Two years, two summers, two women, 2,000 square feet.
That’s what it took to ready a second-story condominium in Southwinds for Aleyn Airey’s “second act.” In a seamless client-designer partnership with Leah Muller Interiors, the single 68-year-old snowboarder, mother of three, and grandmother of eight is now reveling in the transformation from her past into her future.
Airey grew up vacationing in Vero Beach from the time she was a teenager. “I came down for all my vacations. It was so different then,” she reminisces. “I could walk 10 miles on the beach and not see anyone. I always enjoyed going to the Ocean Grill and the Driftwood—they had the best French dip.”
Airey was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a home decorated in a contemporary French manner. Her parents also owned a condominium at John’s Island and eventually built one of the first on-beach homes there in the 1970s. A classic Bahamian design on a double lot, it was decorated in a heavy continental style by Mandy Rablen and was featured in Palm Beach Life magazine.
When Airey’s parents decided to downsize in 1989 to a new three-bedroom beachfront condominium in The Moorings’ Southwinds, the dark continental furniture and salmon/beige palette came along. It has been there ever since, until 2019, when Airey acquired the property from her siblings, became a Florida resident, and decided it was time to inject her own contemporary sensibility into her family home.
“My mother’s decor was much more formal. It was beautiful and expensive—curved legs, carved woods, and heavy fabrics—but I wanted a more contemporary look, something less formal, more comfortable and beachy,” Airey says. She researched local interior designers and found Leah Muller, immediately relating to the relaxed, coastal style on the designer’s website. “Her clean, simpler style didn’t look like it was overly decorated. I liked her pictures, so I called her and we met in December of 2019,” explains Airey.
Muller describes that early meeting: “The homeowner and I were aesthetically aligned from the beginning. She came to our initial design meetings with modern home images that immediately married with our coastal modern vibe. I culled through her myriad of images and assembled materials, furnishings, and fabrics that expressed our locale in a contemporary voice.”
Client and designer both wanted a tropical feel without the vibrancy and cliché elements, instead going for muted tones of blues, sand, and white. Muller likes to add a wow factor with interior architectural details and signature furniture pieces.
With her degree in interior design from Drexel University, augmented by stints at architectural/engineering firms (her first boss was like Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada, but she learned a lot), Muller counts Victoria Hagan and Kelly Wearstler as two iconic designers who have influenced her. “Their sheer ingenuity, sophistication, and gumption are so inspirational to me,” she says.
Muller approached the project considering the entirety of the space and its context. “The condo is surrounded by windows and water on three sides, but the original public spaces felt dark and dated,” says the designer. “Rooms were broken up into smaller spaces with poor lighting and dark furniture. It was lacking thoughtful interior architectural details throughout. I strongly believe interior architecture is just as important as home furnishings; the shape of the walls, the color of the walls, the placement of the walls. That’s why I do both.”
Muller called in Croom Construction to execute her plans for the transformation. Dave Lyons, vice president at the firm, says, “It was a very complex project. We took everything out except concrete block, some metal framing. You have to preserve the infrastructure that serves the above and below units.” Aaron Benson, the renovations division manager who oversaw the construction, adds, “We only do a certain number of condominiums. They’re very intensive projects. It’s almost turned into a specialist kind of trade.”
The existing, light-sucking ceramic floor tiles were chiseled out and replaced with “creamy, swirly Saturnia marble tiles,” Muller says. Crown molding was eliminated, and the casing and baseboard moldings were simplified. Unwanted columns and “consuming walls” were removed in the kitchen and dining room. “Light began to flood in, and our spaces felt twice the size. We were all thrilled,” she says.
The greatest challenge of the project was the kitchen. Muller explains: “It was a real pickle. Originally, the kitchen was small and cramped. The size was all wrong considering the square footage of the home. When I showed the homeowner the reconfigured footprint of the kitchen and how it allowed for additional cabinetry, which greatly increased the storage capacity, and how the repositioned island created more space and light, she gave us the thumbs-up. We expanded and relocated the island to include seating and a larger sink. I feel like we gave her fun and function wrapped up in one.”
Airey says she had always wanted a light blue presence in her kitchen “for years and years,” and Muller gave that to her in the new island with its soft blue cabinetry. The surrounding base cabinets are white oak. “I really love the cabinets,” says Airey. Appliances were paneled over for a sleek, harmonious look. Upper cabinets are done
in super-white paint. White quartz countertops and Thassos/blue celeste mosaic backsplashes complete the hard surfaces, further reflecting light.
These small touches are recurring themes throughout the home, uniting elements that contribute to the calm sensibility. One pivot point is the white oak cabinetry from the kitchen, which reappears as two cerused white oak built-in bookshelves in the living room. The walnut dining table carries the theme into that space, its organic base echoing in the metal stems of the chandelier.
The soft, coastal palette modulates from room to room; light wood finishes, watery fabrics, natural textures, organic references—restrained and inviting. The guest room and den have subtle recurring geometric patterns carrying over from the home’s other spaces. The master bedroom’s plush upholstered leather headboard brings a calm yet firm presence to the room. The three full bathrooms with custom vanities by Leah Muller Interiors are modern and sleek, with geometric, botanical, oceanic, and atmospheric references in wallpapers and tiles. Modern lines are foiled by wavy, dynamic wallpapers.
While she had “complete trust” in Muller’s choices, Airey brought a few of her own objects into the mix to complement the vision. The orange bar stools at the kitchen island, the foyer mirror, a light fixture, a modern chair, a family heirloom, art—all put her personal spin on the home. She’s ready for the family to visit and to delight in their reactions. “My kids aren’t quite as modern as I am,” laughs Airey.
With the two-year project complete, the retired CPA and former business owner can enjoy her calm, contemporary coastal aerie when she spends her seven months in Vero Beach. The rest of the year finds her at an antique-filled, 100-year old home in Harbor Springs on Lake Michigan.
“I love the sun; I love Vero. I feel very peaceful and serene here,” says Airey, clearly savoring her second act.