Running Toward The Magic: Natalie O Design On Finding Inspiration And Joy

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Pool patio designed by Natalie O Design with multi-colored bricks painted by Louisville artist Matt McDole.

If a design project can be summed up in a single thought, then “Transforming a Cape Cod in the heart of America: how a well-traveled, growing family renovated a Midwest home using a European essentials-only living approach” is an excellent summary of the recent creative undertaking by Natalie Officer and Julie Metzinger, Design Partners at Louisville-based Natalie O Design.

“Transition is often the catalyst to call upon design,” Natalie Officer noted. “The life that informs the need is walking through a migration into or out of a life season, and as designers, we usher through the bumpy unknown terrain of the process. Our hope is that the space lands them softly and comfortably in something familiar enough to cushion the ‘new’ of it.”

As they entered a new phase of their lives, these Natalie O clients put their complete trust in the firm. “For this family, multiple transitions happening at one time collided, and the extent of the trust in our relationship was the true joy of this outcome,” Officer revealed. “Still newlywed enough to keep a foot in that category, building a family home, readying your current nest for sale and the arrival of twin boys. It was a bit magical to pull off.”

In a recent conversation, Natalie and Julie discussed their design objectives for this home and the inherent joyfulness they experienced along the way.

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Moe’s Libby Dining Chairs surround a custom dining table by David Searfoss. Art by Brent Dedas.

Gwen Donovan: How did you begin the restoration process of this mid-century Cape?
Natalie Officer: At first we were tasked with scanning all of Louisville for potential – the right site to build a family home. Then we worked alongside the selected architect, another mother, planning a home while simultaneously sharing what elements would be required in raising twin boys – a new concept for them! From that first meeting to our final touches in the home, every decision reflected the couple: an easy sense of loose luxury that’s flexible, resilient and playful. The home is organic yet controlled in its customization, from the Waterworks fixtures to the iron handrail, each piece was crafted with a purpose: room for growth. Design was never sacrificed in this family home, with fine modern art and custom mohair upholstery resting adjacent to toy cars and blocks.

Gwen: How do you determine what a client ultimately wants and needs in their finished space?
Natalie: Our creed is to really listen to them, really hear how they live.

Julie Metzinger: Often Natalie has described it as doing a deep dive or an archival dig into people’s lives—who they are, what represents them well, and I think COVID was tough for us because we’re tactile people. We touch, we feel, we experience, and (due to COVID) that was hard to do. So even adding clients to your client list and getting to know people without being in their home and really seeing how they live, and who sleeps on what side of the bed, and how do your store your clothes, and what does your life look like on a daily basis. If you can’t know your client at that level, you’re not going to design well for them. The conversation and the listening and the learning about the client is as important as what colors make you dance.

Natalie: I ask questions like ‘What would scare you in your home? What would create alarm to you?’ And I ask those questions because you don’t want to go down a path where you suggest a zebra stripe and they had a high school teacher who only wore zebra. Or we’ve been known to put traffic signs in people’s homes, not a lot, once or twice, [and then you find out] they had a terrible car accident. You really have to know all the things…or at least get to a place where they’re willing to push back if something doesn’t feel right. A lot of designers just completely plow people and it’s why it’s intimidating to people, it’s not client-driven.

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A Gubi copper pendant hangs above a butcherblock island in the kitchen.

Gwen: How did the fact that this was a growing family influence the design of this project?
Natalie: These clients were very well-referenced; they travel a lot, so we kind of start with ‘What are a lot of the things you would actually put in your background?’. So it’s the very basics, and then knowing that they were about to become the parents of twins, you have to take that maternal role of ‘OK guys, you can’t not have storage closets, I know you don’t want any automated toys, and I know that you think that’s a toy chest, but there’s going to be double of everything.”

Gwen: It sounds like a bit of a balancing act; how did you combine minimalism and practicality?
Natalie: A lot of very punctuated clothes storage. Even the dining room table, varying the depth so that people can sit closer, [knowing] that the food will be plated before it goes to the table. This gentleman is a restaurateur who loves to be in the kitchen, and so making the dining room table less ostentatious than a standard American ‘let’s see how big and wide and tall we can make that.’ I think we were only about 36 inches across, which means that you better like the knees of the person across from you.

Julie: They are so conscientious about their footprint in the world. They have a dunking pool but it has a small footprint. Everything they’ve done has an awareness of the ecological impact. When you visit there—we had the joy of visiting last week—they live compactly and wisely with the things that they have.

Natalie: The stairwell is now visibly an apparatus vs. a handrail. It’s a climbing feature in the home. By the nature of the work that we do it seems silly, but the familial connection in a number of cases, but a family like that, you know, we’re connected. We get to see how their kids live on Instagram. We get to look and be like ‘Oh my God, the Montauk Sofa just took on Play-Doh!’ It’s nice to be able to paint those backdrops for people.

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A Muuto Five Pouf with Maharam Steelcut Fabric sits alongside the custom Montauk Sofa in the living room.

Gwen: How do you get to the point in your process when you know it’s ‘just right’?
Natalie: Our process is that we start with inspiration. We really layer it and layer it and layer it. And it’s kind of a safety net, you know? It’s like, ‘if not this, then this.’ Then we pull through and be very discriminating and honest, and pull up the things they really like and take away what they don’t. The one image they kept falling back to we pulled out of a magazine, and for two summers now, the homeowner has sent me a video of this one corner of the house where the light comes in and captures that exact image that we were trying to get to. And that’s just someone who really gets it, who really understands. I don’t care if the rest of the house falls down, the fact that he sees that and knows that we really achieved that is really important.

Gwen: As far as designing for young children, what did you incorporate to keep clutter at bay?
Natalie: We kept it as clean as we could, and gave them as much closed door storage as possible and let them learn how that works for them.

Julie: Also with kids, [it’s important to be] building whimsy into it. Part of that joy has a little bit of a juvenile feel to it because that’s when we’re free to be the greatest in our joy. So even using the custom-made coffee table as a stage is OK. It is long and has a curved end and is a beautiful piece of furniture and there was a whole dance thing happening on top of it—there’s whimsy and joy in having lived in the space but also how it is intended—the colors, the surfaces are meant to be loved and lived on and age well.

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The stage-ready coffee table was custom designed by NOD and made by SIOSI. Sofa by Ligne Rose Prado.

Gwen: Was this project a good representation of your style?
Julie: This project was probably in the top handful of design projects that offered the kind of freedom that allowed the beautiful work that we see in our heads to come out and be realized. Largely [it was] the trust of the client and [that] Natalie has a fire brain; if you really let her run, magic happens, and this was one of those projects. Some of the custom elements that we were able to incorporate using local artists, it did allow that full-scale, soup-to-nuts kind of beauty that we love most. As Natalie mentioned, this is a very referenced family whose taste is exquisite, and often what they brought to fill in the spaces that weren’t fundamental design elements were such beautiful complements to the design that it just made magic.

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Natalie O Design commissioned art by Letitia Quesenberry including, (left) A color-changing flush mount light fixture (shown in pink) in the entry, and a green circular painting in the Guest Bedroom.

Gwen: What personally inspires you in design?
Natalie: I think we’re really lucky that we have one another. I think that we know when we’re going through independent growth as humans and so we’re gentle with one another, which allows for a really nice space to try things and not be judged. So I think in the sanctuary of our space and our partnership we inspire each other. I can find inspiration in life in general. Specific to design, it’s to show people the best in them in their own spaces. But I can find inspiration on the back of a magazine cover or a milk carton. I can find [it in] fashion or a font or a flag or a kite—I mean, I’m completely like a kite in that anything catches my eye, but mainly I find people largely inspiring and puzzles to solve.

Julie: We both have the privilege, especially recently, to travel. And travel is always design inspiration for us. When we get to go somewhere together we come back really lit with thoughts and ideas. And it’s not necessarily that the travel was intended for design, it’s a meal that we eat together or a walk that we take, but there’s always something that triggers a thought.

Gwen: What have you learned about yourself since opening the doors of Natalie O Design 15 years ago?
Natalie: Something I’ve learned from Julie is not to share everything- don’t give everything away. The demand will come. All things happen in the right time. You always want things to happen fast (and it’s easy to get jealous and frustrated when they don’t) but I care less about that stuff. There’s a certain degree of arrival in knowing exactly who we are and what we do and we’re not trying to wear somebody else’s hat. We’re not going to wear those tight-fitting jeans if they don’t work. We’re no longer having an identity crisis.

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A wrap-around upholstered headboard in the master bedroom was custom made by Esposito Construction, with Maharam Twill Weave. Blue sconces by Louis Poulsen AJ Sconce.

“This or That?” with Natalie O Design

Traditionalist or going against the grain?
Julie & Natalie: The latter.
Potted cactus or vaseful of flowers?
Julie & Natalie: Both, but always a cactus and hold a space for peonies!
Choose your couch: modern geometric lines or sink-right-in curves?
Julie & Natalie: One of each! There’s a place for both.
Neutral tones or anything-goes color scheme?
Julie: I would lean more neutral, but I think a pop of color is always important, it just has to be very well played. I think you dress very much how your house looks if you’re creative—it’s an extension. I may wear all neutrals but there’s going to be some weird something—that’s me!
Natalie: I think that color and light are far more integral to the process and important than what color. It’s really about how the color plays in the light that determines how it’s placed. Also, I don’t use red, ever. No one needs more alarm in their life!
Dining room table, modernist Eero Saarinen tulip table or natural wood live edge top?
Julie & Natalie: Neither; we’ll design our own!
Distressed or streamlined finish?
Julie & Natalie: Streamlined, always.
Brass or black fixtures?
Julie: I’m never going to choose black. If we do brass it’s unlacquered brass, not shiny.
Natalie: Unlacquered brass for sure. Brass is meant to patina as it does in knobs and fixtures in England and other areas of Europe where people use brass. It’s not a trend. We never do rustic, but our one space where we get that variance in patina is definitely in the use of actual brass or actual nickel. Everything in its truest form is kind of our M.O.

Photography by Luke Metzinger.