the bus and drive three hours to a Scandinavian folk village museum for the entire day,” John remembers. “I think I said, ‘I’m just not going to go. I’m going shopping,’ and Annie said, ‘That sounds great.’” And the rest, as they say, was history. Gilmer, a self-described classicist, has worked on several homes with Annie. This Palm Desert home is their fourth project together, and it’s clear the pair has their workflow in check. “I’m about shaping space, and Annie is about creating atmosphere,” he explains.
In remodeling the Palm Desert space, Gilmer was sympathetic to the bones of the original home envisioned by architect John Elgin Woolf, a creator of the Hollywood Regency style. “I had just finished working on a John Woolf house in Beverly Hills, and Woolf really understood gracious living. The scale and proportions of the rooms were terrific with 10-foot ceilings. But bad things had happened to this house.” Previous renovations included some asymmetrical additions and less-than-timeless finishes. “Our goal was to make the house livable for any century,” Gilmer says.

In the latest installment of House Rules, he shares his tips for how to make the most of your own home:

Be honest about how you live.

We’re all susceptible to the picture-perfect Instagram look—huge kitchens, open plan living, and zero clutter—but just because it’s stunning doesn’t mean it suits your lifestyle. “The hardest thing is to be honest with yourself when you’re approaching a design project or thinking about a renovation. Don’t be seduced by something that’s pretty, but will not work for you,” says Gilmer. “Many people are enamored by huge kitchens. But if you have a 10 x 6-foot island in the center and your refrigerator is on one side of it and your sink/cooktop are on the other side, you’re going to be wearing track shoes to go back and forth!” Likewise, if you feel guilty about watching TV after dinner with a dirty kitchen behind you, an open plan layout might not be for you, either.

With an understanding of how Annie lives, John was able to create the right balance of dream and reality. “Annie is very relaxed and has a warm outlook,” Gilmer explains. “She is constantly entertaining and loves to cook. So having an open kitchen for her is a mainstay.”

Start with Plumbing!

When doing a renovation, it’s very important to understand the construction sequence. Typically one of the first things to tackle is the plumbing in the walls, which means you’ll need to decide on your plumbing fixtures early on. Those decisions (what type of shower? What kind of sink/faucet?) affect what you put in the wall – which has to get closed up pretty early on. “It’s something that we go through with a lot of clients: you have to make some decisions and stick with them,” says Gilmer.
Annie’s show-stopping concrete soaking tub from Native Trails with Brizo’s Odin Single-Handle Freestanding Tub Filler in Brushed Nickel were among the first things she chose for her home.

Let there be – 2 kinds of natural – light.

Though people may think there’s a “set rule” about how many sources of light you need in a room, it really comes down to the direction of light. “Having natural light enter a room from at least two directions gives you a more pleasing balance,” says Gilmer.
In Annie’s Palm Desert home, the kitchen, living room, and dining room were separate rooms. When the pair decided on an open living floor plan, Gilmer got to work infusing the space with natural light. “We actually added larger windows on the side wall of the kitchen and dining space. And by opening the wall up to the living room, that light now floods in.”

A 3,000 Kelvin LED bulb helps you distinguish black from navy.

“The importance of lighting in a closet or dressing room can never be underestimated,” says Gilmer “Always try for a clean, diffused light.” Kelvin is the warmth of the bulb, which also means what color lighting you’ll get. So, he explains, 2,700K mimics the warm light we associate with incandescent bulbs. Though he recommends a 2,700-3,000K range for LED bulbs for the closet, it’s the 3,000K that will make an important difference. “3,000 is a cleaner, whiter light. It’s better for differentiating black and navy blue.”

Vertical + Horizontal Light Sources = Perfect Lighting Combo.

“If you just evenly light a room, it’s boring,” says Gilmer. “Think about museums: you have a certain level of ambient light, and then a light that’s highlighting art. It’s how you move from pool of light to pool of light, and establish a hierarchy.” Gilmer advises balancing downward light from ceiling fixtures with table and floor lamps.

This formula is even more important in bathrooms. “If you’ve ever stood in front of a mirror in a bathroom that only had a down light – you know it’s not flattering. The best light is a combination of down light and a pair of wall lights—either sconces or built-in lights,” he says. “That way, you won’t be in shadow in a very unflattering way.”

Consistency is key – especially when it comes to appliances.

Gilmer recommends sticking to 1-2 manufacturers when choosing your appliances for two reasons—continuity, and for the discount. Choosing a suite of appliances from the same manufacturer ensures that your finishes and details match. “There’s nothing worse than having four different styles of door handles!” he quips.

Brushed nickel and brass are timeless.

It’s important not to be fully influenced by the trends you see on social media. “The lifespan of a design trend has become shorter and shorter, almost exponentially because of Instagram,” says Gilmer. “There are design trends that look great for the first year and then become so overexposed that it becomes a cliche. There’s nothing worse than going into someone’s house that was completely renovated two or three years ago and thinking it looks dated.” To prevent that from happening, Gilmer advises to stick with the classics—brushed nickel and brass hardware have a timeless look that will go with everything.

Alcoves create rooms within rooms.

It was Annie’s love of soaking tubs that inspired Gilmer to create an alcove in the main bathroom. “We use alcoves to provide a sense of place within the larger room,” he says. “By placing the tub in the alcove, you are embracing the tub and giving a feeling of protection.”

Choose indestructible countertops.

A consummate cook and entertainer, Annie needed subtle, elegant countertops that also performed. “We wanted the countertops to not be a statement, they needed to recede,” says Gilmer. They used Caesarstone’s Organic White slabs throughout the house because of its uniform variation and, as Gilmer says, “it’s indestructible.”
Bethany Nauert Photography

Balance special moments with rest.

“One important thing in both architecture and design is that you want your eye to move through the space seamlessly, but you need to have somewhere for your eye to rest,” Gilmer explains. “If you have too many special moments in a space, your eye will never rest and it will be bouncing all over.” In Annie’s kitchen, The Tile Shop x Annie Selke’s Goldleaf Speckle Wall Tile on the backsplash and bookcases is that special moment, while the countertops and flooring become the moments of rest.

Custom closets allow you to make the most of your space.

If you’re proud of your Nike sneaker collection, design a closet that has an open shoe rack to show them off. “We had a client once that was very specific about her closet. She said, ‘If I put everything in drawers, I’ll forget I’ve got it.’ So I opted for a lot of open shelves so she could scan her dressing room quickly,” Gilmer says.

When working with California Closets, Annie had specific needs, and now she has a place for everything from shawls (a big one for her!) to hats to workout clothes. COVID also required re-envisioning a guest room into a work from home space, complete with a chic and custom Murphy bed. “Instead of having a second permanent guest room with a bed and trying to shoehorn herself into a small little desk, she uses the space as a nice relaxing office and has a Murphy bed that allows for its use as a guest room when needed,” explains Gilmer.
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