before and afterInteriors

Before & After: A Well-Loved Kitchen Gets An English Cottage Upgrade

by Kelli Kehler

Sometimes the best results come from working within the boundaries of what you have, and even better results come from executing your plan alongside someone who empowers you to your best level of work and creativity. Leah Phillips and Denisa Gilligan, neighbors in Wheaton, IL, joined design forces over a year ago when they realized they shared a similar design philosophy and the same longing to sink their teeth into passion projects.

“Denisa and I are neighboring moms with a mutual love for House Beautiful, vintage store hunting and finding ways to elevate the aesthetic [of] our almost identical 1960s split-level homes,” Leah begins. “We would run into each other in the neighborhood or at the park with our kids and exchange ideas about design and talk about projects we were excited about. I had been working as a designer on my own for a few years but felt isolated and lacking community. Denisa was in design school and ready to dive into real projects. One day she approached me about collaborating to see how we’d work together. That was over a year ago and we’ve been working together seamlessly ever since. Truly.”

The well-oiled Leah-Denisa team was brought in to tackle the update of this family kitchen, a space they could immediately tell was a well-loved and treasured gathering place. But beloved as the room was, it lacked functionality and was not the light and airy room it is today. “When we left our initial meeting [with our clients], we both agreed that the space had this English cottage thing going on,” Leah shares. After they envisioned the kitchen’s new style, the plan began to unfold before them: a few sentimental features of the space needed to remain intact (like an existing butcher block countertop on the island and custom built cabinets that were already in place), so Leah and Denisa devised a way to elevate the room around the same layout and structure, while improving flow and functionality.

“First on our list was to lighten the space,” Leah recalls. “This was not an open-concept kitchen (honestly, a little refreshing). That said, the space was on the dark side. We both loved the moodiness but felt a shade of white for the cabinetry would help the space to feel more open. For palette we looked around us. Their home, which was mostly warm tones (reds, yellows, greens, and some blues), needed something complementary. We chose blue for the island and brought in more warm tones with the yellow in the cement tile behind the range.”

From before to after, the kitchen stands in stark contrast to the room it used to be — and that’s without demo’ing the whole space, and instead relying on the power of the details. And those details were spun between the brains of two creative forces, another project under the belt of a duo that feels bettered in company of each other. “I think so many people have a hard time collaborating,” Leah says, “but when you do, it’s so interesting to see your work evolve into a place that’s even better than you imagined it could be.” Scroll down to see how Leah and Denisa completely changed the vibe of this well-loved place for family gatherings. —Kelli 

Photography by Heidi Zeiger / @heidizeigerphotography


The kitchen island, once clad in dark wood paneling, now pops with a gorgeous shade of blue paint. Serena & Lily stools uplift the butcher block countertop that Leah and Denisa’s clients wanted to keep.


Leah shares, “We envisioned a farm sink with a bridge faucet. We love to play around with mixing metals when it makes sense. In this case, the effect of the polished nickel accents and brass hardware felt carefully curated rather than overly designed.”


Removing the wallpaper border and adding a cement tile backsplash made all the difference in this view of the kitchen.


“Not only did we choose to bring in color here with the cement tile, but also our favorite Zellige from Clé Tile [the white square tiles] for some added texture. It’s classic and interesting and picks up light in all the right ways,” Leah notes.


The creamy Clé Tile backsplash squares play beautifully with the more bold range backsplash motif from LiLi Cement Tiles.


Leah shares, “We were so happy to be able to incorporate a few pieces that were really important to our clients, including the butcher block counter of the island and the custom-built wood cabinets. These were pieces that were very sentimental to the family and they actually elevated our design because of the history they held. I can vividly recall this moment during our first meeting where the clients were explaining they wanted to use these pieces and Denisa and I looked at one another twinkly-eyed. I think we both knew it would make the final product just that much more special and unique.”


“We met with the clients last spring and loved them immediately,” Leah recalls. “From our conversation it was apparent that their home was one of those coveted gathering places. And their kitchen showed it, too. It was well-loved and well-used and seething with sentimental objects. We were inspired to keep the happy gathering space feel while providing more functionality.”


Across the room, removing the wallpaper and paneling in the dining space allowed the existing built-in storage to look more intentional and on-theme.


“Keeping with the English cottage theme, we chose a more rustic farm table from Restoration Hardware and chairs from Arhaus.”


“A big request from our clients was to tackle the lack of thoughtful storage. The closet/pantry in the room was a headache to the clients – we needed it but we also needed it to be more useful and more attractive. We designed cabinetry flush to the wall to keep with the flow of the room and also not compete with the older custom cabinets.”


Leah continues about the new custom cabinetry she and Denisa added to the kitchen: “If you can dream it, someone can build it! We had this pretty thing built flush to the wall to match with the new cabinetry. We love how this piece turned out and styling it was so fun, too!”


A look at how Leah and Denisa increased pantry storage in the kitchen while brightening and elevating the space at the same time.


“For me,” Leah shares, “I learned a lot about collaborating and how to take a backseat. We had an initial meeting to go over the creative direction – colors, cabinet style, plumbing fixtures and finishes but Denisa ran with the project from there and it turned out even better than I envisioned it would be.”


Denisa Gilligan, left, and Leah Phillips, right. Leah says, “We empower each other to do scary things. We talk each other off proverbial cliffs. We work it out. I’m so proud of the team we are and the work we’re doing. That said, we could not do any of it without our super supportive husbands and our kids that keep us going – for us and for them.”


Backsplash – Clé Tile
Oven backsplash – LiLi Cement Tiles
Widespread faucet – Rohl
Stools – Serena & Lily
Table – Restoration Hardware
Chairs – Arhaus
Hardware – Rejuvenation
Pillows – Serena & Lily
Sconces – Visual Comfort Co.

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