The story behind the transformation of Elizabeth Rees’ Italianate townhouse is a homecoming of sorts.
A Whitefish Bay native, Rees is the co-founder of Chasing Paper, a peel-and-stick wallpaper company headquartered in Walker’s Point. The business was born in New York City, where Rees lived for nearly a decade before returning to her hometown – with Chasing Paper in tow – three years ago. “I wasn’t building my company to sell. I was building it to spend my 20s, 30s, and hopefully 40s building it [and] running it on a day-to-day basis,” says Rees of her decision to relocate. “Milwaukee really felt like the right place to bring it back to. … I find Midwestern people to be incredibly hardworking and conscientious and dedicated and loyal, and I was excited to build a team here.”
To ease the culture shock, Rees and her husband purchased a historic Italianate townhouse in Walker’s Point – a property she says reminds her of a Brooklyn brownstone. “It’s so unusual for Milwaukee. I’ve never seen a space that looks like ours,” Rees adds. The home was well cared for by previous owners, she continues, so updates, such as painting and wallpapering walls and replacing light fixtures, were largely cosmetic.
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She describes her style as favoring clean lines and clutter-free spaces. “I also like things to look really rich and cozy, and I try to reflect that with textures that I choose and colors for the walls and creating spaces that feel very inviting. I don’t like anything that’s overly formal,” she says. Her aesthetic is also decidedly family-friendly – a happy coincidence, as Rees and her husband have since welcomed two young children.
And while Rees says many new guests assume her home is covered in wallpaper, she employed it more strategically. “It’s really fun for me to have wallpaper be in sort of unexpected bursts of print or pattern, or in places that it’s kind of a conversation starter,” she adds. “It feels interesting, and it feels like something people really notice and get excited about.”
An open-concept layout is ideal for entertaining but poses design challenges, too. “When you walk in our back door, you can see our kitchen, our dining room, our hallway and our our living room,” says Rees. “You have to make sure that everything flows and works together. choosing a [color] palette that you’re going to reflect back all over the house … makes things look really cohesive.”
Rees suggests using wallpaper in small spaces, such as an entryway or powder room, to make a big impact. Here, the graphic design makes a bold statement but still complements the surrounding spaces’ paint colors.
When Rees and her husband Brian Leadley (shown here with pooch Lucy) purchased the home, it was maintained with original details intact, so most of the changes the couple made were superficial. The living room’s walls – painted cool Oval Room Blue by Farrow & Ball – are softened by original features such as the marble fireplace and arched, built-in bookshelves.
“Our entire kitchen project was less than $4,000, and it transformed the space,” Rees says of the updates she and her husband made, detailed below. “We like things that are low budget and high impact.”
Why I love My Kitchen
A PREVIOUS RENOVATION left the kitchen in promising shape, but Rees still brought her own style to the space. “The cabinets were really beautiful, but they were a cherry wood when we moved in,” she recalls. “I felt [the heaviness] made the space feel tighter, and I wanted to make it more airy and more bright, so we went for a gray.” Rees also splurged on new matte black hardware. “I felt that it elevated [the space],” she says, “making it look really contemporary and modern without being over the top.” The backsplash is Chasing Paper’s Terrazzo wallpaper. “Will I like it in three years? Maybe not, but then I can change it out. That’s kind of the beauty of our products,” she adds.
A framed map of Manhattan pays homage to Rees’ time living in New York City, where she founded and built Chasing Paper with her brother, Mike Rees, before returning to her hometown of Milwaukee three years ago.
The backyard was completely overgrown when Rees and her husband purchased the home, but the duo transformed the space into an outdoor oasis – and, during COVID-19, the perfect respite for the pair and their two young children.
Rees says she enjoys using navy as a neutral, as well as a grounding tone, for a room. “Our floors have a lot of red – they’re that beautiful original pine – so to tone down some of the redness and richness in the floors, we brought in a lot of cool colors,” she adds.