Lots of people who are interested in design, when growing up, will change their bedrooms around — move their bed under a different window, maybe even pull up carpeting.
When Amarilda (Amy) Vucaj was struck with inspiration, she’d go a few steps further.
“My parents have these crazy stories of leaving for the weekend and coming home with a wall knocked down,” Vucaj says of her attempts to “open the space.”
Vucaj came to the United States from Albania with her parents when she was 15; her dad found work in construction, and Vucaj helped out most summers. “But I never really understood how much I enjoyed it,” she says. “And my parents, who were always very supportive of anything I did, were just too busy working to help me think about the future.”
After studying chemical engineering at Wayne State, Vucaj moved to Los Angeles, where she happened upon a job at renowned menswear shop Bijan on Rodeo Drive.
“It was my first introduction to the finer things in life,” Vucaj says. “It was the most expensive store in the world — the owner dressed presidents. I learned what luxury really means.”
Returning to Michigan armed with a bachelor’s of science in interior design, she worked for an interior designer before opening Amareaux Interior Design (amareaux.com) in Birmingham in 2016.
“I didn’t really grasp my love for design until I was going to school, working in the industry, doing architectural drawings,” Vucaj says. “I had to nourish it and bring it to the surface.”
While working with clients on new builds and flipping homes, Vucaj and her husband began searching for a house of their own. Whether they moved in or sold it, Vucaj craved renovating an entire house, bottom to top, as an opportunity to stretch her muscles as a contractor, builder and architectural designer, with as much as possible completed in-house. They came across a house in Birmingham, built in the 1950s, that had never been updated — and they closed on it the day she went into labor with their first daughter (“I was signing the papers between contractions,” Vucaj says). Now, after a pandemic and another daughter born, her creation is complete and was listed to sell in May.
“Every home I’ve ever worked on, even flipping a house, I approach it as designing as if I’d be living in it,” Vucaj says. “I don’t cut corners, from finishes to things behind the walls that you’d never see — it’s about the integrity of the work.
“With this house, within the budget that I had, I tried to bring in everything that I would want in a home,” she says. “Because I was building it as my own house, I was able to do everything I wanted” — from the plumbing fixtures and finishes that shine like the home’s jewelry, to Circa lighting, Sub-Zero appliances and more.
“I like to work backwards in a new home — for example, the size of the bedrooms and baths, it has to make sense for the people who are living there, whether it’s empty nesters or a family with young children,” she says. “Even if there’s no client like this one, I try to make it make sense.”
The mid-century Colonial-turned-modern farmhouse opens to soaring ceilings with wainscoting crafted by Vucaj’s in-house carpenter, floors of Italian oak and a minimal custom sculptural wood and metal staircase railing by Weldwork in Royal Oak, who also created the metal doors in the office. Beyond the foyer is a view of the two-story French limestone fireplace that anchors the great room’s 20-foot ceilings.
“I tried to keep the aesthetic simple,” Vucaj says. “I also love symmetry, so I wanted the home to have an organic flow to it, while letting everything have its own space. It has a clean, functional symmetry.”
This is especially evident in the kitchen, where an oversized island is framed by waterfall edges and a walk-in butler’s pantry — a full continuation of the kitchen — keeps messes out of view. Two full master suites, with one on the main floor including a stackable washer/dryer closet (“I envisioned my parents living with us,” Vucaj says) have his-and-hers walk-in closets, while four additional bedrooms upstairs include the second master suite and another easily transitioned into a second office space. The walls of the basement — originally a bomb shelter which Vucaj transformed into a wine and cigar room — are the only things original to the home. Also in the basement: a full gym, a bar and a full-shower bath.
“Having two daughters at home, it’s important for my husband and I to be role models. I want them to see the partnership between me and my husband, but also to empower them to be their own people,” Vucaj says. “Most builders are men, but most people who make decisions about a home, in my experience, are women — I like to be able to offer the option of having a female builder. I can understand exactly what they need.
“This is where I flourish, taking a design from beginning to end, designing and furnishing it to turnkey,” she says. “I always knew I was capable of doing this, but I wanted the chance to see it all the way through, without a man telling me how to do it.
“I had two pregnancies and two babies while building this house,” Vucaj says. “This house is my third baby. The project grew over time — we weren’t sure how far to take this renovation. But I feel like this is the house it was meant to be.”