Calm, Cool, and Collected

Heather Wells spends her days choosing the perfect fabric, designing the ideal floor plan, and seeking out the piece of furniture that's just right for a client's home. But when it came time to design her own dream apartment, the architect and designer was surprised to find herself overwhelmed.

“The hardest thing about doing your own apartment when you're a designer is saying to everyone — to your clients, to the world — 'This is who I am,'” Wells says, surveying the calm interior of her new South End loft.

Wells is, above all, the head of her own design firm with offices and clients in Boston and Chicago and a staff of 10. But she is also a homeowner — one who has just put the finishing touches on her own 1,150-square-foot apartment in the posh Wilkes Passage building. Wells bought the loft two years ago and immediately started drawing up plans for dividing the large open space into separate areas for sleeping, entertaining, dining, and, most importantly, storage. Then it was time to pinpoint her own personal style.

“Our office is very client oriented,” says Wells, who devotes hours to meeting with new clients so she can learn their personal styles and preferences. As a result, each job ends up being much more a reflection of the individual than of a signature look. “Our projects vary from English manor to French country. But to nail down my own style, to announce it and be out with it and put it on the table, was hard to do.”

Wells made the final result look effortless. The large, L-shaped space, distinguished by a wide swath of windows that frame the Boston skyline, was transformed with a gentle mix of modern forms and traditional New England pieces, a reflection of the 39-year-old designer's personality. Wells, who attended Smith and Harvard Design School, is both refined and friendly, elegant and approachable. “My style is distinctly New England, but in a modern, not kitschy, way,” she says. “The fabrics I pick are comfortable, like cottons or linens. They're casual, and the colors blend easily, so together they're naturally soothing. I like things that are user-friendly. I don't want white, because I don't want to worry about eating in the living room.” She adds quickly: “Not that I often do!”

It's hard to imagine the space as it was before Wells began the renovations. There was little more than standard-issue white walls, inexpensive cabinetry, unsightly industrial beams along the ceiling, and a big, empty room. “The developers knew that everyone who bought a unit here would rip everything out anyway and start from scratch,” Wells says. Indeed, many of the apartments in the building were snapped up by local designers, who, like Wells, went to work putting their stamps on the flexible, raw spaces.

The first task for Wells was giving the loft definition. Using her architect's eye for order and rationality in design, Wells designed cabinets that provide ample storage space while at the same time creating a long foyer to wall off her bedroom from the entrance. Another freestanding unit separates the dining and kitchen area from a secluded guest bedroom and office space. The cabinetry is mahogany. Along the perimeter of the apartment, Wells has stained the cabinets a gorgeous deep chocolate to add drama, while the interior dividing walls are painted a lighter neutral color in the Shaker style. These immense storage units were carefully planned in size, detail, and location, to hide away everything from winter coats and sweaters to kitchen appliances and a vacuum cleaner. The effect is a clutter-free, clean space where order rules, with little need for dressers, desks, or wardrobes.

To conceal the unsightly industrial beams, Wells dropped the ceiling and added recessed lights. In the living area, a coffered ceiling draws the eye inward and adds visual interest. “I have a garage-worth's of empty space” above the ceiling, Wells admits, laughing, “but it was worth it. The beams were in awkward places, and now there's a rational system.” In the bedroom, the ceilings are less than eight feet high but still provide enough room for a simple, Shaker-style four-poster bed Wells designed herself. The effect is cozy rather than claustrophobic. When the neutral linen and wool drapes are pulled closed between the sleeping and living areas, the bedroom becomes a very Zen-like retreat.

The main focus in Wells's apartment, of course, is the view. Built-in low bookshelves double as seating along the windows and provide the perfect spot for scanning the city skyline to the north. “When I first started looking to buy a place, I was living in a brick walkup. When I heard about this loft I thought I would hate it,” Wells says. “But the real estate agent convinced me to look at it at night, and the view was amazing. It feels like a Chicago apartment in Boston.”

By that, Wells means an apartment that's something of a modern aerie perched among the skyscrapers, which is what she got with her seventh-floor space. “It used to be that Boston was more formal than Chicago, but that's changing,” Wells says. “Now Boston is much more modern, and, in fact, we're doing a higher percentage of modern projects here than in Chicago. People here are ready for it.”

With the amenities of a modern building come conveniences that are essential to a busy designer like Wells, who shuttles halfway across the continent between her two offices every other week or so. In addition to the perks of indoor parking and a doorman, the building has more of a sense of community than others. “It feels a little like being in college here,” Wells says.

Like most pros, Wells knew just where to find the materials for her dream apartment once the structural ideas were in place. She chose a sea-blue tile for the kitchen's backsplash, which she found at Ann Sacks Tile & Stone at the Boston Design Center, while the Miele, Sub-Zero, and Franke appliances came from Yale Appliance + Lighting in Dorchester. Wells found the soft, wheat-colored abaca rug for her living area at Stark Carpet, also at the Design Center, and the sofa and upholstered chairs are from a favorite Chicago designer, Holly Hunt. She made sure to save space along the walls and even on the cabinets to display her collection of modern art, much of it purchased at some of Boston's many open-studio events. A limestone-topped table in the kitchen area surrounded by comfortable, low stools makes an ideal spot for an impromptu gathering or formal dinner party.

Surrounded by such order and functionality, Wells needed one space, hidden away, where she could work, relax, and even exercise without worrying about the visual flow of the apartment. The freestanding Shaker-style cabinets in the kitchen, behind which Wells installed a custom-designed day bed for guests, carve out that separate space. This compact area also houses a treadmill, making it truly multifunctional.

Now that everything is in place in her own apartment, Wells is free to concentrate on her latest projects, which include everything from houses in West Newton to Back Bay duplexes to downtown Chicago pieds-à-terre. To keep her Boston and Chicago staffs working well together, Wells organizes retreats (the whole crew went to Newport, for example, to study its Gilded Age mansions) and sends employees back and forth between the two offices. “I try to cross-pollinate,” Wells says. “It's a dramatic profession, but everything clicks with us, and everyone gets along.”

The most important lesson Wells will teach her employees this year, after completing her own home, is what it feels like to be on the other side of the designer's table. “People should do what makes them most happy,” she says. “It's good to feel the emotions that clients feel, to be the one who's being told, 'Go home and sleep on it, give yourself one week and if you hate it, you can change it.'”