Being able to work from home prompted Phu Ngo and John Cassanos to move from their New York City digs to Shorewood, and to create a striking space in which they could live and work.
They pooled their talents after they bought a dated duplex.
“Phu is the driver of the design bus, but I do a lot of the work,” Cassanos said.
It started when COVID hit.
“Then we began to look for a new living situation as we knew we could live anywhere. We chose Milwaukee because we love the city and the people that call it home. We also loved the architecture, the food, the music, the art scene, the parks, the lake, the neighborhoods, and the friendly neighbors,” Ngo said.
“We had lived here before, but then we moved back to New York for our jobs,” he said, and added that they also lived in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Atlanta over the years. They lived in Whitefish Bay from 2011 to 2014.
Ngo does brand consulting for the retail industry; his husband does food and beverage consulting.
When they bought their 1937 duplex in the spring of 2021, they moved into the home's two-bedroom, one-bathroom upper unit, and immediately began making changes.
They completed their work in the summer, tackling both large and small projects.
Cassanos said their biggest projects were the addition of a large second-floor porch, and a portico at the front of the house.
“The back porch is 30 by 10 and runs along the entire back of the house. We wanted to create two separate outdoor spaces, one for the lower unit and one for us upstairs. It’s a beautiful and very useful outdoor space,” he said.
The portico was added to make the front of the house look unique.
“All the houses in our area look the same, and we wanted to give ours some personality. We thought adding the portico would give it a really cool feature. Most of the other houses are quite simple,” Ngo added.
Their home’s brick exterior was also updated.
“We painted the exterior a bright navy and accented it with white. We also added a black front door with a silver knocker. We got to spend a few months living in London last year, and the door with the knocker reminds us of our flat in London,” Ngo added.
Large projects inside their home included gutting the kitchen and bathroom.
In the bathroom, everything was replaced or redone except the bathtub and the white octagon tile floor.
“I like a good clean white bathroom.… We put in a traditional porcelain sink with a traditional metal and porcelain faucet. We also had the cast iron tub fully restored. It was worth saving. It looked brand new overnight,” Ngo said.
A low archway over the tub was also removed and the space squared off, and white subway tile with dark gray grout was added from floor to ceiling on all the walls to give a retro feel.
“The bathroom also has a window, so that lets in a lot of natural light. We also put the shower curtain almost all the way to the ceiling. … That gives the illusion that the room is taller and bigger,” Ngo added.
The home’s interior was also painted, original oak floors were refinished, the living room fireplace was updated and built-in cabinets in the dining room were refinished.
Ngo said in furnishing the home, new pieces were purchased, pieces they already had were added, and that furnishings from different eras and price points were used.
“I like to mix a lot of periods in a home. It’s one of the things I feel makes a home feel real and comfortable. It’s a curated but collected feel. Not everything is one idea.
“I also believe in mixing high and low. The rattan chairs in the living room are from Ikea, but we also have some expensive pieces. When buying those, I look for pieces I can derive comfort from. For instance, a sofa is where I will make the biggest investment,” he said.
“You can find good options at every price level. I love to shop flea markets and antique stores. … In the living room there is beautiful wood-carved mirror on the mantel that I got at an antique store here in Milwaukee for $150. There are treasures to be found if you keep looking,” he added.
They also created workstations in their second bedroom, living room and dining room so they could comfortably work from home as they regularly have Zoom and FaceTime meetings.
When designing the spaces, Ngo said, they made sure they blended in with the rest of their décor.
“I don’t love home offices because they remind you of work all the time. We designed our home with tabletop workspaces that are great Zoom environments because when you are on a Zoom meeting everyone is looking at your house,” Ngo said.
“We purposely painted the second bedroom a blue that is quite dark. The contrast is good for a camera. It’s also reflective of my design style,” he added.
Unique lighting and artwork were also added throughout the house.
“The light in the living room is really unique. We had it custom made. It shows craftsmanship. It’s industrial, loft and vintage looking, yet it’s quite modern at the same time. We bought it in 2014 when we were living in New York,” Ngo said.
“I love unique lighting because it really brings out your personality. I looked high and low for light fixtures, and I replaced all the fixtures in the house,” he said.
Ngo said they have been collecting artwork for years, and that they continue to collect it.
“Our collection started in 1992 and has found fresh perspectives in every house we’ve moved to. One of our favorites is a piece we call the red blob.
“We got it in 2008 when we went to a charity auction in New York City the night Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns went bankrupt. Nobody was buying anything except us. It was from artist Roxy Paine. He has a piece in the Northwest Mutual Bank garden. It was quite a buy for us, as this artist is quite famous,” he said.
“We never would have been able to afford it if it had not been for a financial crisis,” Cassanos added.
“We also love the artwork on our living room wall. John and I bought it all together over 30 years. They are all black and whites. There are pieces from every place we’ve lived, and we have bought pieces for each other. It’s a curation of our whole life together,” Ngo said.
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The couple recently talked about their home and some of their design choices.
Question: Why did you buy a duplex?
Ngo: To give us extra flexibility financially, and personally. When we lived in London it was a great comfort to know we had our wonderful tenants in the other unit to keep an eye on the place. It’s also nice to have the rental income to assist on the mortgage.
Q: What were some of the home’s amenities you loved?
Ngo: The decorative molding, coved ceilings, oak flooring, the built-in cabinets in the dining room, and the working wood-burning fireplace.
Cassanos: I also liked that there was a little bit of separation between the living room, dining and kitchen. The openings are quite wide, yet it feels like the rooms are connected. I also liked that the light comes all the way through the house.
Q: Can you describe the workspaces in your living room and dining room?
Ngo: We set up a really beautiful little corner table that is a work environment for one in the living room, and we set up an environment where one or two people can work in the dining room, because we occasionally do collaborations. We used the dining room table. It does double duty.
Q: Do many of your spaces do double duty?
Cassanos: Yes. It’s a small house space for us, so we really do have to create spaces for multiple purposes.
Q: What furnishings did you add in your living room?
Ngo: We have a surfboard-style oval coffee table. It’s wood. It’s painted white on top and it’s natural on the bottom. We also have rattan chairs with sheepskin wool throws on them, and a really great modern sofa. The sofa is a natural linen color, but the fabric is wool and it’s a herringbone pattern.
Q: What are some of the pieces you added in your dining room?
Ngo: The dining room table is a dark walnut with steel legs. It’s round, but with the leaf it’s oval. It’s a midcentury loft/industrial design. We have midcentury modern chairs with it. They are a very delicate, light-colored wood and are from a European designer.
Q: And in your second bedroom?
Ngo: It’s a guest bedroom, TV room/den and a Zoom space. It has a sleeper, a couple of side tables, a coffee table, a really big TV and a carpet made by the Quaker community. I think it’s from the late 1800s.
Q: Did you use all your furnishings when you moved here?
Ngo: We have some in storage. We used to collect Quaker and Shaker furniture. We can’t fit it all in the house right now, but we are constantly dreaming of having a second home — a lake home. We are preparing for it.
Q: Why did you add a step down on your kitchen countertop?
Ngo: To make it easier for baking. John is our resident baking expert.
Q: What kind of restoration work did you do to your built-ins in the dining room?
Ngo: They have leaded glass. They’re the real deal. We did lots of sanding and scraping. But it was fun because we knew it would be something we would be able to enjoy. It was a labor of love.
Q: What changes did you make to the fireplace in the living room?
Cassanos: The mantel looked fairly traditional and I painted it white.
The front of the fireplace was a very bright red colored brick that really stood out. We wanted to make it blend in with the rest of the house. I painted it light gray, and I also added a medium gray colored accent stripe around the opening. I also painted the inside of the fireplace black. I used a fire-resistant paint.
Ngo: The black creates contrast when a fire is going.
Q: How do you gain access to your new upper deck?
Cassanos: We had a new door added off the kitchen and one off the master bedroom.
Q: What are some other projects you tackled?
Cassanos: Previous owners decided to texture all the walls in the master bedroom. I’m not a big fan of texture, and we had the whole room skim coated. Also, because of when the house was built there weren’t nearly enough electrical outlets, so we added more.
Q: Where do you enjoy spending time in your home?
Cassanos: In the living room in the morning. I like it because it’s a nice sunny place. It’s where we start the day with coffee, reading the newspaper, and going though emails. It’s a nice way to get charged up.
Ngo: In the evening, like now when it’s cold out, I like to light a fire in there and have a cocktail or a glass of wine. It’s pretty romantic.
Q: What kind of window treatments did you add?
Ngo: We added Roman shades in most of the rooms. In the dining room we put beautiful dark gray curtains. We ordered all of them online and had them custom made. They are all small pieces. We have really nice big windows, and I didn’t want to cover them up.
Q: Were there any areas in your home you didn’t like when you first saw it?
Ngo: I don’t like creepy hallways and basements. The hallway going upstairs was worn and very dark, but John did some simple things to improve it. He restored the handrail; the treads on the stairs, put in a sisal runner and installed recessed lighting. It changed the whole area. He also painted the walls a really beautiful gray. It’s in a semi-gloss finish. It reflects light so it doesn’t feel so dark.
Q: Was your basement creepy, too?
Ngo: Not really. But I don’t like basements in general.
Cassanos: We did add a lot of lighting down there to make it bright, and we cleaned it up. We also removed the old dropped ceiling.
Q: What’s the small area with the bold print wallpaper?
Ngo: It’s the bar area. It’s in the hallway area that leads up to our attic. A friend came over and said ‘this is unused space, why not turn it into a bar area?’ We scraped, painted and cleaned up the floors, and then we papered it in a beautiful black and white twill-like wallpaper. Next, we put a bar in there and shelving. We loved getting the suggestion that took unused space and made it pretty and functional.
Q: Any plans to make changes in your attic?
Ngo: Right now we use it for storage, but it was another reason we liked this property. One day, when the construction boom cools down, we want to make some changes. It’s 1,100 square feet. We would like to put in a master bedroom, master bathroom, a walk-in closet, and a nursery/office. We already had an architect draw up plans.
Q: Did you do any landscaping?
Cassanos: That’s next. The exterior renovation took longer than expected. We finished the exterior right before Halloween. It was three to four weeks too late to do any serious landscaping in the front and back yards.
Ngo: John is the gardener. Our backyard is a French garden. There’s pea gravel, container gardens and wrought iron. We are looking forward to making it quite an environment. Right now, it’s a lot of nothing. It’s a fairly small backyard but quit useable. We will maximize the space. Low maintenance is what we are going for.
Cassanos: The front will have more plantings and we will also minimize the grass.