Photo by Corey Phillips/The Home Aesthetic
When you’re welcomed through the front door of Derek and LeAnne Lavender’s 1952 home, with its cool weathered patina and original woodwork, you might notice a few other interesting touches right away. Two geometric mirrors hang above a vintage dresser, one several inches higher than the other. They blend perfectly with the nearby acacia wood framing the entrance to an open-concept living area and also running along the floor—an expanse of planks in multidimensional tones, the grain shimmering with hues from blond to dark.
Thanks to fate, and to the Lavenders’ keen eye, these design choices resulted in a gorgeous entryway. But they had another motive, too. “Everything has been very intentional so when you walk in, you don’t feel that someone with a handicap lives here, necessarily,” says LeAnne.
Such has been the couple’s primary design challenge since the summer of 2016, when Derek was in a wreck on his way to work as a patent attorney at a downtown law firm. He was paralyzed from the chest down, and the Lavenders found themselves thinking about their surroundings in an entirely new way.
Their foyer offers a few clues as to how they’ve adapted. Those artfully asymmetrical mirrors? One is for LeAnne as she heads out the door, the other was hung at Derek’s height from his wheelchair. The open-concept floor plan so in vogue these days happens to be a requirement for him, so he can easily maneuver around the midcentury-modern furniture. And the hardwood floor is much easier for wheels than the gray carpet the Lavenders ripped up upon buying the home in the spring of 2017. “It’s nice,” says LeAnne, “because a lot of things that are trendy now happen to be accessible, too.”
The Lavenders had been living in a home in Geist at the time of the accident—more specifically, its detached one-car garage. They were renovating the main house and planning to flip it. Their dwelling had a look that LeAnne describes as “industrial cabin,” the outside covered in cedar and the interiors heavy on metal.
The couple moved to Chicago for a treatment program that taught Derek how to “get back to normal and transition,” he says. Back in Indianapolis, they knew they needed a ranch-style house, plus room for a ramp. A bit of property would be nice. The Lavenders figured they would have to make some basic accommodations to any home they found, like adding a new master suite or at least renovating a bathroom to make way for a roll-in shower.
After checking out some 50 places, they weren’t finding much in Indianapolis or their old stomping grounds of Geist. Then this ranch on a quiet street in the Highlands-Kessler neighborhood, a mile north of Newfields, hit the market. The bones were good, the previous owner had taken care of it, and the price point left enough in their budget for the modifications they knew they’d need to make. “We found the place and just embraced the midcentury-modern,” says Derek of the home’s age. “It’s happenstance that it’s trendy now. We didn’t plan that out.”
[parallax media=”https://www.indianapolismonthly.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/green-block.jpg” height=”400px” align=”center”]“It’s nice because a lot of things that are trendy now happen to be accessible, too,” says LeAnne Lavender.[/parallax]
In reworking the house for their needs, the Lavenders honored its roots while bringing it into the 21st century with a different floor plan. Four areas—the den, kitchen, dining room, and living room—became a bigger one after the couple knocked down some walls, and, while they were at it, had the ceilings vaulted and eventually opened up with skylights. “Derek can look at a space and see the bones,” says LeAnne of her husband, who has a background in mechanical engineering and CAD. “We drew 3-D models and saw what could physically fit in the spaces we were looking at.” Once they’d dreamed up their new dwelling space, Corinthian Fine Homes executed a remodel for them.
They’re back to sleeping in a garage—only now, it’s in the home’s former two-car space that they transformed into a new master suite, with an accessible bathroom and closets behind 1950s-style doors on a sliding mechanism the pair dreamed up. They’re easier for Derek to manage than doors that open toward him, and have the side benefit of looking cool—a very un-farmhouse twist on barn doors. “Our bedroom is twice the size of our first house,” says LeAnne, wonder in her voice as she thinks back to the detached garage she and Derek once inhabited. The original master suite remains in the 2,700-square-foot home, plus a third bedroom; those two guest rooms are on the opposite side of the house from the new master suite, meaning more privacy for everyone when family and friends visit for the holidays this month.
In the course of decorating their home, the pair have learned a lot, fast, about creating a stylish environment for people with different physical needs—for starters, that there’s no formula. Each solution depends totally on a person’s individual challenges, whether they’re in a wheelchair, on crutches or a cane, stiff with arthritis, have one bad arm, or anything else. In Derek’s case, the master bath became accessible thanks to a countertop sink with no cabinetry underneath, allowing him to roll all the way up to the mirrors, which were also placed a bit lower. The custom-designed dining table, crafted by the Ohio company 910 Castings in concrete with wood inlay, looks amazing; it also happens to sit just tall enough to accommodate Derek’s seated height in his wheelchair.
LeAnne is putting those skills to use with Lavender Accessible Design, a company she launched last year. “I deeply enjoy learning about the families,” she says of clients, “and then creating a comfortable space that allows them to feel more confident and independent.” For example, one homeowner in South Dakota needed an accessible kitchen. “The design we settled on not only had all lower cabinets arranged in a thoughtful way, but we also did two mini-fridges and a freezer instead of a standard refrigerator,” says LeAnne. “Those aren’t a deal-breaker, but they can be frustrating for folks who can’t reach high or have trouble with food getting stuck in the back.” LeAnne, who works in marketing for the nonprofit Water for Good and for LoveWell Fundraising, still considers LAD a side job, but considering her work has already been featured in Dwell and Design Sponge, she’s off to a roaring start.
Derek, too, enjoys the challenge of pulling off a stylish redesign that happens to be accessible. “We don’t want to ever just stick a ramp on something and have that be the fix,” says the attorney. So the back porch will eventually get a ramp, but one that’s part of a thoughtful design involving a tiered patio. The Lavenders are still mulling it over and working with a local builder to plan it out. “Hopefully it will just be fluid,” says Derek, “and won’t feel like a Band-Aid.”
All photos by Corey Phillips of The Home Aesthetic.