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Forlorn Barn Gets New Life as Entertaining Oasis

From a basic barn re-imagined as a swank paneled library to a storybook stone cottage where suppers are held by candlelight, a rural Illinois estate brims with diminutive delights, thanks to designer Annie Brahler-Smith (ABS).

How does a stable in Illinois end up resembling a tweedy gentleman›s club? ABS: Would you believe by accident? It happened while I was designing a series of outbuildings on the 40-acre property, which was purchased by a former professional baseball player and his wife. While they were mulling over how to redo the main house, I started designing some amazing auxiliary structures — a collector’s garage for his cars, a garden house, and a pool house with twin pergolas. The look was very rustic-luxe. The house came with a barn that was horrible — ugly white-and-green aluminum — but they needed it for their horses. So I decided to overhaul it, inside and out. The husband told me, “We will let you do your own thing, and we’ll stay out of your way.” Now the barn looks like it has history — as if it evolved over time and generations.

How do you add character to a prefab, aluminum barn? ABS: Salvaged lumber and simple, natural materials. The stable’s metal exterior is clad in reclaimed barn wood. In the tack room, the floors are reclaimed from another barn tear down, the walls are oak plywood trimmed in off-the-rack molding from Home Depot and the ceiling is standard bead board. The antique furniture, which I mostly found in France, Holland and Belgium, has more personality than pedigree. I’ve always been drawn to imperfections. I started my career importing flea-market finds that I bought while accompanying my husband on his overseas business trips. The French mahogany table in front of the leather settee? It cost about $20. You can’t be overly precious in a working barn, not with four horses living right there amid the mud and hay.

That tack room is awfully small. How did you maximize the space? ABS: The design had to be all about function. I wanted everything to multi-task. The windowsill needed to serve several purposes: a serving area for hot chocolate after riding lessons, a writing table for when the vet and trainers visit and the occasional wet bar in the evenings. I was walking around my warehouse, which is full of broken furniture and pieces of things, when inspiration hit. I spotted half of a shapely wooden table and thought, Aha — it could be a deep windowsill! Also, the homeowners’ daughters compete in equestrian events, and there’s always tack to be polished, so I lined the walls with hooks and saddle racks. It’s practical but it also shows off the gorgeous craftsmanship of the leather work, which is truly an art form. A wall of shelving displays the girls’ dressage trophies; I mixed in vintage and antique trophies from Europe to create the sense of a collection.

You also designed a very storybook stone cottage. It’s a party space? ABS: Yes. The husband already has his man cave: a garage that holds everything from multiple TVs to a taxidermy shark. For his wife, I wanted a romantic fairy-tale environment where she could entertain. It’s a single room with an enormous stone fireplace and a massive dining table illuminated by flickering tapers. We built the whole cottage out of 19th-century white limestone salvaged from a Civil War–era shot silo. You can see shells embedded in the stone. Since I was going for an authentically rustic feeling, I designed the space without any amenities — no heat, water or electricity. Just in case, we wired the French chandelier, but it also holds candles so you can dine in soft, low light. The floor is certainly atmospheric. What is it made of? Crushed oyster shells over tamped lime. You see it all over Europe, and I was determined to have it here. I love that it evokes garden pathways and echoes the limestone’s palette. The cottage’s furnishings, like the gilded Belgian chairs upholstered in French grain sacks, are equally unpretentious. But since the room is small, there isn’t much furniture. I opted for fewer pieces with grand proportions: Along the wall is a 12-foot-long bench from a French monastery. The dining table, which is handcrafted from Syrian oak I bought in Holland, can seat about a dozen people. With the over-scale chandelier hung low, about 28 inches above the table, the effect is especially magical. I hate when light fixtures are hung up high in no-man’s-land. I prefer to invite pretty lighting to the party.

What is the trick for pulling together such an original space? ABS: I wish I could say I do meticulous research and mood boards. Instead, I feel it in my gut. I get a surge of adrenaline, everything clicks and — boom! — off I go. To borrow an equestrian phrase, when a client allows me to gallop at full speed, I can guarantee I will take them to one-of-a-kind places.

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