Robin Flaherty and Jess Milburn teamed up one and a half years ago to form their home design team, North and Madison, and since then the duo has been busy helping Oak Park, River Forest and Chicago-area homeowners get the interiors they have always wanted. 

While the pair have plenty of experience with older homes — Jess got her start renovating her Oak Park home from top to bottom, and Robin is hard at work on her River Forest Victorian — a recent project gave them an opportunity to start from scratch. 

When clients in Oak Park purchased an older home, the garage was on its last legs, so the clients demolished it and took advantage of changes in Oak Park’s code to construct a coach house, including a bathroom and a kitchen, above the garage. 

The young family wanted the coach house to be a fun hangout space for their family and friends, and they called in North and Madison early in the project.

“They brought us in when it was just studs and framing,” Flaherty said. “It’s very rare in this neighborhood to have new construction with all the old homes here. New construction is just easier.” 

Milburn added: “We work with mostly older homes, but they come with older plumbing and older electrical,” and bringing those up to date can dramatically raise the price of a renovation.

The family of four had two goals for North and Madison when it came to the coach house. Their first priority was a space for entertaining away from their main house, and their second goal was to create a guest house for visitors. 

“[They] told us we could do whatever we wanted,” Flaherty said. “It’s the most fun to be able to run with a project.”

Flaherty and Milburn came up with a design plan for the space, complete with finishes, fixtures and furniture and presented it to the clients. They note that typically, at this stage in the process, there is some back and forth as clients request a few changes or want to see different options. Not this time.

“When we presented all this stuff to [the homeowner], she just said yes, Flaherty said.

“She actually started crying,” Milburn said. “We always do a presentation like this at the beginning, and it’s very rare not to switch out at least some of the choices.”

From the start, the plan was to make the open space bright and happy. Yellow doors and yellow pendants over the kitchen island make the space sunny, and the custom kitchen cabinets are painted a shade of dark teal. 

Black trim around the windows and ceiling beams emphasize the view outdoors and tie in with the accent wall of graphic black and white wallpaper.

In the full bathroom, black and white cement tile creates a geometric pattern on the floor. Elongated black subway tile blends a traditional shape with a contemporary color.

While it was fun to choose the colors and patterns to make the space come alive, Flaherty notes that there is a lot of practical design work in the space as well. 

New structures like this one require sprinkler systems, and they had to be creative about how to integrate that into a secondary living space. 

“This space is not going to be used as much as a regular house,” Flaherty said. “We were worried about the sprinkler lines freezing. We came up with a plan to fit the sprinklers into the ceiling beams and worked on a pattern so that the beams would be in exactly the right place.”

Flaherty and Milburn also worked to keep the finished look luxe without actually costing a lot.

“You’d be surprised at how affordable all of the materials were,” Flaherty said.

She points to the kitchen backsplash. The pattern utilizes five different sizes of basic white tiles. Flaherty says that each tile cost only about 15 cents, and the entire backsplash came in around $200. Their contractor found an engineered flooring product from Europe that has the look of pale white oak without the cost of actual hardwood flooring.

Throughout the process, Flaherty tends to focus more on the construction and kitchen-design side of things while Milburn focuses on the décor, which helps in division of labor. 

The pair began working on the coach house in January, and the family began hanging out in their new coach house in May. Now, the space functions as a music studio for the husband, a place to play shuffleboard or watch television with friends and a gathering space for the wife and her friends away from the hustle and bustle of the main house.

Flaherty says keeping the entertaining to a separate structure has its benefits. 

“Instead of messing up the main house, they can entertain here,” Flaherty said.

Milburn says the space has already become a neighborhood hangout, when the owners hosted a recent post-block party gathering.

While Milburn has experience with garages – she turned her own Oak Park garage into a Tiki bar — the designers say this is their first complete coach house renovation, and they are hooked.

“The cool thing about doing a coach house is that no one lives here,” Flaherty said. “Because there’s no need for storage, you can focus on the aesthetic and the fun. We loved working on this space. We’d love to be known as the coach house designers.”

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