A once perfectly ordinary property now has plenty of personality

When world traveler, reality-TV star, animal lover and interior designer Jany Lee moved from Toronto, Canada, to Lake Highlands five years ago, she wasn’t looking for a turnkey purchase. She preferred something she could mold, shift and stamp with her unique style.

“I was looking for a fixer-upper, a diamond in the rough,” she says. The keen-eyed artist found her palette in Merriman Park, in a simple brick ranch-style 2,400-square-foot home built in the 1970s.

She and her husband, Maximillian Chen, who works in the treasury department at TXU Energy, weren’t sure about the house at first.

“In this corner,” she says, gesturing toward an area now trimmed in pieces of Indonesian art and framed travel photos, “there was this strange solarium with a skylight and some sort of shrubbery growing. It was a little strange.”

There was also a sunken den, popular in the 1970s, that didn’t sit well with the contemporary young couple, but Lee decided the overall layout was appealing.

“I loved the floor plan, and I realized I could work with it.”

Luckily, Chen is “handy and ambitious”, Lee says. Shortly after the purchase, the two embarked on a 10-month remodeling project.

“We spent many late nights and weekends working — putting up wallpaper, laying the hardwood floors. When I suggested something, he would just say, ‘Let’s do it.’ I had a great partner to work with on this.”

Creating more space, and in some cases just the illusion of more space, took top priority. Wherever possible — including the main entryway, the kitchen and throughout the front living area — they raised ceilings, and widened and lengthened doorways. They also knocked out a wall between the dining and living rooms.

“As soon as you raise the ceiling, you feel like you are in a bigger house,” she says.

They completely gutted the kitchen, lifting sections of the ceilings and installing custom-made 42-inch cabinets.

“The longer cabinets draw the eye upward and make the kitchen feel taller.”

She says lighting is vital to her interior design: “I like halogen lights because they produce a soft glow … and nothing looks great in fluorescent light.”

Then there was that sunken den — they filled it with concrete to make it level with the rest of the ground before covering it with mocha-colored flooring.

Next, they repurposed the sunroom. Lee’s meticulously aligned photos that cover one wall of the new room show off her eye for beauty and composition, and they tell a story about her life before Dallas.

“I lived out of a backpack for a year while I traveled the world,” she says as she narrates the images: Cambodia, Fiji, the island of Ko Phi Phi (where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed the movie “The Beach”), a floating market in Thailand where vendors in boats serve delicious dumplings, the mountains of New Zealand, and the Maldives (“hands down the most beautiful beaches anywhere,” Lee says).

Her international experience and her passion for salvaging old furniture and collecting art are evident in the home’s details. A Salvation Army-bought dresser with new paint and hardware serves as console table; a piano bench with an opaque leather seat sits at the end of a guest bed, bookended by color-splashed lamps that Lee shopped off Craigslist and topped with fresh shades.

She’s big on preservation and loves finding a new purpose for old furniture and accessories.

“If the structure is in good condition, I would rather see it go in someone’s home than in a landfill somewhere.”

Behind a big glass door that leads to the backyard, two dogs look longingly at Lee and offer the occasional “woof woof”.

Big golden Haley and tiny Sophie live with Lee permanently, but she says she frequently fosters animals.

“I’ve had about 20 dogs come through in the last year.”

From the fresh scent in the air and fur-free floors, one would never guess.

“I do a lot of sweeping,” she says.

Lee, like her home, has character, which contributes to her success in the design business. Coupled with her talent, that character has made her a celebrity. After submitting an audition video at the eleventh hour (“The night before the deadline, I decided to give it a shot,” she says), Lee was chosen for the HGTV reality show “Design Star”, where contestants compete to win their own TV show.

“I saw the show on TV and thought, I’ve done all this [to my own house]. It can’t be that hard.”

She apparently had yet to see the infamous kitchen remodel challenge.

“It had to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”

She describes the 16-hour days in Los Angeles, laboring with little sleep — the toughest episode included the kitchen challenge, where she worked with a team of five to remodel a family’s kitchen in 26 hours.

“We spent three months remodeling our kitchen at home, and I thought that was tough,” she says.

She was disappointed to be the fifth person to be eliminated, though she says she was happy to get home and sleep.

Anyone who watches reality shows can tell you that the soft-spoken Lee is far too likeable to make it to the final round of the game show genre that loves polarizing personalities.

“It was a dream come true to be on the show,” Lee says. “I met some wonderful people and had a great learning experience.”

And does the Lake Highlands resident have any designs on returning to television?

She says she’d love to be a contestant on CBS’s “Amazing Race” someday.