The famed designer turned an Edina home remodel into a work of art for a creative admirer.

When Jodi Dehli found a contemporary house with possibilities in Edina several years ago, something about it reminded her of the style of famed modernist architect Ralph Rapson. So before buying the property, she called Rapson's office in Minneapolis to get some remodeling contacts. She assumed it would be difficult to get the designer of the original Guthrie Theatre and former dean of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture on the phone.

"When you call someone like that, you're thinking, 'What do I say to the secretary or gatekeeper so I can actually talk to him?' " Dehli said. "But he answered the phone!" Dehli decided to go for it. "I told him I was looking at a house that felt exciting and asked if he'd consider looking at it and helping," she said. "He and his son,Toby, came out to the house a couple of days later and he said, 'Sure, I'd love to work with you.' "

"I wanted it to be a Ralph Rapson house," Dehli says. "An architect usually has to please the client, but I pushed back and constantly asked him, 'How would you want it?' Because architects never get to do what they want. They might come up with a terrific design, but then the client ends up twisting it into what they want."


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At the time, Rapson was in his 90s and still working, so he and his son and fellow architect Toby Rapson took on the remodel of the 1980s suburban home. "Everybody thought he was over his head with large projects, when he was really doing the neighbor's addition - or whatever walked in the door," Toby Rapson says.

THE ARCHITECT'S CHOICE

But unlike most clients, Dehli wanted Rapson to make the choices.

"I wanted it to be a Ralph Rapson house," Dehli says. "An architect usually has to please the client, but I pushed back and constantly asked him, 'How would you want it?' Because architects never get to do what they want.They might come up with a terrific design, but then the client ends up twisting it into what they want."

Take the front double doors, for example.

"He did, like, nine different designs for the front door, and one was very organic, trees that are done in stainless on dark wood," Dehli says. "Both Ralph and I liked two of the nine best, but I said, 'I'm not going to decide. I love both.' Because doors are his signature, I wanted it to be Ralph's door. And he wanted the trees - then I told him that was my favorite, too. I think this took him off-guard; generally, the client makes the final decision."

Before Rapson Architects got started on the whole-house remodel, though, Rapson made sure the original architect approved.

"It was an existing house, but we took it down to the steel beams," Dehli says. "But Ralph was adamant about understanding and respecting what the architect had attempted to do; Ralph is not a tear-down guy - the Guthrie was torn down at the same time that Ralph was the architect on this house - he's about reusing and making spaces right for today, not tearing down and starting over."

It definitely needed some refreshing.

"The house had fallen into disrepair, and it had quite a bit of water damage," says Toby Rapson. "And, as much as we liked the house, there were parts it that were idiosyncratic.Maybe it still is,maybe we contributed to it in the end. But we tried to make it fit Jodi's needs."

The newly configured home, at 11,000 square feet, includes more light and open space.

"There is so much glass in the house," Dehli says. "It was really a challenge, because it has to be efficient enough to meet code. You have to have a few walls. But we maxed out on windows; even the garage has windows."

LIGHT'S IMPORTANCE

Light is an important feature in a Rapson.

"It's really about the energy in every room," Dehli says. "That's Ralph Rapson: How do the light and the nature and the energy play into how you experience each room? Because you experience different areas of the house."

Not everything in the house is so light, though.

"The wood floors are an ebony and chocolate brown, and it grounds the whole space," Dehli says. "People asked me,'How could you put in a dark floor? That's terrible!' But there's so much natural light in the house, it's like being outside.This way, the floor is a contrast, like the ground, the earth."

Like the earth, the home has fire and water, too. "There was a sunken living room in the house - it was very nice," Toby Rapson says. "We took that and on one edge we made a firewall about 15 feet long, a gas fireplace where the flames rise out of the glass pieces and sparkle and shimmer.

"It's really about the energy in every room," Dehli says. "That's Ralph Rapson: How do the light and the nature and the energy play into how you experience each room? Because you experience different areas of the house."

For the Rapson remodel, the homeowner traveled to Paris and New York, seeking ideas and materials. "When you're doing a house like this, you need to get ideas, and if you only look around Minnesota, you'll find the same things you see in every other house," she says.

And another wall is our water wall, a large metal screen where water could cascade down. Because one thing my father wanted to do with the house was not only make it a great space for living but also to make it a playful, joyous space."

'THIS IS MY JOY'

Ralph Rapson was the idea man on this project by Rapson Architects, working in concert with his colleagues, Derk Scholtz and Toby Rapson. But Dehli, who acted as her own contractor, was involved, too.

"I actually work in economic development, but this is my joy," she says. "It's not about making money; the only projects I've done are the ones I own. It's probably best described as a really expensive hobby. Right now, I'm working on a Wisconsin lake property that will probably be a rental property.

For the Rapson remodel, she traveled to Paris and New York, seeking ideas and materials.

"When you're doing a house like this, you need to get ideas, and if you only look around Minnesota, you'll find the same things you see in every other house," she says.

Her research led her to the work of Ferrari stylist Paolo Pininfarina, who also designs kitchens for Snaidero, a company that brings Italian kitchens to the American market. Heather Ahrens at Studio Snaidero Wisconsin brought it all together: She paired Pininfarina's Acropolis - a circular island of recycled aircraft aluminum with a cooktop and an overhead halo sprinkled with LED lights - with his Ola blue metallic lacquer cabinets. The space-age kitchen was recently featured on HGTV's "Top Ten Amazing Kitchens."

"It works almost like a drum set," says Toby Rapson of the circular layout. "The idea is for a family and entertaining, but also for a celebrity chef, if you were to have a party of that sort. It's really a show-piece; you have to see it to believe it.We didn't have much to do with it - it's a predesigned piece."

"It was the first one installed in the United States," Dehli says. "It's a work of art, but you can't hang it on the wall; you live in it instead."

But Dehli realized she wouldn't; it was a turning point in the renovations.

DOING IT TO SELL

"When I bought the house, it was with the intention of moving into it," she says. "When that was clearly not going to happen because of personal reasons, I realized I was doing it to sell. It was then even more important that it be really a tribute to Ralph."

She was not about to scrimp on the budget.

"When you're working with Ralph, the budget is irrelevant," says Dehli, a single mom of three daughters. "Because the whole project is about having a genius involved. I can tell you many people told me I was crazy. But it was a work of art; I was not a contractor doing a house to see how much money I could save. It really was a labor of love."

An irrelevant budget was unusual, the architect's son said.

"We didn't always have the biggest budget for projects," Toby Rapson says. "This one gave him a chance to flex his muscles a bit."

Dehli even persuaded Rapson to alter his award-winning, signature Rapson Rocker in honor of the house, featuring dark wood and polka dot leather instead of the traditional pairing of light maple and sedate fabrics.

"At first, he told me he was too conservative for something like that, but eventually, after I kept pushing it, he said, 'You know, I think you're right, let's do this chair.' And they look fabulous in the master bedroom," Dehli says. "Other times, I'd have an idea and he'd say, 'That would be awful!' Ralph was an incredibly opinionated person, so there was no question where he stood on things.When you're working with someone who you know is completely honest, it's great, because you know they'll tell you what they really think. There are no games."

"Ralph was an incredibly opinionated person, so there was no question where he stood on things. When you're working with someone who you know is completely honest, it's great, because you know they'll tell you what they really think. There are no games."

PUSHING EVERYONE

Dehli pushed everyone, not just the architect.

"The kitchen is sleek and contemporary, but it also has a wood-burning fireplace, so it's warm and inviting and wonderful," she says. "The fireplace was designed 16 feet across with a 13-foot opening. I had 12 people tell me, 'You can't do it - it's not possible,' before I found one person who said, 'I'll try.' "

She even had a guy in Italy working for her, searching for the perfect hue of golden marble.

But there were local materials used, too - very local. The crew removed the clear redwood siding off the exterior of the house, stripped the paint off the boards and gave them new life as the deck on the rooftop terraces.

"They are these tiny redwood gardens," Dehli says of the spaces now decorating the flat roof.

Some of the small touches were purely Dehli's, like her ode to coffee in the master suite: It has a gourmet, single-cup coffee maker to enjoy that first cup of the day while the homeowner is getting ready, along with a tiny dishwasher and refrigerator hidden in what looks like a bathroom drawer.

"That way, you don't have dirty cups piling up, and you don't have to go to the kitchen to get the cream for your coffee," she says. "Because it's the tiny things that make the experience."

A QUICK SALE

When the home was completed, it was put on the market in June 2006; it didn't take long to sell - along with the Ralph Rapson original, abstract paintings that accompanied the house.

"The market had slowed by then, but this sold in 24 hours," Dehli says. "A guy saw it and fell in love with it. It sold as a work of art would sell.You either love it and can't imagine not living there, or it's not for you." Dehli is grateful the house gave her the chance to work with Rapson, who died last spring, about two years after the Edina home was completed. But she feels a sense of loss, too.

"His death was so sad because, although he had a full life, he was working until the end, he was in the middle of a project," she says. "Like his work, he was so full of energy and life - there would never be a time that the world would be ready to lose him. I wished I had done more, spent more time with him. But the time I did spend with him was truly a gift."

Molly Millett is a Pioneer Press reporter and a frequent contributor to Spaces.