I’m not the only one who thinks of living in some foreign country, like on a beach down in Mexico or in an off-the-grid old estate outside of a small European town. It was always my mental escape plan.
But an epiphany hit me all too recently that I didn’t have to leave my country and my family to live that small-town life. I could find a beautiful old estate on land near my hometown and live the same dream, just speaking English and designing with inches instead of centimeters. And so that’s exactly what we did.
We found land with a garden, and a greenhouse with a toolshed that’s prettier than most. And we found a project—an old historic home with a carriage house—that will probably take me a lifetime to “finish,” only to start over again.
Nowadays our life involves walking to the social club and biking to the creek. We have picnics in the backyard. And we play old swing music. Sure, the music is playing out of a rock-shaped speaker, and the social club sells frozen margaritas in a plastic cup, but other than that, we are living our European dream.
A European dream that our moms and our family and friends can hop in a car to come enjoy with us.
But let me go back for a second. When quarantine started, our life changed. Which meant the plans for our Los Angeles house changed with it. My husband, Erik, and I had a lot, and I do mean a lot, of discussions: What does our future look like now? What would be best for quality of life? What would be best for our then 1-year-old daughter, Ever? What happens to our careers now that we can’t get on an airplane? Once we actually looked closely at the life we had chosen, our priorities shifted in one swoop.
We very consciously decided, if we’re going to be “stuck” for a while, then we want to be stuck closer to family. So after only four months of living in our newly semi-renovated Rustic Canyon home, we decided to load up those very same cardboard boxes that we had just unpacked and move our family back to rural Pennsylvania, close (but not too close) to where I grew up.
We found a 1900s home in a town outside of Pittsburgh that was once a vacation spot for Pennsylvania royalty—the Heinzes and the Carnegies and the Mellons—during the turn of the century. The main house was built by a well-known architect, Charles Barton Keen, for a local family. It was stunning, but it strangely wasn’t the pull for me.
It was the other buildings on the land, the old, beat-up, forgotten parts, that I fell in love with. When we saw the carriage house, I knew it would be the perfect place to host guests, and I completely fell for it—hard. It reminded me of a decrepit, gorgeous place outside of Paris in some town I’ve never heard of. And because I can’t go to France right now, I thought, why can’t we just create that feeling in Pennsylvania? To this day, it feels to me like we bought the carriage house and the sellers “threw in” the main house for good measure.
We found our secret garden. And we wanted to share it.
And that’s why we wanted to get the guesthouse together first; to me, homes are like happiness, better when shared. We wanted people to feel good here, to have a place to relax and stay longer than just three days. Heck, to move in! In fact my sister-in-law, Ali, is living there right now while she helps with our daughter.
I was also eager to get going on the project because I love cottage style. I’m constantly walking the line between preserving a home’s bones and making it my own. I love doing imperfect. Some might say I am great at being imperfect! (Not offended.) I also didn’t have to think about clients. I didn’t even have to think about resale—we aren’t going anywhere, at least I hope—and it wasn’t about everyday living, so I didn’t have to be so practical. All of these factors were so freeing. So I decided to let HGTV film my brother and me and the entire process for our new show, Home Again With the Fords.
My original inspiration was interior designer Sibella Court. I was going to do saturated colors and just wallpaper, wallpaper, wallpaper—a nod to my castle dream. But as I started diving in, I realized that it isn’t my true nature to do it that way. I was trying to work with these dark wood beams that were original to the house, but they were totally throwing me off. All I wanted to do was paint them white. I was totally stuck, and I lost a week to indecision. As soon as I decided, “I can’t help it, I’m going to paint them white,” everything came together.
“To this day, it feels to me like we bought the carriage house and the sellers ‘threw in’ the main house for good measure.”
Another follow-your-gut moment was the walls. My husband drinks the strongest pour-over coffee, and he never finishes the Chemex, so I started pouring the leftover brew into a jar. One day I took it over to the cottage and just rubbed it on the walls. When I came back the next day, it had set in rather, um, intensely, and I sat there thinking, Did I just ruin this project? But it actually came out beautifully. The glow that comes off of them is flattering.
People ask me all the time why my designs feel so warm. Not to totally give away my cheat sheet, but it’s pretty simple. I walk into a space and I think: Okay, what is good? What can we keep? I’m not looking for perfect. I’m looking for special. At the same time, I’m not trying to make a movie set. I want it to be livable. What most people don’t realize is that the first step to adding character and warmth isn’t actually about adding anything at all: It’s about keeping as much soul as you can.
“I walk into a space and I think: Okay, what is good? What can we keep? I’m not looking for perfect. I’m looking for special.”
For instance, the floors. If you look at them on the main level, they’re patched with tile—that’s where the old walls were. Why didn’t I replace them completely? For no reason other than I didn’t want to take out everything and start with new materials. This home has history, 120 years of it, and I am here to be a part of that. I am a steward.
In the kitchen, I wrapped the outside of my new oven, which I had bought in olive green, in a terracotta-colored custom vinyl. The olive was not working, but the stove was gorgeous, and I wasn’t going to get another one. Wrapping it was my brother’s idea, inspired by his love of old cars.
The wood I used for the open shelving was all from the ceiling rafters we removed upstairs. It was already a part of the house, so why replace it? We also hid the Smeg fridge behind old confessional doors I found at one of my favorite Pittsburgh thrifting spots.
As the design evolved, so did the story. Even though I started with a French castle theme, by the end I jokingly rebranded it “girls’ trip with Georgia O’Keeffe to the Paris countryside in Joshua Tree.” Honestly, what it turned into was a glorified potter’s shed. My garden dream.
When I really think about it, buying a beautiful move-in-ready house—and then renovating the guesthouse first—pretty much sums up Erik and me as people. One of my favorite things about Pittsburgh is that it’s a halfway mark between Nashville and New York City, so my friends who are musicians—like Lord Huron, the Lone Bellow, Escondido, Odessa, Nikki Lane, Among Savages, and Rayland Baxter—will have a place to crash that has a groovy closet-turned-room with guitars, a record player, and a screen door to let the music flow in and out. I can’t wait to photograph them, and all of my friends and creative souls, for my guest book of Polaroids that I keep for visitors.
“What most people don’t realize is that the first step to adding character and warmth isn’t actually about adding anything at all: It’s about keeping as much soul as you can.”
Something tells me this home will be ever-evolving. Coming on 40, I am finally realizing that it’s my nature to move forward—and to start over and over again. And maybe that’s just fine.
Go-to flower resource: Farmer’s Daughter. Ask for Lauren!
Best local vintage store: Garden Style Living came in very handy for this project. Also check out Kinsey Vintage Market, Farmhowz, and Tollgate Revival in town.
Most affordable thing in the guesthouse: The hand-me-downs, so basically anything beautiful and old. They are all over this project.
My biggest splurge: The marble additions, including tables from Weiss House and countertops from Armina Stone.