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Credit: Janis Nicolay

Homeowners Kevin and Joan transformed a traditional Taiwanese family home into a contemporary space by opening up walls, highlighting architectural details and purchasing contemporary furniture and accessories.

It’s Sunday morning breakfast in the Chen household and raspberry French toast with icing sugar and passion fruit tea served in black porcelain mugs is on the menu

Kevin Chen and Joan Liu, along with their young son, Nicholas, sit in moulded grey-resin Inform Interiors chairs grouped around a contemporary glass-topped table. Off to the side, lit candles in lotus-shaped holders adorn a mahogany ancestor altar.

Kevin and Joan’s traditional Taiwanese upbringing collides with their contemporary Vancouver life at almost every turn in their renovated, 4,000-square-foot, mid- century bungalow. In 2011, the 30-something couple planned to move out of the space and into a newly purchased East Vancouver home when Kevin’s mom, Liyin Chen, made an offer.

“It is actually my mom’s home,” reveals Kevin. “We were living in the basement, but we needed more space and to be able to make something ours. My mom offered to switch places with us. She would take the basement and we could have the upstairs, but the condition was we could do what we wanted.” The duo decided to stay put and rent out their East Van digs instead. They then embarked on a nine-month, $100,000 reno on the upstairs space with the help of interior designer Ami McKay of Pure Design Inc.

Kevin, who owns his own construction company, Chen Construction Management, served as project manager. “This wasn’t a young family home,” says Ami. “It was another generation.” Ami was struck by the potential in the 2,000-square-foot upstairs space, from the exposed wood ceiling beams to the geometric rosewood panelling in the front hallway and living room. “It had more character than a lot of bungalows,” says Ami.

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Interior designer Ami McKay of Pure Design Inc. was struck by the original inlaid wood found in the entryway and around the fireplace. She sanded the original oak floor a light honey colour to provide a neutral backdrop against dramatic wood wall and ceiling beams

Ami then worked with the couple, both engineers, to identify their personal style. “They really like colour, as evidenced by furnishings and tiles used in the basement space, so we invested in contemporary pieces like bright artwork and a red Womb chair,” says Ami.

The designer pared down the number of woods used throughout the house and concentrated on finishings and furnishing in a medium rosewood tone. The original oak floors were sanded and stained a honey tone to provide a neutral backdrop for the more dramatic beams and walls.

The home was then punctuated with ultra-modern lighting from a Nelson saucer pendant over the dining table to an arc floor lamp in the living room. And while there were plenty of decorative features worth saving, other things needed to go, from old green carpeting to an oversized black leather sofa with a waterfall back and red piping. Kevin’s mom kept to her word and gave the couple creative licence when it came to design, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have opinions.

“It was tough because there was a lot of new, expensive furniture that she couldn’t understand why we were getting rid of,” says Kevin. “It wasn’t our style.” When it came to building, Kevin allayed his mom’s fears by having a feng shui master review all construction and design plans. “I brought in the feng shui master as an independent third party, as a person with authority,” says Kevin. Like many young couples, Kevin and Joan had to modify their plans to the fit their budget.

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The couple cut costs by keeping the orginal cabinetry boxes and replacing birchwood front panels with white, flat-front cabinetry. An expensive-looking floating shelf is actually a sanded piece of plywood

As a result, they ended up focusing their attention on the room where they spend the most time: the kitchen. Initial plans for high-end NanaWall doors, or glass accordion doors that blur the division between the inside and outside spaces, were shelved, as was a deck reno. Instead, the wall between the kitchen and dining space was opened up.

A green granite kitchen countertop and backsplash were removed and replaced with a white-quartz work surface and elongated, dove-grey subway wall tiles. Inset glass-panelled birch wood cabinetry was taken out and substituted with white, flat-front panels.

“Again, this was hard for my mom because the kitchen was new,” says Kevin. “She didn’t understand why we needed a new space.” Kevin cut costs by, in some cases, improvising. This included re-sanding and staining a piece of inexpensive plywood to create a trendy, floating kitchen shelf. The result is a modern space befitting a young, growing family.

Joan loves the open-concept kitchen and dining room, which gives her ample space to whip up traditional family dishes like stewed pork with sugar, five-spice powder and wine over rice. “I use my mom’s recipe, but I give it my own flavour,” says Joan. 

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 (Left) A Saarinen Womb chair from pops against a trendy Moroccan-style rug