The Fabulous Plan B

What to do when Plan A is too expensive and too much headache? Call Kelly Amen to the rescue.

by sarah heenan
photography by david christ

14CIt wasn’t supposed to be like this. The plan was to open up the newly purchased 1960s rambler with a vaulted roof, cascading ceiling lines, gutted rooms, and a largely reconstructed floor plan. But when the estimate literally to raise the roof came back at almost half a million dollars, owners Joe and Jeanne Gillen decided it was time to reevaluate.

There continued to be livability issues. Jeanne, who runs her consulting business from home, craved a serene and simplified space in which to spend her days. Joe missed the voluminous 10- to 20-foot ceilings they had left behind with their former suburban home. “One of the key elements of this house I hated was the low, flat roof,” explains Joe. “And I just didn’t see how, with eight-foot ceilings everywhere, it would be possible to open up the house.”

Enter designer Kelly Gale Amen. “When the Gillens contacted me, it was really uncertain what they were going to do-tear the house down, remodel, move or readdress it. We spent a lot of time just visiting and exchanging ideas.” Amen has a signature starting point for many of his designs known as “The Flip,” which was called upon for the Gillen residence. “We flip the location of everything-furniture, art, function-so that they see everything in their house in a new way. The whole move takes about two hours and psychologically it creates a break and starts a new dimension,” says Amen.

“All of a sudden you’re in a different place,” explains Jeanne. “You see things you own in a completely different light. We have old friends that come over and say ‘When did you get that?’ Well, we’ve always had that.”



The solid-cast aluminum Olympic table was designed by Amen.
The floor is a beautiful Teak with an umber wash.
Behind is the bookshelf/hidden door that leads into the family room.

“I want people to make decisions based on experience and participation, not by being a voyeur.” explains Amen. “Whether you’re spending $4 million or $40,000, you need to know what it feels like to have certain elements-mirrored walls, painted ceilings, doors cut into walls. You need to experience all of these and then you can tell me what you do and don’t want to live with.”

With the flip in place, the Gillens began to see how their space could be used and experienced differently, and so they continued with the grand experiment that their home had become. “It was all about having fewer things, but more fabulous things. And to have space-space to live, space to breathe, space to move around-what a wonderful thing to have,” explains Amen.

With that in mind, moderate renovations began. A few walls were knocked out, some tile work added, and extensive painting and mirror work undertaken. The evolution of color became a key feature of the new design. “I used lots of grays-leathers and fabrics and textures-to beautify and simplify,” says Amen, “It’s very quiet and calming.”


The courtyard before the renovation was being used as a storage area.
The owners considered eliminating this space entirely.
Neon Gallery came in and added the lighting, and Garden Dream provided the planter landscaping.
The planter itself offers a pleasing contemporary art graphic that complements the concrete floor.


The design process continued with a healthy dose of trust in Amen. Based on her own background, Jeanne understands each person’s role in such an undertaking. “I am a consultant. When I go to work with someone, they are paying me for my knowledge and experience and they need to listen. It’s not any different with Kelly. He’s our consultant. We give him our limits and he advises us.”

The limits were relatively far reaching. But one of the few directives involved a hidden doorway, disguised as a bookshelf, in the living room. “It was the one thing in the house she wanted to keep,” says Amen, “So we worked around it.”

Still, some ideas were accepted more easily than others. Jeanne liked the comfortable, neutral ceiling color that ran throughout the house, but Amen had a different design philosophy. “The ceiling is one sixth of a room,” explains Amen, “and yet plan B people almost never address it. We’ll put $200,000 in a rug for the floor and then leave the ceiling white with popcorn texture.”

In a signature move, Amen suggested painting the ceilings in a mottled pattern with varying hues to create interest and depth. Jeanne was hesitant, “I said ‘Oh no, don’t put that stuff up because I don’t know what it’s going to look like and what if I don’t like it?’ So Kelly made up a board with the finish and we put it up on the ceiling so I could see it and I said ‘Great, I like it, let’s do it.'”

“Everybody loves the ceilings,” says Joe. “It feels like clouds. It makes the ceiling seem so much higher even though it’s still only eight foot.”


The mantel was faux marbled to maintain a discreet presence in the living room, which features leather sectional seating and a KGA poof. The poof, a signature Amen touch, provides comfort and functionality. When the top cushions are removed, a structural base provides a nice area for drinks. The stained glass hanging in the background was a piece discovered during the renovation of the home.

As the physical changes began to take place, forgotten areas of the house were revealed in a new light. Simply introducing French doors into a solid wall that separated the living area and an inner courtyard turned a former storage area into a central outdoor living space. “In our original plan the courtyard was going away,” explains Joe. “The solid wall blocked it off so we had used it to store the ice chest, hose, even as a temporary place for bags of trash.”

With the new windows, the addition of some landscaping and patterning in the landscape made the courtyard an inviting centerpiece to the Gillen home. But perhaps the most intriguing new element is the lighting: a band of twisted multicolor neon surrounds the courtyard’s perimeter. “I think neon is a fabulous, inexpensive way to light,” says Amen. “As an architectural element, it gives a beautiful cast of light.”


The kitchen bar bead board gets painted and the black granite top is extended to create a more intimate yet casual dining space. The base of the extension was actually taken from a table the Gillens previously had in their dining area.

Sometimes gaining a new perspective on an area is as simple as disguising the parts you don’t like. Jeanne hated the beige travertine vanity in the powder room and wanted to tear out the old fixtures and start fresh. “Kelly told me ‘No, no, no, we don’t want to spend money on that; we’ll just use paint,'” explains Jeanne. As an economical alternative, Kelly devised a pattern of paint colors to wrap the room and work with the existing fixtures. “Sure enough we painted it and you don’t notice the parts you don’t like,” says Jeanne. “Kelly is a master of disguise-he disguises the parts you don’t like.”


A mirror fills the wall at the head of the bed so that Randy Twaddle’s art hanging on the opposite wall is reflected. Black woven leather chairs sit at the bedside, flanking a Daniel Adams painting. The bed is from Contempo Designs, and the custom tufted ottoman is done in animal print fabric.


14M“I really had a lack of appreciation for the uniqueness of this house and the way it was laid out,” says Joe. “The primary changes have been the opening of the space to make it flow as one area instead of different broken up spaces.”

And with the physical changes have come changes in use. Explains Joe, “We’re much more likely to throw a party at the spur of the moment because now we have the space to entertain. It’s a great place to have dinner at the table, sit on the couch and talk, sit at the bar and have a beverage. We are really able to transcend to different areas of the house. We can open up the secret door to include the family room in the space or we can close it off, so we have the freedom to expand or contain the living space as needed. It’s really become a fun house.”

“We started into this as an experiment in what they did or didn’t want to live with, and the fact that they are so happy and have learned so much in the process is wonderful to me. I love their delight,” says Amen.

14LPerhaps the most difficult task is finding a way to classify this project. Renovation seems a bit strong. Redecoration falls short as well. “Decorating to me is about adding veneers,” muses Amen. “My work is about creating environment. It’s about how you use the space.”

And so, after it is all said and done, how can one classify this house?

“Rejuvenated,” declares Jeanne.

“Redefined,” says Kelly.

“We’ve put life back into it,” explains Joe. “We’ve recreated it.”

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