Sometimes you just have to keep trying until you get it right. For Peter Parrino, a physician and assistant director of emergency medicine, and his partner, Lee Golden, the owner of a branding and target-marketing firm, the third condo was the charm. Their first was 3,000 square feet. Too big, they decided. The next: a trimmer 1,800 square feet. Still too big, and not well located. “In the two years we lived there,” says Golden, “the guest shower was never turned on, and we had to get in our car for everything.”
Photo: John Reed Forsman
The scale of their lives would have to tip down again. As Parrino explains, “Lee and I love to go to Europe, and we always rent an apartment. They’re tiny, but doable. We realized that if we could do it abroad, we could do it here.” Drawn to the burgeoning café and gallery life of Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward, they spent their free time there, enjoying the vibrant combination of grit and polish. “Europe inspired us,” Parrino adds, “the neighborhood drew us.”
So when Golden stumbled upon an available 750-square-foot warehouse space in their favorite neighborhood, it took only days to make an offer. They immediately began compiling flooring, shopping for kitchen cabinetry and tucking away tile samples. When they met Joel Agacki of Striegel-Agacki Studio, they showed him some images. Agacki recalls, “There were three specific images I remember. I thought, ‘That is exactly the kind of thing we do well: thoughtful, on a small scale.’ “
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“Well…yes, this is the smallest residential project I have done,” designer Joel Agacki admits, ” but it was fun.” He also admits to loving a challenge. “Don’t think that smaller is easier,” he begins. “It’s not. It may take longer to design small than large. For a small space to be successful, the clients must understand how they live and be able to communicate that because choices have to be made. In a small space, you can’t have everything.” He says, “What the client displays is as important as the architecture.” Editing is essential so only the most valued possessions remain. And don’t underestimate how a tiny gesture in the right place can make a room seem to expand: Instead of meeting as usual, surfaces fall just short of each other, an architectural practice called the reveal. “I use it at the entry door, at walls, windows, even the ceiling is dropped with space around it. It creates a sense of breathing room.”
Photo: John Reed Forsman
Agacki and interior designer Lisa Zach, who has worked with Parrino and Golden on three projects and describes them as “elegant,” began to put elements together like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, a trial-and-error process that requires time and patience. Agacki’s approach was to take advantage of the condo’s 12-foot 6-inch height. With two separate plans—one at floor level and a second articulating the area above the door jams—he created a carnival of planes and perspectives. He sliced into walls, moving them forward and back. He made niches and cut windows out of interior walls for mechanicals, display and light. “I call it a perspective fun house,” he says.
Meanwhile, Zach was working her own magic. Contrary to logic, she uses larger-scale pieces in a small space, but does so selectively. Sheer curtains suspended at ceiling height in the living room accentuate volume and lift the view. By carefully repeating the flow of color and finishes (pearlescent paint in the bedroom mimics the shimmering curtains in the living room), she created a sense of calm. “Even though this home is only 750 square feet,” she says, with a pause and some emphasis, “I think it lives large.”
Before Agacki could create a 3-D model, Parrino and Golden had built one of their own. It was detailed to the point of including a scale cutout of their beloved cat (who has since passed away). With this kind of passion for perfection, it is not surprising that the project took 18 months to complete, including five iterations of the bathroom alone. But this time, they’ve gotten it right.