The Thorntons’ house hunt went nowhere – property after property proved to be “so expensive and yet so epic,” recalls Josh Thornton. At the end of a particularly frustrating day, he asked his then-pregnant wife, designer Summer Thornton, “If we could live anywhere, where would it be?”
She didn’t hesitate: “The white house on the corner.” She was referring to an elegant but dilapidated 19th-century townhouse a few blocks from her Chicago apartment. Even though it wasn’t for sale, Josh contacted the elderly owners anyway. Luckily they were happy to sell as long as they could rent the ground floor as a pied-à-terre for themselves. “That’s Josh’s MO,” Summer says. “He always finds a way to make things happen.” This division of labor is key to the couple’s team strength, both as life partners and business partners. “Where Summer is super dreamy and awesome, I’m very rational,” says Josh, owner and CEO of Summer Thornton Design, Inc.
After a quick remodel, the Thorntons moved to the upper floors of the home and spent the next five years planning a major renovation while expanding both their business and family (they now have two children). Summer’s goal for the house never wavered. “romance is the word I kept coming back to,” she says. “I’m an escapist; I love the idea of creating imaginative worlds that trigger a childlike attitude towards life.” (No wonder her recent book bears the title Wonderland: Decorating Adventures.)
In the heart of down-to-earth, cool Chicago, Summer drew inspiration from fairy tales and faraway places to envision a fairytale home for her family. The apricot hue on the living room walls comes from a sunlit building she’d seen in Venice; Venetian style hand marbled paper covers the ceiling. The bright blue of the entrance hall contrasts with Cinderella’s ball gown. Embroidered fabrics from Mexico huipils (traditional tunics) sing of ornate, indigenous craftsmanship, while wallpaper by William Morris and a conservatory inspired by an English garden send in wild flourishes of nature. Furnishings can seem almost alive: pieces like a sociable oversized orange sofa in the living room and the stunning custom-made daybed in the bay window. “I love that Beauty and the Beast Quality that makes furniture feel like it’s coming to life,” she says.
The courtyard is pure New Orleans noblesse, from its wrought-iron balconies and sweeping staircase to the checkerboard floor. Not that the Big Easy could easily be transported a thousand miles north. To create the courtyard’s black-and-white floor, stone was sourced from quarries in the coldest parts of northern China and Europe, then cut two inches thick to withstand Chicago’s harsh winters.
Improving the connection between indoor and outdoor spaces was key. The overgrown rear of the house structure was demolished to allow for the construction of French doors, a balcony, and new fireplaces inside and out. (Summer jokes that while other women get jewelry for their birthdays, she gets fireplaces.) The downstairs garden room was tiled with a thinner version of the black-and-white stone used outdoors and set flush with the courtyard, around to create “a party space” with great indoor-outdoor flow,” says Summer. Tufted day beds allow the space to double as an additional guest bedroom. The trellis walls, on the other hand, are “my ode to The Decorator – legends like Bunny Mellon, Parish Hadley,” she says.
For all her dreaminess, Summer has a set designer’s instinct for quick change. For example, the silver Gracie wallpaper in the dining room features fruit trees in a rich spectrum of colors to better suit changing seasonal color palettes. And instead of artworks, she hung brackets showing a rotating selection of art objects.
And yet, despite the enchantment, the couple are quick to admit the reality that comes with any major renovation. Surely the stress multiplies when the husband and wife act as a design company at the same time? Says Josh, “I’ll admit I’m not a very good customer.”
“We’re both terrible,” Summer says, laughing.
“We’re passionate,” admits Josh. “But we are good at using our different strengths. We know how to stay in our own sandboxes.”
And that’s a happy ending, as grand as any castle in the clouds. After all, says Summer, “we want to build houses together for a long time to come.”
You can find more of Summer’s projects in her recently published book, Wonderland: Decorating Adventures (Rizzoli, 2022).
Featured in our May/June 2022 issue. Interior and architectural design by Summer Thornton; Photography by Melanie Acevedo and Werner Straube; Written by Celia Barbour.