From Sun Magazine: When architects build a marriage — and design a home

From Sun Magazine: When architects build a marriage — and design a home
Architects Karen Lemmert and David Naill are avid collectors, trolling antique stores and salvage shops to decorate their home. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Architects live and breathe design, blissfully losing themselves in details most people would never notice — the bevel of a trim, the way light falls across a room, squared legs or curved.

So what happens, we wondered, when two such aesthetes come together under one roof?

Do they lie awake at night, pondering three-inch moldings or four? Is there a prenup for the Eames chairs? Do they fight tooth and nailhead?

Judging from the example set by these married Baltimore architects who live and work together, it all comes together much more smoothly than any of that.

These couples each share a style philosophy. Considering how essential such matters are to architects, one can imagine them writing it right into their vows … for richer, for poorer, for mid-century modern …

Their homes are not just harmonious; they speak to the principles their inhabitants live by.

One of the couples, Laura and Jeffrey Penza, have a piece hanging in their entryway, a poem written in calligraphy and framed, that gets to that very point.

"If two should architect one house, what would happen when the two should join? And one imagines wires and mortar and pipes that never somehow quite do meet. But when it comes to building a dream and a life of two in one, ah, then indeed the two must architect together and build their home of love."

Laura Thul Penza and Jeffrey Penza

Penza Bailey Architects

They met, as so many architects seem to, studying their field. Laura Penza can pinpoint her first brush with Jeffrey nearly down to the minute. It happened during their fourth year at the University of Cincinnati, the first day of spring quarter, to be precise.

"The eyes locked," she says, as he nods in agreement. "It was one of those."

They married in 1983, not long after graduation, and migrated to Baltimore. They weren't working together right away, but when Jeffrey began took charge of a firm, it wasn't too long before Laura was at his side.

In the office, they complement one another but have their own roles. But at home, it seems to be a tandem project.

The couple looked at nearly 200 houses before deciding on a 1930s deceptively large stone cottage on a corner lot in Homeland. They had wanted a fixer-upper, something they could gut and revive, where they could put into practice everything they had learned in school. They got a near-faultless house but spent years making it their own anyway.

They like to say they touched every side of it, adding a bay window to the front, a breakfast nook on one side, a family room for the back.

But it's in other, smaller, touches that one really gets a feel for the Penzas — in the vibrant, creative accessories.

"It's a very traditional house in a very traditional neighborhood," Jeffrey says. "It stayed traditional, but it has a contemporary flair."

The living room started with an Azeri rug from Turkey that they found at Alex Cooper. Big and bold, with reds, pinks, and blues, they balance it by keeping the rest of the room neutral.

This is not a couple that blinks over color. The hallway is deep red, the dining room teal. The family room is purple — fitting for a family that flies a Ravens flag outside.

They kept the kitchen conventional, resale options in mind, but what makes it Penzian is the contemporary light fixture from Jones Lighting Specialists, with its green glass and exuberant squiggle shape. Coordinating pendant lights hang over the restaurant-style booth they built for casual family meals.

They also built in shelves over the sink to display Laura's colorful collection of a few dozen pottery mugs. Every morning Jeffrey picks one and brings her coffee in bed.

The couple regularly hit local and regional craft fairs, like the annual American Craft Council show and the Sugarloaf Craft Festival. Pieces they've fallen in love they have found a place for.

Laura's mission at these craft shows: "Find something wonderful."

The hallway upstairs is a gallery of sorts filled with their children's art works. The paintings are framed, the clay work arranged on shelves. Altogether like that, it's a space filled with impact and personal significance.

"It feels like our collection of fun things that we love to surround ourselves with," Laura says of her style. "That's what makes a house a home."

Laura Melville Thomas and George Thomas

Melville Thomas Architects

They'd barely stepped over the threshold, but Laura and George Thomas knew, 18 years ago, they'd found their house.

Standing in the doorway, they could see straight through to the lush backyard. They saw sun spilling in through the French doors in the next room and, beyond that, an all-glass sun porch.

They just about wrote a check on the spot.

"It was all about the light," George says. "Everywhere you look in this house, your eye is pulled through by the light."

It was also about urban living, a big part of the Thomas family ideal. Laura's goal, in fact, was living, working and enrolling her kids in school in the same ZIP code. In Roland Park, in their 1920s Georgian, they could meet it — and still have the original moldings, trims and thick, thick plaster walls that make architects' hearts sing.

The two met at architecture school at Virginia Tech. George was a graduate student, Laura a few years younger. She needed power tools one day and heard about a guy that had them.

"I heard he had a saber saw, and I found that very attractive," Laura says, a twinkle in her eye. She jokes that she had to come back again and again, to borrow it before he finally got the hint.

After a stint in Boston, the couple moved to Baltimore, first living in Bolton Hill and moving to Roland Park when their family started to grow.

Laura started the firm in 1987, George joined a decade later. Now they run a 10-person office.

The sun porch is their favorite room, with its pure dose of outdoor light and clean view of the serene landscape and goldfish pond out back. Here they curl up on the sofa to read or talk and eat dinner at a little dining table.

The adjoining living room, with its fireplace and comfortable furniture, is even cozier. On the walls there are two framed silk scarves featuring bold, colorful works by one of their favorite artists, the architecturally oriented Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Both tinkerers and creators, they've also found room for some of their own creations.

Aluminum and brass pieces from a chess set Laura designed rest atop a mantel. George's water fountain styled out of old cymbals keeps the water in their pond moving and sparkling.

"A few things," she says, "that remind us of where you come from and where you're going."

The couple honors the home by filling it mainly with pieces that compliment its heritage.

"You understand the vocabulary of the house," George says. "Everything we have done was building on the concept of what was already here."

A lot of their cherry, Shaker-style furniture was custom made for them by E.A. Clore Sons, a handcrafter in Madison, Va.: the coat closet in the entryway, the dining room table, a clever chest Laura designed with shallow drawers to store her jewelry and deeper ones for her scarf collection.

Solidity is a concept these two value. They'd take it over spaciousness.

"It's part of what makes this real," Laura says. "You can't poke a finger through any of it. There's not a piece of plywood in this house."

Karen Lemmert and David Naill

Manifold Design

Years before she was hunting for a home with her husband, Karen Lemmert would walk along the tall historic homes of Union Square, and one always called to her. Its fading glory appealed to her architecturally; its "For Sale" sign spoke to her romantic side.

"Wow," she'd say to herself. "If I ever owned a house, I'd want it to be just like this."

As coincidence would have it, years later, it's the house she and David Naill call home.

When the couple found it, the grand 1870s-era rowhome had been converted into six apartments, two on each of the three floors. Though a renovation on that scale might have scared off some, this couple found it liberating — the house had just enough historic patina, but not so much that they'd have to treat it with kid gloves.

They could have some fun.

So after plenty of decidedly not fun projects involving pipes, systems and plaster, they moved in and got to work turning the two lower floors into the colorful, whimsical home they now share with their two children. They kept the top floor as a rental.

Karen and David started dating at Virginia Tech, becoming a couple once and for all while traveling together after graduation.

The couple eventually got to Baltimore, where Karen launched Manifold after their first child was born, unwilling to sacrifice family for long agency hours. David eventually joined the firm, and together they've worked on everything from a small business incubator in Fells Point to a reforestation plan for the Naill family farmland in Westminster, mapping out the placement of hazelnut, persimmon and crab apple saplings, taking into account the hues of the leaves and fruit.

Whether designing at work or at home, they say they operate as each other's checks and balances. But with such similar modern sensibilities, any objections are rare.

The two are avid collectors, trolling antique stores and salvage shops, unafraid to grab whatever appeals to them and find a place in their home for it. They've made an art form of the concept of "mix and match," with the result something of a hipster's fantasy pad, where model spaceships, antique pianos and cuckoo clocks co-exist.

"We have a bunch of junk," she laughs.

"It's what we do," he adds.

They found their 1930s Chambers stove on Craigslist. A chalkboard on the wall once hung at Baltimore's School for the Arts.

The bookcases that line the front room — and others in the home — were government surplus they discovered on eBay, then tracked down in Washington.

One day, when the light was shining into the front room just so, casting the shadow of a tree onto one wall, Karen ran and got a pencil, tracing the outline of the leaves. Later she painted in the silhouette and kept it.

If their children have an idea on how to display something, the couple always says, "Why not?"

"I really like natural elements," Karen says, "and things that add a little bit of fantasy and magic to living."