INTERVIEW WITH JILL O’SHEA, JILL O’SHEA HOME DESIGN
The designer’s updated Westport home is full of FAMILY MEMORIES and thoughtfully retains its STORYBOOK CHARM
You have an interesting history with this house. Where did it all begin? I was originally a creative director, but after having my fourth child, I quit working and freelanced at home. I was constantly adapting our home to accommodate everyone, and it was something I’d always been interested in, even as a kid. We bought this house in 2000 to live in while we were building a new home down at Compo Beach. It was near condemnation—there was no working plumbing, and the whole thing was a disaster. We put on a new roof, redid the floors on the cheap and just Home Depot’d it to make it a nice, clean place to live with our kids while we built our new home.
And then you eventually moved out a year later? Yes. When we moved into our Compo Beach home, my parents were retiring, and they actually moved into this little Home Depot reno. It was perfect for them—they were downsizing, and they could be near us and the beach.
So how did you end up living in this house yet again? We’d lived in five other homes since buying this house, and each of the houses that I’ve done and sold have been purchased basically furnished. It was never my plan to buy and flip houses; it was more about adapting to the changing needs of my family. The reason I came back to this house is that about five years ago, when my parents were living here, my mother passed away unexpectedly, and I ended up moving my father into assisted living. At the time, I had divorced, had two boys out of college and two girls in college, and I was home alone. I started eyeing this tiny house and thought it would be a perfect “empty nest” home for me.
What drew you to it? I’ve always adored it. It has a charming, almost storybook quality to it. It’s always reminded me of the little engine that could! [laughs] It has a personality that I really appreciated, so I decided to put all of my eggs in one basket and do it the way I would do it if I were going to live here long-term. Every time I’ve done a house, that’s always the hope—that I’m going to live in it forever, and I honestly believe that every time! So I took the time to do it and moved in here last August.
What were some of the challenges with this home? One problem was that the kitchen was in the rear of the house. It was probably added in the early 1900s, and there was no second floor above it. A very old, very steep winding staircase led up to the second floor. Upstairs, there was only one bedroom that could be considered a real bedroom, the other room was just big enough to put a twin bed in, and there was no bathroom. There was a first-floor bedroom, but it was just large enough to fit a bed in. So the larger bedroom that was a suitable size was on the second floor, the only bathroom was on the first floor, and the winding, antique staircase was in between. While the house was very charming, this layout was really challenging to live in.
How did you improve it and make it work? I added a master suite onto the second floor in the back. I wanted to maintain the character of the house, so I was very careful about adding on to the back; I didn’t want it to detract from the house. The gable faces the front and then reverses in the back, which I did to maintain consistent window sizes. I opened up all of the ceilings on the second floor, and I turned the little room that could only fit a twin bed into a bathroom. So now there’s a real bedroom with a hall bath, a master bedroom in the back with its own bath, and a laundry alcove at the top of the stairs. I was also able to improve the stairs. They’re still a little steep and a little short, but there was no way to do it without compromising or cutting off a whole part of the house. By doing that, I was also able to expand the kitchen a bit underneath that footprint. All of the systems were upgraded, and now the house is super streamlined and efficient—the bills are fantastic!
What drove the interior design? I’ve always been drawn to space and light as much as anything else, and I love symmetry; I like things to feel balanced. I’m also not a fan of anything too trendy, so I stick to fairly classic elements. For the most part, I’ve always gone with clean, white walls and rich woods. I like materials that are organically what they are—rough brick, antique floors, smooth white walls—so I have a consistent neutral palette that’s based on the materials themselves. I want wood to be wood, marble to be marble; it’s more about that than adorning anything.
Did the existing fireplace need any rehabbing? It was a brick fireplace with a plaster front and a small mantle. I took the plaster off the chimney and clad the downstairs part in reclaimed brick to unify it. When all of my kids are home, we’re a watch-a-football-game kind of crowd, so rather than put the emphasis on a big fireplace with a big firebox, it was all about the TV! [laughs] So it’s a big TV over a little fireplace because it’s about priorities—you really couldn’t do both, and this house was all about picking what was important and going with it.
That sofa looks ideal for watching football games. It’s a big, twelve-foot custom sofa with four generous cushions, and when my kids are visiting, each of them will naturally go sit on their cushion. It’s funny because there’s a bit of a play going on throughout the house with the sizes of things—there’s the tiny room with the huge sofa, the small room with the large bed, the two tiny chairs next to a giant lamp in front of two big windows. But when we’re watching TV, with everyone on their seat cushion, it’s just cozy. That’s the nature of a small house—it brings everybody together. I love it.
How did you redesign the kitchen? Even though it was small, I didn’t want it to feel like it wasn’t a high-end, quality kitchen. I wanted to spend money on appliances—I wanted my Sub-Zero tall refrigerator, but I didn’t want to see it sitting in the family room. Because it’s an open space, I didn’t want anything exposed; the only exposed item is the Wolf range. I’ve only been here a year, so the kitchen hasn’t gotten a ton of use, but I love it. It works really well.
You’ve celebrated a year of holidays in this house. How has that been? I’ve hosted every holiday for twenty-five years, and my family was worried because we gave up a dining room moving into this house. There’s only that small kitchen table, and with four children and their significant others, that was a concern. So for Thanksgiving, I moved all of the furniture out of the front room, rented a big round table and set it up for dinner. But for Christmas, I put food on the kitchen table, set up a bar, had a firepit out on the patio and had music blaring. Everybody was snuggling into spaces, and it was the best holiday we ever had. I was worried we would lose the ability to host events, but it’s turned out to be the place everyone wants to go to.
What makes this house feel like home? I have a storage unit with family antiques, but I didn’t want to fill the house with them; I wanted the house to have what it needed to work, and then have places where I could put all of the things that make me feel good. It’s silly, but my favorite table in the world is the one that’s in my laundry room. When I was a kid, that table was in the corner of our kitchen, and it’s where I ate my Cheerios. Those two antique chairs near the bookcase? My grandmother wrote a dedication to each of my daughters underneath those chairs. I could tell you a story about every little piece in here, and that’s what make home, home.
Interior designer/architect/builder: Jill O’Shea Home Design, Westport; jillosheahomedesign.com