Big Impact in Small Places: Designer’s home in Congress Park blossoms with color and artwork

Kristi Dinner believes all things in life happen for a reason: There are no coincidences, she feels. Instead, there are strong connections. Take, for example, the evolving bond between the past and present. An interior designer such as Dinner always is mindful of ways to create new life for old objects. So when her grandparents’ 1929 Mediterranean bungalow went on the market, she didn’t hesitate to buy the residence affectionately referred to by her grandmother as “my doll’s house.” The rooms may be small by today’s standards, but Dinner has wielded a strong hand and trained eye to give the space in Congress Park a grand impact. After she bought the home in September of 2001, Dinner began the transformation, infusing the rooms with color, a key component of her designs. First, she stained the natural oak floors a deep espresso color. Since the late ‘90s, Dinner has been trying to get clients to install dark floors, and she used her home as a testing spot to show the grounding effect a deeper patina could have.

Once finished with the floors, she began painting with abandon: a cool celadon in the living room, a rich ocean blue in the dining room and a brilliant orange in the central hallway that she says gave her an opportunity to express herself and feel good. Inspiration for the vivid hues came from furnishings and art, some in her collection, or from images she had gathered along her life’s path. These bursts of color, tempered by creams, flow from each room, but it is the cornucopia of artwork and their noteworthy tales that fill the home and helped convert it into Dinner’s singular space. Her greatest passion is travel, and journeys to countries around the world have yielded too-numerous-to-count treasures. Throughout the house, paintings from Cuba mingle easily with rugs from Argentina or relics from Japan or dolls from Africa. They share surfaces with many works from local artisans, including a large multi-media triptych that was a friend’s first commissioned piece. It dominates a wall in the living room and served as inspiration for the color scheme there.

atHome2At the same time, thrift shop finds work together with more expensive antiques and modern items. The abundance of remarkable objects makes it hard for visitors to stop asking, “Where did you get this?” Her purchases are made for purely emotional reasons, not to follow the latest design trend. “If you really love things, there’s always a way that you can juxtapose them. I’ve taken all the things I love and put them together,” says the long-time designer. While her tastes are extremely eclectic, Dinner is explicably drawn to folk art, especially hand-made objects. “You get a feel for what went into it. Inanimate objects still have a sense of soul,” she says. An inventory of her galleries also finds numerous masks and busts and paintings that feature visages, often in profile. Faces attract Dinner as much as color. Not surprisingly, a number of her most favored objects have ties that are closer to home and give her a soothing sense of history. A small table with a walnut base and slate top in the living room belonged to her grandmother. A blue and white Bavarian china tea set, once owned by friends of her cattle-ranching grandparents, now sits atop an antique hutch in the dining room. A welcoming, reupholstered chair in her study — perfect for reading and dreaming — was the one she and her siblings always fought over as they grew up in Denver.

And in every room, tucked in corners, perfectly placed on floors or shelves and jauntily topping tables, are art surprises. Greeting visitors in the foyer is a black lacquered geisha makeup box with a folding mirror, a piece she purchased on a trip to Japan. A rescued loveseat she was having reupholstered turned out to be a Victorian fainting couch, with sides that drop to varying levels where ladies could lounge. It holds a place of honor in the living room, its green velvet and blown glass finials blending with the room’s cool green walls. A blue and white glass chandelier, with blooms and cascading leaves, was commissioned during a trip to Murano, Italy, and spreads light and fantasy in the dining room, echoing the swirling stems and leaves of the etched patio doors. In the study, books and small art pieces crowd the floor-to-ceiling shelves, while a welcoming couch offers a respite removed from the chaos of the day. Across the room sits a handmade wooden bench Dinner found at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, and on the wall hangs a painting by a Parisian artist, a piece that helped fill a void in a particularly difficult period in her life.

Because the home had good bones and architectural details, including arched doorways and windows, not many of the rooms had to be extensively remade. In the main bathroom, the original pink, white and black tiles on the wall and floor that she loved needed only minor repairs. She replaced the low tub with a black tiled shower and deep soaking area. Dragon-head fixtures made by Herbeaux accent the sink and tub and hold tight to towels. A pink glass Victorian light casts a cozy glow in the room. It’s not hard to imagine bubble-bath nights here. A hand-tinted photo replicating the bathroom’s color scheme shows a geisha and her makeup box — strikingly similar to the one in the entryway—sitting on a mat with a pattern nearly identical to the tiled floor. Dinner found this piece in a Paris photo gallery.
The designer, who has been in the business for 25 years, spent the most time and money updating the kitchen. A white marble countertop angles gracefully to save space, continues along the wall and becomes the sink basin. Two Holly Hunt glass stools stand ready for guests. A large, rippled- glass-fronted cabinet, built for the space, holds colorful glassware and much of her teapot collection. Her favorite — a whimsical piece of vibrant orange, white, blue and black — was made by a South African cooperative for women. She hand-carried the piece back to the States and often puts it to use.

“I prefer interesting shapes and color, and I also prefer functional to decorative. It speaks to my whole philosophy of design,” she says. “I think we should be headed a bit more in that direction.” The color scheme in the kitchen is as vibrant as any other. The design base was apple green and white ceramic tiles. Originally, the kitchen was white, but Dinner wanted more pizzazz. She had seen a red kitchen in a magazine and had kept the page for nearly 10 years and loved the look. So she painted the walls red. Later, unable to find a wood that felt right for the cabinets, she turned again to red, this time a lacquer. The bold color — a shade that was a challenge to get just right — is one she acknowledges clients might shy away from, but one she finds exhilarating. In one corner of the compact kitchen, specially designed glass shelves seem to float in air. Not far away, a glass door with a silver dog head for a handle opens to reveal a cabinet and her penchant for cereal. Because she is particularly fond of the Greek key, the square scroll shape is subtly placed on the cabinets and wall unit. She also commissioned a local artist to carve a table of the same design that sits in her living room.

atHome4The home’s former garage was transformed into her bedroom, a blaze of orange and ethnicity. It is a narrow space, too small for proper side tables, she says, but she embraces the cozy feel. While on a trip to Argentina, she purchased several handmade rugs to use in projects. At the shop, the textiles were draped over sofas, a look she admired. She kept one of the pieces, in a richly embroidered floral pattern, and has it draped over an antique reupholstered settee she purchased for $25 while working as a set designer in Los Angeles. A rug made by Odegard based on a Donghia fabric featuring children holding hands adds to the ethnic charm. When she first moved in, Dinner met clients in her home office, a space that once was a sun room. Now her business — company kd, llc — is on Odgen Street, but she still occasionally works from the desk with a view of her garden and patio.

Dinner had always been interested in creative arts, but it wasn’t until graduate school that she decided to specialize in interiors. After receiving her degree from the New York School of Interior Design, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in high-end retail design and later in set design for films and television. After eight years in the city, Dinner says she woke up one morning and felt out of place. “I thought that if I stayed in L.A., I’d always be living hand to mouth in an apartment. So I decided to move back to Denver and open a business,” she explains. That was 15 years ago, and her passion for art and design, it seems, has only intensified. As Dinner evolves, so do her home and her artwork. And just as with a museum, as new pieces come in to the Dinner household, others go into storage, and some are on temporary loan to friends. One cherished piece that will always have an honored place was a gift from her uncle. Right after purchasing the home on 9-11 and celebrating a birthday, she received something he had saved for more than 60 years — a leather collar belonging to her grandparents’ dog. On it is etched the address of her now very special home.

Photography by STEVE GROER

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