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It’s not unusual for rental houses to turn over year after year in Bloomington, Indiana, the leafy city where Indiana University is located. Students rent for a while and then move out, and the usual wear and tear needs to be tended to. But when Aaron Denton was tasked as a subcontractor with refinishing the floors and painting the walls of a circa-1964 split-level, he didn’t expect it to be work he was doing on his own future home.

Near the end of the job, in summer 2015, the owner asked if Aaron, a graphic designer, and his now-wife, Anna, a photographer, wanted to move in and rent. Fast-forward five years, during the height of the pandemic, and their landlord came back with an even better offer: Did they want to buy it? “Since we had rented for five years, we knew exactly what we loved and didn’t love about the house,” Anna explains, noting that they immediately wanted to replace the entry’s dark wood paneling and update the bathroom. “And then, all of a sudden, we had the opportunity to do that,” she adds.

Anna and Aaron in the renovated kitchen.

After seeing what architect Andrew Heathfield of MINOH did in another Bloomington home (for this Domino editor), they were enthusiastic to talk with him about their ideas. They also liked that he was a Midwesterner, based in Detroit. “It felt like he was really excited about our project and cared about our project. He made everything seem a little bit more possible,” Anna remembers of their video chat.

“For Anna and Aaron, MINOH focused on integrating segmented spaces, maximizing natural light, and enhancing functionality,” Andrew says. “The overall palette is clean and minimal, which really helped to highlight our tile selections, as well as the pair’s collection of art and photography. I think we created a space that is a reflection of them.” What came to be is a central hub of spaces that complement one another and suit the couple’s lifestyle, aesthetics, and, yes, their cats, too.

Plan for It to Take Longer Than You Think

The kitchen, before.

As new home buyers, the Dentons held no illusions about the unfamiliar process they were about to dive into. But something they were sure of was that they didn’t want to do the project piecemeal or live in a construction zone. From that initial meeting with Heathfield in January 2021 to having a finished space in September 2022, the project took more than a year and a half. While that was partially due to the majority of it taking place during the pandemic, the tasks that took the longest were getting the drawings just right (remotely); finding a contractor who would take on their size of the job; and then the actual reconstruction of the kitchen, living room, entry, and bathroom. Ultimately, they ended up with exactly what they wanted: a fresh start with nuance that can grow with them as their lives evolve. 

There Will Be First-Time Renovation Hiccups

The living room, after. Coffee Table, Jeff’s Warehouse; Shelving System, Floyd. Artwork by Bailey Elder.

Something the Dentons didn’t expect was that their scale of renovation—not a full gut nor a one-room situation—made it difficult to source a contractor willing to take it on, especially because the couple was acting as project managers. They wanted to be the ones ordering and tracking the materials as well as storing them in their garage. “It became a matter of finding someone to do it,” Aaron says. “That took a while—reaching out to people, and people just being like, ‘No, this is too small. We don’t want to bid on this.’” Luckily, the home’s former owner recommended Chris Valliant, who was skilled in tile installation. Valliant then introduced the couple to Hewins Cabinet Company, which was an essential partner for the Dentons for the kitchen and bathroom.

It was smooth sailing until construction began. First, there was the hiccup of a long lead time for the custom Fireclay x Block Shop tile, and delivery held them up. Then a difficult-to-size cabinet panel for the dishwasher made trouble. Not to mention that once the bathroom vanity was made, it still had to be transported to the site. “Because we didn’t work with a full-build team, we didn’t have that person who is doing all the subcontracting and knowing what comes next in the process,” Aaron shares openly. “It was a lot of us just figuring things out as they needed to be figured out on a daily basis.”

The kitchen, after.

Eschewing premade for custom cabinets was a big financial commitment, but it ended up saving them a huge headache when their measurements were oh-so-slightly off. “We were able to just smush it a little bit with a cabinet and make the fridge fit,” Aaron says.   

If It’s a Forever Kitchen, Consider Going Custom

The kitchen, before.
The kitchen, after. Countertops, John Boos & Co.; Refrigerator, Smeg; Ceramic Dinnerware, Amelia Wrede Davis; Pendant Lamps, Schoolhouse.

Before the renovation, the kitchen’s horseshoe shape and dark wood paneling were both pain points for the couple, who love to host. “It was this very funny social experiment every time we had people over,” Anna says. “They’d walk in the house, get to the top of the stairs, and then have nowhere to go.” They knew they wanted to have a clear pass-through between the front door and back door. Now, instead of getting trapped by an L-shape, anyone can walk straight in and gather with the pair around the island, a focal point in the house. They can both be in front of the range at the same time, and beyond a new Bosch oven elevating their cooking, Aaron points out the little thrills. “I have a dishwasher for the first time in my life, which is amazing.”

The Dentons found that they appreciated their choice to go custom—in both the kitchen and bathroom—not only for the flexibility to make tweaks, but because they had exacting ideas of how they wanted everything to fit. In the design process, they mapped it out inch by inch, including where and how they would stash countertop appliances out of sight (on a pullout drawer behind closed doors) to detailed spice jar storage. “I appreciate that custom work every day,” Aaron says. “It became one of those moments where it’s like, let’s do this one time and get exactly what we want and then have it forever.”

Cats Need Privacy in the Bathroom, Too

The bathroom, before.
The bathroom, after. Tile, Fireclay x Block Shop; Vanity, Caesarstone; Towel Hooks, Sin.

“I personally feel like the bathroom is the most transformed,” Anna says, acknowledging how cramped and bland it was before. “It’s very weird to say the bathroom is a favorite room in the house, but it is the most beautiful.” First, by reclaiming an empty closet next to it, they doubled the size of the space.

By ripping out the tub and going with a walk-in shower clad in more custom Fireclay x Block Shop tile, they created extra depth, too. The frosted window, which looks out onto the screened-in porch, let’s in light but doesn’t require curtains as before, and a built-in cubby keeps products out of the corners and off the floors. Lastly, their cabinetmaker installed custom white oak cabinets that included an important addition: one sized exactly for their cats to have a little privacy in the loo, too. 

Add a Front Door You Actually Want to Enter Through

The entry, before.
The entry, after. Tile, Fireclay x Block Shop

The back door had been the de facto front door for the Dentons ever since they moved in—and not because it was more convenient. The exterior and entryway came with a broken door, and dark wood paneling didn’t make them feel excited to walk in or out every day. After adding a layer of drywall, installing a new railing, laying down custom tile on the floor, and hanging a George Nelson Bubble lamp, things were starting to look sunnier.

Sofa, Hay; Pendant Lamp, Design Within Reach; Artwork by Dennis Foster.

Artwork by Dennis Foster and a brand-new door sealed the deal, and a fresh walkway and landscaping make it feel completely different. “I feel like we’ve made the front of our house a welcoming space again,” Anna says. 

Let Light in Every Which Way 

The living room, before.
The living room, after. Counter stools and dining chairs, Knoll; Dining Table, Floyd; Accent Light, Humanhome.

Prerenovation, wood paneling was prominent throughout the house, and while sometimes it can be a nice vintage touch, it wasn’t what the pair needed or wanted at this stage of their life. “We took that down and replaced it with drywall, which just made the space so much brighter and feel so much bigger,” Anna says. That new front door? It’s full-length frosted glass, and the new back door is transparent, too. Those changes, paired with the kitchen’s colossal picture window, also new, lets natural light pour in from multiple sources. 

Ask for What You Want

Shelves, Shelfology; Oven, Bosch; Tile, Fireclay x Block Shop.

“We knew nothing going into this project—about renovating, about owning a home,” Anna says. “So when we started the process, so many things came about because we asked for what we wanted or asked questions of the experts to help us get there.” Case in point: the matte finish and taupe color of their Fireclay x Block Shop tile. “It comes in a glossy mint green, and that’s what we were going to go with,” Anna recalls. But then they happened to be on the phone with a Fireclay rep and inquired about a matte finish, which then led to the more muted brown hue they ended up with. Similarly, the budget that they had given Heathfield at the start began to feel limiting, so they decided to splurge on various pieces they hadn’t considered necessary, like a Smeg refrigerator, Schoolhouse lighting, and Boos kitchen countertops.

Each experience like this—whether that was specific cabinet placement, hand-selected vintage furniture, or spot-on pendant height—has made the end product so much more meaningful. “I know exactly where it came from and why it looks the way it is,” says Aaron. “It’s purposeful in a way that I’m not going to forget.” Those five years of renting gave them a head start on it all.