Beyond Borders

March 2020 View more

By Peter Gianopulos
Photography by Olivia Kohler

Some homes absorb and reflect the trends of the hour. Others are architectural theories cast into three dimensions. And still others, like the home of Dr. Subhash Patel and his wife, Achala, are built to tell a story about the people who live there and the cultures and values that shaped them.

Virtually every piece of furniture and design choice in the Patels’ seven-bedroom, 4,200-square-foot Naperville home has an interesting backstory. Point anywhere you like and the Patels can explain, in rich detail, not only the inspiration behind their choices but the hidden symbolism embedded in each.

“We wanted our house to capture the beauty of three very different cultures: our shared Indian ancestry, as well as the countries where we grew up: the UK for my husband and America for me,” says Achala.

Take the home’s striking red front door, which is frosted with shimmering 24-karat gold gilding that only a handful of artisans can still create. Or note the use of green paint on their floating tea shelf, which honors Dr. Patel’s affinity for the British countryside. Or the family’s dining-room light fixtures, which cast a carousel of geometric shapes on the walls in ways that honor the artistry of their native India.

The Patels are the kind of homeowners who know with unwavering certainty what they want exactly when they see it—a decisiveness they’ve both exhibited since they were young.

Dr. Subhash and Achala Patel in their front room.

When Achala—who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan—first saw the twinkling wonder of downtown Chicago as a young girl, she vowed, right then and there, to one day call the area home. Years later, in 2003, Subhash was equally resolute, asking Achala to marry him after just two dates. She said yes without any hesitation.

The couple took a circuitous route to get to Naperville. After Subhash completed his neurology residency at Johns Hopkins, the couple made a short stop in Iowa before he accepted a job in Chicago, where they promptly settled into a downtown condo.

In time, however, the lure of a sprawling backyard and a top-tier school system for their growing family trumped the perks of city life. They initially settled in a house in the Tall Grass community of Naperville, which provided enough space for their parents to stay with them for part of the year. Unfortunately, Subhash’s father was later diagnosed with cancer, a trying period that led to his passing in 2016.

By that time Achala and Subhash had welcomed three children—Arya, Sohan, and Daksh—but the loss of Subhash’s father prompted the couple to consider buying a new home that could more comfortably house three generations under one roof.

Achala’s initial checklist included individual bedrooms and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms for their parents, as well as a spacious walkout basement. “We wanted our parents to feel independent but have the support they needed, a place where they could feel comfortable and cared for,” says Achala.

Unfortunately, nothing on the market met their specifications, let alone the Patels’ multicultural aesthetic vision. That changed when the Patels found a cozy lot in Naperville that boasted a huge backyard (with a pond), as well as a construction partner—in Crestview Builders—that could build their dream home within an acceptable budget.

Graefenhain recommends putting a twist on tradition by using a mix of metals throughout a home, instead of a single material. “If every doorknob, handle, and light fixture is the same metal it actually dates your house,” she says. The Patels, for instance, liked warmer metals, so the house showcases a mix of copper, satin brass, and neutral blacks.

What they still needed was the right designer to bring their vision to life. Enter Angela Graefenhain, owner of Graefenhain Designs, who immediately devised a plan to make it happen. “The first time I talked to Angela on the phone,” says Achala, “I immediately knew we’d found the person who could help.”

It helped that Graefenhain was both a designer and artist, who works in oil paintings and mixed-media pieces. She’d fallen in love with design as a child in Minneapolis, when her parents let her paint a mural in her bedroom—“A huge hippie mural with rainbows and people-sized mushrooms,” she says—and pair it with chic green grass carpet.

Graefenhain’s initial advice was to carry a subtle circle motif throughout the home, which symbolized the Patels’ tight-knit family dynamic—and keep the paint colors simple. “I knew they wanted colorful furniture pieces, with reds and greens, so we wanted to keep the color scheme clean so things didn’t get too overwhelming,” she says. “We agreed to let the pieces add color and personality.”

Achala and Subhash had already picked out furnishings they liked, thanks to endless research on Pinterest and It was Graefenhain’s job to reproduce the chosen pieces in affordable ways, which she often did by calling on local craftsmen. “If you fill a home with artisan-made pieces, they give your home a timeless look,” says Graefenhain. “Most homeowners think handmade pieces are out of their reach, but they’re really quite attainable.”

The first-floor powder room, for example, boasts a double-glazed porcelain sink (shown on next page), made in the UK by the London Basin Company, which is illustrated with Regency Era flourishes and the kind of vibrant colors—gold, aquas, powder blues—you’d expect to see in Mumbai. The circular theme continues in the Patels’ dining room table: their round walnut table with copper trim and a marble top that was designed by Graefenhain and built by two companies that have a joint showroom in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago—Norman Leigh Design and J. Taylor Wallace of Metal Magic Interiors.

“What we really wanted was for every member of family to have their own little area, a space that reflected who they are and what they enjoy,” says Achala.

For Subhash that meant a gaming den built beneath the family’s garage, and for Achala it was a stunningly white master bedroom with views overlooking the backyard. Meanwhile, their children have their own themed bedrooms, complete with custom art pieces created by Graefenhain.

Marble surfaces are artfully used throughout the house, especially in the family’s stunning Hindu prayer room, which comes complete with benches, decorative pillows, and imported marble statues from India. The room provides the Patels’ parents a comfortable place to perform their daily prayers and meditations.

For 9-year-old Sohan’s space-themed room, she drew a mural of a night sky, complete with easy-to-remove planetary decals. Seven-year-old Daksh’s wildlife-themed room includes busts of animals on the walls. And 11-year-old daughter Arya’s princess-worthy space showcases beautiful and colorful handmade paper flowers.

“I never try to push my art on anyone,” says Graefenhain, who also designed the home’s unique railings, “but custom pieces can add a personal touch and ensure a home reflects the people who live there.”

In practice, the home has functioned just as the Patels hoped, as their parents often fly in for long stretches and settle in as if it’s their own home, cooking for the family and cementing bonds between three generations.

“Working on a house like this is a long process,” says Achala. “We didn’t know it was going to turn out quite the way it did, but now, we have a house that our whole family has fallen in love with.”