It was the affordability and charm of Milwaukee that led DIY designer Jenni Yolo to relocate to Cream City in 2014. A Manitowoc native, Yolo had spent eight years living in New York City, where her uber-popular DIY blog and social media brand, I Spy DIY, was born. “New York [City] is a really expensive place to try to run your own business. I came home for the holidays, and my sister showed me a warehouse space in the Third Ward. I kind of fell in love with Milwaukee and the Downtown vibe,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe that I could get such an amazing warehouse space for a price I could afford.”
It was in this space, which offered more square footage for larger-scale DIY projects, that Jenni’s affinity for home decor blossomed. Her blog’s focus shifted from fashion to home design, and she purchased her first house – a fixer-upper in Walker’s Point, now dubbed The Sage Home on social media – soon thereafter. “I bought it for $24,000 and renovated it in four months,” Jenni says. “I fell in love with the whole renovation process, and had a crash course in how to do it.”
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The process spurred a passion for breathing new life into old, forgotten homes, and today Jenni and her husband, David Yolo, own five properties in Milwaukee. David was formerly a project manager for a general contractor, so the pair work together when remodeling each house, combining David’s skill set with Jenni’s eye for design. “He always comes at projects with a mindset of practicality, and I always come with a mindset of aesthetics,” she says with a laugh. “It’s such a cool thing, as the designer, to dream up anything and have us be able to work together and make that design come to fruition.”
Their most recent project, The Loft, is a departure from their typical renovations, which had only involved 100-plus-year-old homes. Built in 2003, The Loft is, however, steeped in history well beyond its 20 years – a story that involves its inception as The Milwaukee Idea Home, with key supporters like former Mayor Tom Barrett and Bob Greenstreet, who at the time was dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UW-Milwaukee. “The whole concept was that they wanted to create a prototype for an accessible, affordable and energy-efficient house,” explains Jenni. “We didn’t know this when we bought the house. We thought it was a very unique house, and we could see it had a chairlift in it and that it was wheelchair accessible.” The home was initially owned and operated by Independence First, which used it as a transitional residence, she adds.
“For me, it was a really interesting challenge. Since the walls are all concrete, the layout is what the layout is. I couldn’t really change that,” says Jenni, noting that the opportunity came at the height of the pandemic, too, when lumber costs were sky-high, so a renovation that sidestepped that was especially appealing. “We kept all the walls where they are. The general layout stayed as is, and then we just went through and I added my personal touch on all the spaces.”
And the Jenni Yolo touch – a defined level of taste that is equally approachable and refined, brimming with layers of warmth and charm – is clearly woven throughout The Loft. On the first floor, which features an open-concept layout, each space flows seamlessly into the next, and a custom-built banquette offers a cozy spot to dine or converse. Vintage rugs bring character to the concrete floors, and a DIY plaster fireplace makes a bold statement, reaching the room’s 25-foot ceiling. Tile selections are intentionally cohesive, and certain tiles are repeated in different rooms – but in new colorways. “It pulls together the house,” explains Jenni, “[and] you don’t feel like you totally need to reinvent the wheel in every space that you do.” Upstairs, the DIY built-in bookshelf is coated in Behr’s Muted Sage, offering a prime styling opportunity for Jenni’s collection of design books and thrifted finds. A nod to its roots, the Yolos ensured the home was wheelchair-friendly, too, with no thresholds on the first floor and a roll-in shower. “This house has been such a fun, creative adventure for me,” says Jenni.
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Both the top and sides of the banquette are cut from durable butcher block, says Jenni, and then wrapped in pole wrap. Typically used in basement settings to conceal support columns, pole wrap is available in various wood veneers. “Instead of wrapping it around a pole, we cut it down and glued it to the front of the banquette. It almost looks like wood fluting,” she explains. It was then stained a dark walnut color, and Emily Cleverly of Penny & Ivy created an upholstered cushion using vintage fabric thrifted from Farm Girl Art & Antiques.
2. Cream City brick column
Looking to add character to the home, the Yolos wrapped a kitchen column in Cream City brick veneers. The veneers are sourced from The Brickyard in Milwaukee, where craftsmen cut authentic Cream City bricks down to create thinner brick facings. Use a heavy-duty adhesive to glue the bricks to the wall, explains Jenni, and then mortar the gaps between bricks.
3. Basket light fixture
An ode to the room’s muse, a vintage fisherman cross-stitch, the DIY basket light fixture creates a statement. Jenni purchased various catch-all baskets, mostly from World Market, drilled a hole in the bottom of each for a light socket, and then laced the cord through. The fixture works best for rooms with vaulted ceilings, filling the space and drawing your eyes upward.
4. Banquette wall cushion
To add comfort to the banquette seating, Jenni installed DIY wall cushions using velvet pillow shams and 2-inch foam purchased from a craft store. Brass rails were installed to anchor the cushions, and hand-crafted leather straps hold each cushion in place. “It’s an easy and affordable DIY project,” says Jenni.
5. Plaster fireplace
While the framing and drywall components of the fireplace installation are arguably more advanced projects, the plaster process is more accessible, and can be used to add texture to various walls or surfaces. Jenni says there’s “no exact science” to her process, but she mixes joint compound and gray paint to create a marbled effect. Then, with a trowel, she slathers the plaster onto a surface in a criss-cross pattern.