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Design duo weathers the storm of creating their own home

“Let’s be real: We fired each other a few times”

Architecture styles in Atlanta range from classic to modern, but when Lee and Kevin Kleinhelter created their family home, they looked farther south than Georgia for inspiration. Instead, the tropical style of the Dutch West Indies sparked their imaginations.

“It’s what we gravitate toward,” says Lee. “The style speaks to us because it’s clean lined without being entirely modern.”

The white, stucco house has a distinct Caribbean style; there’s a arched roofline, a large trellised balcony, and circular windows.
When Kevin and Lee Kleinhelter built their new home, they were inspired by a distinctive Dutch West Indies aesthetic.

Given that they were building a new home in the historic neighborhood of Brookwood Hills, that concept allowed them to have a house that’s uncomplicated in form, but traditional enough to live in harmony with the neighbors.

You’d assume that when a noted interior designer (she is the founder of Lee Kleinhelter Interior Design and the home store Pieces) and a prolific builder (he’s the owner of K2 Custom Homes & Renovations) set out to build a house, it would be a breeze—but as the old saying goes, a person should assume nothing.

Although the couple has completed several renovations of their previous homes, this was the first building they collaborated on from the ground up. “Building a home can be challenging for any relationship,” Lee says. “Throw in a husband who is the builder and a wife who’s the designer and a bit OCD, and let’s be real: We fired each other a few times.”

A white-and-black bathroom features a trio of turquoise pendants.
Lee’s theory on light fixtures: They should be unexpected and interesting, but work with everything else in the room. The theory plays out in the daughter’s bathroom with a trio of vintage pendants.
A black-painted stairwell features two geometric, mirrored pendants that hang from the ceiling.
In the dark-hued stairwell, Lee says a couple of Geometric Pendants become part of the architecture.
A bedroom has an oversized, tiered, brass-toned light fixture; black grasscloth walls, and a live-edge, natural wood bed.
Kevin’s daughter requested a rustic bedroom, and Lee obliged with a black grasscloth wall covering and a live-edge bed. “Funny how it works out that the kids’ rooms are cooler than ours,” she says.
Between the master bathroom and closet, there is a lovely arched doorway. The bathroom is white, the closet is black.
There’s an arched passageway between the couple’s closet and the master bath. “I think the closet and bath are just as important, if not more important, than the actual bedroom,” Lee says. “Why have another door? It simplifies everything.”

A tight timeline didn’t make matters easier. “We completed the home in six months, which is not a normal timeline, and nothing I’d recommend. It isn’t glamorous like it appears on television; and we didn’t have producers, staff, or people ‘handling’ things,” says Lee. “We had plans for permitting, but they were just the exterior and the interior layout—not elevations or finish details. Every decision was made on site, on the spot.”

But sometimes the lack of plans and the pressure of time limits can lead to something wonderful; in this case, the husband-builder and wife-designer improvised something that is as appealing and exciting as a jazz riff.

Working with architect Yong Pak of Pak Heydt & Associates, they created a home whose stucco exterior features a dramatic roofline with a Dutch Caribbean flavor and whose interior embraces the wooded surroundings. A circular motif that starts on the outside and carries through the house celebrates the movement of the architecture. As Lee says, “It’s very us.”

The family room has a modern, clean-lined ping pong table.
Lee and her son play ping pong in the lower level family room.

“My intention was that the inside and the outside would complement each other, that everything would be very edited, and that landscape views should be the focal point from inside,” says Lee. Noting the front-of-the-house location of the stairwell, she adds: “This allowed the exterior of the house to visually be open to the exterior.”

Inside, a dramatic color scheme of black and white with accents of color adds a modern note to rooms with high ceilings, arched passageways, and walls of mullioned windows.

Bright yellow accessories spice up an otherwise neutral bedroom.
A yellow color palette brightens a guest room.
A surf board hangs on the wall of the son’s bedroom.
In the son’s room, a surf board acts as a piece of art.

Here, black is far more than an accent: The dark color is used in bold strokes on walls and in cabinetry. Certainly the floor-to-ceiling window walls keep things light and bright, but Lee says texture also ameliorates the noirish hue. The walls are covered with black grasscloth, the dark cabinetry is composed of shou sugi ban, a Japanese charred wood finish. According to the designer, texture is “all that’s needed” to keep the black from being too dominant.

Brass finishes also go bold here. In most interiors, gold accents are popular. Here, that motif is amplified. For instance, in the kitchen bands of brass run underneath the countertop, line the kick plates under the cabinetry and island, and outline the black cabinets.

But the glowing pièce de résistance is the brass vent hood over the cooktop. “The brass hood is a major statement,” says Lee. “It helps tie in all the other, smaller details. Since that space is minimal, it needed the brass to anchor it—especially since the majority of the room is black.”

A brass range hood makes a statement in a white kitchen with black cabinets.
There’s a glow in the kitchen. “The brass hood is a major statement,” says Lee. “It helps tie in all the other smaller brass details. Since that space is minimal it needed the brass to anchor it, especially since the rest of the room is black.” Nautical pendants and vintage stools make the look unique.

Another element that’s far from basic is the lighting, and each room has at least one statement-making piece. “The light fixtures are just as important as the architecture, and become part of it,” says Lee. “If you don't walk into a room, see the lighting and say ‘wow, this is cool,’ then I have failed at my job. It should be unexpected and interesting, but also work with everything else that is in the space and not be overpowering.”

Despite the dramatic design throughout—even the backyard chicken coop has a contemporary aesthetic and elegant lighting—this is a family home. Two kids (a teenager and a seven-year-old) live here, too. “Everything in our house is made with an outdoor fabric—including the area rugs,” says Lee. “Everything else is either wipeable or can be spot cleaned. I believe environments can still be chic and cool while livable—and I think that’s why people hire me.”

A black-framed chicken coop has a modern butterfly roof.
The backyard landscaping is modern—including the chicken coop. “This is what happens when your husband can build almost anything,” says Lee.
A series of arched doorways frame a large, circular light fixture pierced by circles.
Curved and circular motifs run throughout the house.
A tree trunk and root table makes for a natural, brown note in a mostly black room.
In the family room, a coffee table made from a tree trunk and roots is a natural note. “The space really needed that organic element to soften the blacks and whites and modern edges,” Lee says.

The finished look is polished, and it belies the aforementioned winging it. “I think people see our house and think it was all mapped out and perfectly planned, and it was not. Every decision we made was on the spot and sometimes blindly. You really have to trust your experience and make it work, because there’s no turning back,” Lee says.

And not only did the couple emerge from the experience intact, they came through with more empathy for their clients. As Lee says, “Building our own home allowed us to be even more understanding of what our clients are going through when they feel stressed or overwhelmed by the expense and amount of decisions that need to be made.”

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