Department

The Simple Browns

Hanging out at home with Denver design royalty.

By
September 2012

You wouldn’t expect Denver’s design power couple to be down-to-earth. Intellectual and highfalutin, sure. But casual, bike-commuting, bargain-furniture-shopping parents? No way. Which is why chatting with Sarah Semple Brown and Rusty Brown, principals of Denver’s premiere architectural firm, Semple Brown Design, is so unexpectedly easy.

In fact, “relaxed,” “laid-back,” “friendly,” and “approachable” are words that come up a lot in conversation with the Browns, who have been married for 31 years and endearingly volley compliments back and forth. He has an innate sense for business management, Sarah says. She has impeccable design vision, Rusty says. 

The Browns clearly aren’t complacent about their work or well-earned success, either, even though Semple Brown Design—celebrating its 30th year—has produced some of the most recognizable buildings
in the city and won dozens of awards. “We’re selfish in that we like to be interested in every building,” Rusty says. 

“It would be impossible for us to have projects that were like ‘ugh,’ ” Sarah says. This hunger for learning and creating, combined with a love of travel—which the Browns call “urban hiking”—has inspired projects including the angular, contemporary Littleton Church of Christ, the elegantly minimal Ellie Caulkins Opera House, and buildings within a massive public-park project under way in Abu Dhabi. 

The two Oklahoma natives are known for designing projects that are highly responsive to each site’s context and location. Translation for Denver: You know you’re in a Semple Brown building because it seamlessly fuses what is essentially Colorado—our temperate climate and friendly, approachable (those words again) lifestyle—with contemporary form. Each building is a blend of big-city urbanity and Colorado casual.

The same principles that guide their professional aesthetic also steer the Browns’ personal taste. In 2007, the couple, who have three twentysomething daughters (all artists and on track to become architects), finished their fourth home renovation and were eager for a family project. That’s when they bought a two-story International Style home in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood designed by famed modernist architect Burnham Hoyt, who also designed the Denver Public Library and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Built in 1942, the airy, asymmetrical 6,250-square-foot house had undergone many remodels, and for the Browns, returning it to the starkly modern Hoyt design was a priority. But they also wanted to update the home for a 21st-century family.

Originally, the home was divided in two—one half housed the residents, and the other half served as staff quarters. The Browns renovated the upstairs to create bedroom suites for their daughters. Next, they moved the kitchen to the west side of the house and removed the enclosure over the adjacent pool area, letting natural Colorado sunlight wash into the eating area and den. They completely remodeled the kitchen with crisp, white cabinets designed by William Landeros and Jed MacKenzie of Kitchen Distributors. The cabinets had been custom fabricated for a different house that was never built; the Browns bought them at the Kitchen Distributors warehouse for a deep discount.

Finally, to soften the modern edges and add familial warmth, the Browns splashed color to accent walls, surfaced countertops with natural wood and Caesarstone, and draped the walls with paintings by their daughters and local artist Jeffrey Keith. And, just like any other family, they decked out the living room in hand-me-downs. 

Somehow, the blend of old and new, vintage and sleekly stylized, feels hip yet livable and cozy. And, just like that, the dynamic Semple Brown duo has done it again.