Refreshing a Classic

A traditional 1930s Birmingham home has evolved over the past 15 years into a magnificent beauty



Ralph and Shelby Szygenda’s Birmingham home leans toward classic traditional, but at each turn there’s a freshness, featuring sparks of current appeal. The sunroom’s rattan sofas, for example, define chic with cushions in an animal print from a recent Cowtan & Tout collection, while the Stark animal print carpeting on the back stairs and in the master bedroom, dressing room, and closet is up-to-the-minute, mingling well with classic, cheerful colors. In the master bath, a grasscloth-papered ceiling meets Italian title. Down the hall, snappy striped rugs adorn various bedrooms. “The home’s traditional,” Shelby acknowledges, “but it’s definitely not dated.”

THE A TEAM: The kitchen countertops are from PMP Marble & Granite, Troy; tile is from Ann Sacks, Michigan Design Center (MDC), Troy (installed by Luxury Tile & Marble Co., Rochester Hills); the cabinetry is from Extraordinary Works, Wixom and Troy; and the painting above the range is by Yiannis Karimalis, of Novi. F. Schumacher & Co. fabric covers the banquette. Knevels chose a Peter Fasano pillow fabric. The rugs are from Ghiordes Knot at the MDC. The photography is by homeowner Shelby Szygenda. The great room's rug is from Stark, Troy.

Interior designer Julia Knevels has been working with the couple for about 15 years on their sprawling 1937 home. Shelby is a lover of antiques, gardening, traditional accents, pattern, and color — and because Knevels is known for creating spaces that showcase classic appeal with new twists, the two were able to design a magnificent home. “I know what I like, but I could never get there by myself,” Shelby says. “Julia has been the key.”

Approaching the home’s transformation strategically and over a longer period of time ensured smart decisions were made, and the result is a newness that’s crisp and bright, nestled in with classic and time-honored treasures.

Like Shelby, Ralph — a retired corporate information officer who’s now the CEO at a consulting company — also loves design, and was most interested in his office (long ago, it was the maids’ quarters), patio, master suite, and wine room.

“When they (Knevels and Shelby) couldn’t decide on something, they’d show me two or three choices and I’d pick,” he says with a laugh. Ralph concedes that any of the possible decisions regarding changes to the expansive home would have been just fine, though, as they were in the masterful hands of Knevels, a seasoned Birmingham-based designer with European roots who has a keen eye, selective taste, and the ability to create comfortable, warm, and practical spaces.

Although the couple had lived in many places over the years prior to their move from Dallas to Birmingham in 1996, “This was our first ‘old’ house,” Shelby says. The Szygendas discovered Knevels when she was the interior designer at a home across the street. The designer would eventually reconfigure and/or redesign most of the Szygendas’ home over the next several years, starting with the kitchen. (Knevels worked with Christian Brothers Construction, of Howell).

Removing a wall and creating a banquette immediately made the heart of the home more welcoming. Knevels also refashioned another area of the kitchen to create a coffee-bar niche. 

“There was a little office area in the kitchen and it was completely impractical,” says Knevels, who owns Julia Knevels Interiors and has taken on projects that span the globe, including work in the Netherlands and England. Her love of art, fostered by her fine art studies in Germany and the Netherlands, is apparent in most of the spaces she works on.

Over time, Knevels redesigned the sunroom, which is located off a formal dining room; the great room, off the kitchen; the master suite; guest rooms; all six bathrooms; and more, all with the desire to keep things traditional, but entirely up to date. The family room drapery (from Brunschwig & Fils), for example, features a longstanding large red-check pattern that was discontinued, Knevels explains, and then brought back. “It is one of those special fabrics that works with everything beautifully and has a lot of character, without being pushy.”

Indeed, the designer’s and homeowners’ main goal was to keep the overall look of the home streamlined, but still enchantingly cozy.

The sunroom's rattan sofas define chic with cushions in an animal print from a recent Cowtan & Tout collection. Flooring is from Virgina Tile, Michigan Design Center.

Some spaces were extensively overhauled, including the lower level. Once a typical 1930s unfinished basement, the lower level now features a spiffy laundry room, a topnotch wine room, an exercise room, a bathroom, a cozy family gathering area, and craft space.

The home’s master bath was so huge, Knevels says, she was able to “take nearly half of it to expand a very small closet.” Today, the bathroom is still large — “so you can imagine how big it was before,” she says with a laugh. Bathed in high-end appointments, the refurbished bathroom includes custom hardwood constructed cabinets with a glaze finish, limestone flooring, Calacata marble countertops and bath surround, and handmade Italian tiles that extend to the grasscloth-papered ceiling. A true respite, it looks out toward pretty trees just outside a well-placed window.

A TRUE RETREAT: Bathed in high-end appointments, the master bath (left) includes custom hardwood constructed cabinets with a glaze finish, limestone flooring, Calacatta marble countertops and bath surround, and handmade Italian tile from Cercan (Michigan Design Center) that extends to the grasscloth-papered ceiling. 

The surrounding property and gardens play an important role in the overall interior design of the home. From many windows, one can look out to distant cottage-style gardens, manicured plants, and stone walls closer to the house; a patio and outdoor entertaining area; and antique statuary.

“I’m the full-time gardener,” Shelby says, adding that one is likely to find her “out there ’til dark.” While professional landscapers oversee the home’s front yard, in the far back, it’s pure Shelby. “I really like the hollyhocks and the clematis — they’re both vibrant,” she says. On one recent afternoon, Shelby, dressed in corals and pinks, looks out to those beckoning blooms and explains her penchant for color: “I love to be around color. I like bright and happy colors.”

That’s true inside as well as in the yard. The homeowners’ extensive collections are the stars in tastefully colorful vignettes placed throughout the home. From the library to the living room, each space is well-dressed in rare decorative ceramics, paintings, wallpaper, and luxe fabrics. “We travel quite a bit, so often, Julia will take thoughts, concepts, or ideas that Shelby and I see when on a trip and turn them into something,” Ralph says. Many of the rooms showcase parts of Shelby’s wide-ranging collection of Staffordshire.

As for Ralph’s wine room, which was the most recent space completed, it was partly inspired by a wedding-anniversary trip to Italy for a wine-tasting tour. “We became intrigued with how wine enhances the flavors of food,” Ralph explains. Adding other European stops as well as California to their wine-exploration trips, they now thoroughly enjoy Ralph’s special collection of wines. Of note are the two “lazy Susan”-style storage elements Ralph found and added to the design.

“It’s hard to believe what was here before,” Knevels says, with regard to the basement. “You’d never believe that it could be so good-looking. We didn’t even have any available space for hallway ceiling light boxes, due to heating and cooling ducts, so we had under-cabinet lighting installed.”

Looking back on his home’s design evolution, Ralph says, “I like this home better than any of the homes we’ve lived in. Julia was critical to the process and making it work, and she knows and understands the Michigan home and the environment.”

“I like this home better than any of the homes we’ve lived in.” — Ralph Szygenda


Collected Charm
Staffordshire adds history and enchantment to a home. But how to best display these pieces?

Shelby Szygenda first noticed Staffordshire dogs when she lived in Dallas. “Clive Mason Pope’s book (A-Z of Staffordshire Dogs: A Potted History) inspired me to purchase a Staffordshire dog,” she recalls, referring to a comprehensive guide that covers the enchanting canines. Due to an abundance of naturally occurring coal and clay, the Staffordshire region of England is renowned for both fine dinnerware and extraordinary figurines. Staffordshire potters began producing dinnerware and decorative figures during the 1700s. Eventually the figurines were press-molded. Either way, they are intriguing in their design. Most of the pieces are of domestic and wild animals, or human figures representing historic or current events (of the era they were made).

Today, Shelby, who’s owned champion basset hounds and golden retrievers, is crazy about Staffordshire dogs (some of her collection is shown at right). “Oh, and I like the female lion-tamer a lot … and the little guy who plays a flute,” shares Shelby, who knows the historic significance and story behind each figurine. She also adores the gardeners, because, of course, “they’re gardeners!”

When you have an extensive collection of items, interior designer Julia Knevels suggests displaying them the way Shelby does — as a decorative feature throughout the home, rather than “putting them all in one room and making it like a museum. If you love your collection, it should be around you in your everyday life and not be contained in one room that you might only occasionally be in,” Julia says. —MS

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