Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson
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Kimberly Renner is a multitasking designer and builder with an adventurous outlook on style. I’ve written about her projects for several publications, but she really outdid herself when she overhauled an uninhabitable, falling-down, 1920’s-era duplex in her Austin, Texas, neighborhood and turned it into a single family home for herself, her husband, and their two sons.

“It was the worst house in the neighborhood,” says Renner about the asbestos-shingled duplex lurking behind fifty years-worth of overgrowth. “I was so motivated to turn this house around.” The house didn’t even have much to recommend it architecturally, except a big front porch–but with the help of architects Tim Cuppett and Amy Dempsey, Renner turned the eyesore into a drop-dead stunner. Inside, the two apartments were mirror images, each with a set of stairs to bedrooms on the second floor. The extra-wide stairwell—formerly the original two staircases–revealed flair once Renner knocked down the dividing wall. The effect? a wildly dramatic entry that actually became the centerpiece of the house.

I first wrote about the astounding transformation in Martha Stewart Living magazine, and have included some of the photos here from that feature, supplemented by other shots to show even more of this unusual house.

Kimberly Renner collects vintage stamped and postmarked post cards (with the messages intact) which she used in a light installation she made out of fishing line and ceiling-mounted lights for the entry stairwell. Renner removed the wall that separated the duplex’s original two staircases and reinforced the stairwell with structural support that encased the space. She kept the seven-foot wide staircase and the double-height stairwell intact and painted risers glossy black and the walls and ceiling a grey enamel.  Photo by colleen duffley.

Eight-and-a-half foot tall ceilings were a design problem resolved with glossy enamel paint (Martha Stewart Living “Flagstone”). “It reflects light and makes the rooms seem luminous. No one notices how low the ceilings are.”  Photo by ryann ford.

“Color on a ceiling always appears darker than the same color does on walls—that’s because the ceiling faces down and is in the shadows,” says Renner. “Be prepared to cut the color you’ve chosen by as much as fifty percent.” Photo by ryann ford. 

Renner applied three coats of oil-based enamel over primer on the walls and ceilings. The depth of color saturation and durability increases with each coat applied. “A treatment like this,” she says, “should last 15 years.” Photo by ryann ford. 

Renner wanted to play off the linearity  of the house with crisp black and white striped upholstery: “When I couldn’t find any with a big enough stripe, I pieced together my own, alternating strips of black and strips of white Sunbrella.”  Photo by colleen duffley. 

Renner chose gold-flecked Fortuny-style fabric for the curtains to add a counterpoint of glamour.  Photo by colleen duffley.

Most of the furniture are pieces Renner and her husband Dan found at garage sales, junk shops, and liquidation sales. When the local Air Force base shut down, Kimberly and Dan showed up early to nab steel cabinets, desks and chairs, which have since taken up residence in the couple’s home. Photo by colleen duffley.

“I am fascinated by how to use institutional materials in a decorative way,” says Renner. “And interested, too, in exposing functionality.” Dishes, towels, and toilet paper are in full view on open shelving; plumbing is in plain sight under sinks; and you can see wiring on some light fixtures. “I don’t like to hide things,” she says. “I like to make them beautiful.”  Photo by ryann ford.

A twenty-five-foot-long counter stretches across the galley kitchen, formerly two separate kitchens, and is lit by vintage-inspired library lamps. The steel cabinets are custom fabricated, as are the dishwasher doors, by Renner’s brother and project manager Cole Thompson (no relation to me).  Photo by colleen duffley. 

“I use what I call ‘safety’ orange,” says Renner about the color that most resembles the shade of a traffic cone and that appears at important intervals throughout the all-gray house. “I used it compositionally as if it were art,” she notes, “to create spots in the house that demand attention, kind of like ‘hot spots.’”  That’s Petey, on the way to advising Renner on certain aspects of doing the laundry. Photo by colleen duffley.

Over-sized windows throughout the house make for a great view of the park across the street and contribute to the latent beauty Renner revealed in the house.  Photo by colleen duffley.

Cinder block book cases fit neatly and unapologetically in the dining room. Renner used 1 x 8-foot shiplap on walls and ceilings throughout.  Photo by ryann ford.

The staircase now is an important architectural component of the house. Photo by ryann ford. 

Dan and Kimberly take a breather on a loveseat at the top of the stairs with their sons Thompson and Pace.  Photo by colleen duffley.

The master bedroom occupies what was the entire top floor of one of the side-by-side duplexes. “I got rid of the old doorways and opened those spaces to the ceiling,” says Renner, “to give the house a modern edge.” The hallways are on axis with the windows, a detail that clarifies space and light. In the master bath, the windows are frosted for privacy.  Photo by ryann ford.

A mirror unfolds from the niche next to the window, where it’s tucked away when out of use. Frank Scaglione made the steel-slotted angle steel vanity which is powder-coated “safety”orange. Towels and a porcelain basin are exposed on top of three-quarter –inch glass counters. Photo by colleen duffley.

Oooh la la! Renner’s closet is all-out glamour, with walls and ceiling in a metallic cherry blossom-pattern wallpaper by Romo. Photo by ryann ford.

“I had a collection of vintage roll-up maps that were used in schools,” says Renner. She repurposed them as wallpaper in her sons’ rooms. “I made a collage and just put them on the walls with wallpaper paste.” Petey the cat can be seen investigating a map of China. Other walls are covered in cork so that the boys can pin up their art or other projects. Photo by colleen duffley.

In the boys’ bathroom, Renner designed an extra-large tile red cross in the tub: “It’s their first aid station,” she says. The industrial double sink is from her collection of institutional pieces. Floors are indestructible black rubber. Renner’s secret to achieving a clean crisp look in the bathroom: “I always match the white wall paint to the white in the hardware enamel.” She used Benjamin Moore’s “Distant Gray” here. Photo by colleen duffley.

It took nerves of steel to renovate the duplex–here is how it looked when the Renners bought it. Photo by kimberley renner.

Now the former duplex is clad in cedar shingles and the porch refreshed with paint and new railings rebuilt to code. The columns are original.  Photo by ryann ford.


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