Jess Brown, who makes dolls by hand, lives with her husband and two children in Sonoma County, California. Their home is filled with antiques, family photos and shells collected at the beach. We’d love to head over there and stay all day. Take a peek at the house (and beautiful garden!), with photos by Lena Corwin…
On having a hunch: My husband and I bought this house twelve years ago. As soon as we pulled up, without even going inside, I was like, “We should make an offer.” I had this wacky feeling about it. It was a super cute Victorian home, within walking distance of Petaluma.
On a colorful house: The previous owners were house painters. When we bought it, the exterior was 11 different colors! The base color was green, but every year they’d add colors. For example, one of their children was born in July, so they painted some red, white and blue. Even though it was so bright, my husband was like, “The paint is mostly new, we should live with this for a while.” We kept it that way for ten years.
On loving your home: I try to decorate so that every spot in the house feels like something we love. Like, wherever you turn, wherever your eye lands, you should think it’s awesome.
On family dinners: We eat dinner as a family every night, and we always have music going. There’s a lot of dancing in our kitchen. As the kids have gotten older, they’re not quite as into that, but we still have a happy little vibe. So, if my son walks by — even though he’s 14 and has headphones in — I’ll make him dance to Louis Prima while I’m cooking meatballs.
On go-to meals: I’m an okay cook. I’m becoming better. The problem is my father was a brilliant chef, and my sister is a good chef, so it was decided early on that cooking is not my skill. But I make certain things well — we do a lot of tacos in our house, and lettuce wraps and a great lentil salad. I’ve gotten good at Italian meatballs, too. I make them almost every Sunday night, and serve them with traditional sauce, over polenta.
On a family heirloom: Our coffee table is actually a wooden trunk my grandfather got while stationed in Italy during WW2. He shipped out right after my grandmother became pregnant, so my mom was born while he was in Italy. He shipped this trunk to my grandmother as a baby gift. That’s probably the most special thing in the whole house. If the house were burning down, that’s the thing I’d get out.
On giving things away: I am notorious for doing a huge purge every few years. Friends are like, “You have to list things on eBay! You have to sell things!” But I feel like you’re in good shape karmically if you just give things away. It’s like the universe will send more good your way. Even when we have yard sales, I’ll just give things away. I like the idea of something going off to bring someone else joy.
On a beloved morning ritual: It’s somehow come about that my husband brings me coffee in bed every single morning. I have no idea how I worked that out! We’ve been together for 30 years now, and this has happened almost the entire time. The kids aren’t up yet, so we sit in bed and talk and have our coffee together.
On rising early: I’m definitely a morning person. I think it’s happening with age. My husband and I are both turning 46 this year, and each year we seem to wake up a little earlier. We’re like, “Why are we puttering around here at five in the morning?” We like to have breakfast together before he leaves for work, and I like to make us omelets.
On a room of one’s own: Honestly, my studio is probably my favorite spot in the house. It gets such great light. But since it’s for work, I guess I also try to avoid it!
On the inspiration behind her ragdolls: I always created handmade toys for my children. When Stella was in first grade, I opened a children’s store with a friend of mine. I made a couple dolls for the shop and it became a business. At the time, everything was plastic and finding a store with handmade toys was very hard. I really liked the idea of my children being surrounded by things that were made with intention.
On creating a women’s clothing line: It always bugged me that toys for kids were dumbed down, so my dolls started to get really sophisticated. Why wouldn’t you teach kids about design? Why should doll clothes be made of crappy polyester in limited colors? So we gave the dolls nice linen dresses and hand-knitted alpaca shawls. Women would come into the shop and say “Can you make this in my size?” It happened often enough that I decided I should.
On being outdoors: We spend most of our time outside, because the yard is really great. Our home is around 1300 square feet, and Victorians are laid out funny, with lots of little rooms. Once you have teenagers, they need space. The garden is like an extension of the house. The doors are always open. We’re fortunate to have trees that block wind. It’s like our own micro-climate.
On creating a yard: Year by year, we’ve worked on different areas. We put garden beds up, built a patio, planted fruit trees, put in a little freestanding pond. Over time, it’s almost like we’ve created five different rooms out there.
On beauty for beauty’s sake: I recently took a trip to Paris with my daughter, and she had this great observation. We would go into teeny patisseries to get a snack and it would be painfully beautiful. My daughter said, “I don’t even know what this place is called; there’s no sign. They make things beautiful not just for marketing, but because it’s what should be done.” It was so inspiring to see people doing something just because they love it.
On a belated treehouse: The tree house is actually a great heartache, since we didn’t build it sooner. The kids wanted one for so long, but we couldn’t get to it. My husband finally built the treehouse, but it was probably a year too late. Our kids had one or two slumber parties in there, and we have some good memories, but just yesterday I heard my son telling someone, “There are too many spiders in there.” My husband wants to take it down, but I won’t let him. I’m like, “It’s a symbol of our parenting!”
On a family pastime: We’re big on road trips. We’ll pick a beach that’s an hour or an hour-and-a-half away. My son’s favorite ramen place is in Japantown in San Francisco, a 45-minute drive away, so we go there once a month. My husband made a good point, which is that people are fine driving two hours to get to a soccer tournament, so why not prioritize other things? As our children have gotten older, I’ve become aware of how quickly time is moving. Family drives are a way to have more time together.
Thank you so much, Jess!