Instagram's Eva Chen Shares the High-Impact Design Decisions That Made Her Family's Connecticut Cottage a Home
For Instagram's Eva Chen, Director of Fashion and Shopping Partnerships, style makes more sense when it's hanging in a closet—the vast world of interior design is more of a mystery. "I feel generally confident with style and fashion. I feel indecision less when buying clothes," she says. "I think a lot of people are this way, but I feel less confident when it comes to interiors. The scale, the height, the cost—every decision matters."
The first decision came easy: When she and her husband, Tom Bannister, set off into the undulating hills of Connecticut's Litchfield County to find their young family a home away from the bustle of her native New York City, they stumbled upon a miniature United Kingdom (Bannister hails from there). "It reminded Tom of England in many ways," explains Chen. "When you go to England and you go to the countryside, you see these rolling fields of green. It's a different shade of green, it's more verdant—like Kelly green—but you just feel really at peace." When they arrived at the property in question, a Cape Cod house nestled inside a bucolic yard, they discovered dragonflies buzzing across a pond (pun not intended); Chen felt the space inside her brain expand. "I could see myself being cozy there and, in theory, sitting by the fireplace inside," says Chen, "while in action, stopping children from running into the fireplace."
It felt like home, but Chen knew she'd need help to make it so. Upon the recommendation of their real estate agent, they began to work with Heide Hendricks and Rafe Churchill, the husband-and-wife team behind Hendricks Churchill, a firm that specializes in restoration. "They are intellectuals and walking design historians," Chen says, noting that she knew she could trust them not to create a "display house" (she wanted a space that could roll with the punches). Churchill and Hendricks identified the pain points quickly. "The house was built in the '80s and it had good bones," says Hendricks, "but a few of the spaces were challenging—they weren't ideal for a young family. [Chen and Bannister] needed spaces where everyone could be within their sight-lines—you're still in the kitchen, but you can see the kids in the living room, and so on."
Together, the team made a series of high-impact decisions that changed the flow, aesthetics, and purpose of the Connecticut cottage, resulting in a space that holds Chen and Bannister's multigenerational family (her parents visit and stay regularly) with ease. Below, Chen and Hendricks walk us through the top-level choices that made this house in the hills a home.
Modifying Good Bones
The house was, for the most part, logistically relevant, says Hendricks. "It had a great circular floor plan—you walk in the front door, and if you turn right and keep turning, you'll end up back at the front door—that we wanted to improve." (The updated floor plan, walls and all, says Chen, is what she misses when she is at home in New York City, in an apartment with an open layout.) As for the other structural modifications? Hendricks and her team unified the interior's architectural styles to make the home feel of one voice; enlarged openings with restraint, keeping some on an intimate scale to ease transitions; and worked around budget tankers, like the second story's wood floor (it couldn't withstand a refurbishment, so they turned to a reviving high-gloss paint, instead).
They also took down a wall separating a sunroom ("It occupied the best view of the house," Hendricks explains) from the main living area, a major decision that now allows the family to gather en masse. "In fact, that's a perfect example of contemporary living for a multigenerational family," continues Hendricks. "They can all hang out in this space; there are different sitting and reading areas. It's a living room in the truest sense of the word."
Experimenting with Pattern
Chen fought the dining room's Antoinette Poisson wallpaper—arguably the most visually dynamic pattern in the cottage—on multiple occasions; Hendricks says she convinced her on the third try. "It was so different from my usual aesthetic, which is soft and gray," explains Chen. Hendricks knew that the print encapsulated the scheme of the house—her firm specializes in "color and palette play"—and as the other rooms began to come together, Chen saw it, too. Now, the wallpaper "exudes an Old-World feeling in that intimate setting and beckons you inside," says Hendricks, noting that despite the dining area's smaller size, its expanded openings ensure the print is always in your periphery, wherever you are on the first floor.
For Chen, who is also a children's book author, and her clan, reading is the predominant pastime of choice. Carving out spaces (corners, window seats, hallways) to spend time with a good book was paramount during both the renovation and decorating processes. "Any time the kids are quiet, I get suspicious—where are they?" laughs Chen. "On a good day, they are curled up in one of these nooks reading." The team prioritized placing these vignettes in virtually every room, including the kitchen; they are filled with giant bean bags and pillows, covered in kid-resistant fabric, that feel like clouds (some were sourced from John Robshaw, a local who lives a few towns over). Hendricks pushed for this—the plusher, the better. "I asked Heidi, 'How many pillows does one person need?' I didn't get it then, but I do now. They make reading spaces so much more enjoyable," explains Chen.
Hendricks and Chen communicated mostly during the "witching hour;" they sent visuals, patterns, and pieces via text and spent plenty of time talking through antique and art choices. "We'd be on eBay or Etsy, or even on websites looking for estate sales," says Chen, noting she still messages Hendricks about paintings. "I now realize how important it is to have art on the walls. It sounds basic, but it does really make a home," she continues. As for her favorite piece? A living room-defining mural, sourced from Tappan Collective, that was a happy accident. "It's a huge yellow piece—it anchors the room," notes Chen, adding that she and Bannister, who enjoyed the art hunt, weren't truly aware of its scale before its arrival. "We had to reschedule delivery three or four times because the truck it came on was so big, it couldn't fit down the driveway." It was worth it, though: "When I look at that piece now, it's something that really sets the mood of the house."
Needs to Serve
When making any home-related choice, Chen asked herself the question, "How do you want to use your time off?" and decided accordingly. These moments away are precious, she says. "We knew we wanted to spend time as a family. We wanted quiet and the ability to be close to each other," she shares. This is also the high-impact tip she has for other prospective house buyers: "Think about the needs that have to be served—and that's advice for not just the house hunting process, but also for life. What do you need to restore yourself? Find out, and then do that."