Five years ago, Heather Palmeri and her husband, Andrew, packed up their Brooklyn apartment and moved to leafy Montclair, New Jersey. They’ve created a home that seamlessly mixes modern, midcentury and bohemian style. (They also have a fairy door! And a D.I.Y. play house for Veda, 5, and Rex, 2.) Take a peek inside…
On a house with soul: We closed on our house on 11/11/11 at 11 a.m. — I’ll never forget that. It needed work, but the bones were good and it just had soul. The sweet woman who owned it before walked me through her garden, explaining how to care for each flower and plant. She had lived here alone, kept a grand piano in the living room instead of other furniture, and hosted big salon-style readings once a week. I love thinking about that.
On unwinding: Once the kids are asleep, my husband and I often sit outside with a drink and listen to music. Right now it’s Courtney Barnett and the new Wilco album. Or we’ll veg out on the sofa and watch shows together. Weirdly enough, the only thing we can ever agree on is anything with zombies. Romantic, right? We love Fear of the Walking Dead, the Walking Dead, the Strain and Stranger Things.
On date nights: Now that we’re in the ‘burbs, date nights look a little different than they did when we lived in the city. But Montclair has lots of fantastic restaurants, and our favorite spots are Ani Ramen (the pork buns are otherworldly) and farm-to-table spot Le Salbuen.
On kids’ art: Finding pieces for the kids is license to choose things I’m drawn to that would be too playful for my own room. I try to stay away from anything really cutesy or gender-specific, and I’ve lucked out on great pieces in thrift stores — often a gold mine for vintage kids’ decor. I love the owl piece here, which is an old string artwork made with nails and thread.
On swapping out toys: We have two big bins of toys that I rotate in and out of their room — funnily enough, the less stuff that’s here, the more they’ll actually play with. There has to be breathing room. Their favorite toys are open-ended ones like Magna-Tiles or great blocks. There’s so much awesome play that comes with the freedom to imagine what to do.
On mixing patterns: For years, I worked as a textile designer, and I love mixing patterns. Two things I keep in mind are not to be too matchy-matchy and to use a solid base color for rugs and sofas. I really like the look of natural rugs, like sisal, in rooms with pattern. They don’t compete visually, but their element of texture helps balance everything out.
On keeping skills alive: I have this little creative space of my own off the playroom that’s off limits to the little ones. Sometimes I get down on myself for not being more creative during their quiet hours, but I try to remember that there’s a season for everything. Right now I’m in the season of staying home with two very young kids. I try to give myself a pass and just keep up my design skills as much as I can.
On cultivating eclectic style: The house was built in 1919 (we’re planning a 100th birthday bash!), but when decorating we don’t stick to any one particular period. I grew up on both coasts so I have influences from bohemian California and classic New England. Mostly we just want our home to feel warm and inviting.
On connecting past and present: The vintage plate wall came from our tiny apartment in Brooklyn, where they hung in our entryway, so everyone saw them first thing when coming in the door. When we moved here I put them on this wall, where you can also see them immediately from the front door. It’s nice to have them there as a tie between our old home and this one.
On family meals: I’m always trying to find a balance between making something that I want to eat and something that will satisfy my kids’ picky palates. I make a lot of soups and tacos! I used to wait to eat with my husband after he got home and the kids were in bed, but I’m starving by 8 or 9, when Andrew sits down. On the weekends, we grill (Andrew’s dorky motto is #ABG, or “always be grilling”) and make pancakes.
On living through renovation: The kitchen hadn’t been touched at least 30 years before we moved in. We lived with it for a year while we saved money — then we gutted it. We set up a makeshift kitchen in the dining room with a refrigerator, hot plate and toaster oven, and that was it for about three months. I remember leaning over the bathtub upstairs washing all the dishes at the end of the day, and sort of wishing it wasn’t happening, but it was more than worth it in the end.
Paint color: Raccoon fur.
On house projects: I just painted this little landing off the kitchen, and at some point we’ll make the basement less scary. (I get spooked going down there to do laundry right now.) One thing that happens with “just painting a wall” in an old house is that the shiny new coat of paint begins to highlight all the other old surfaces in need of T.L.C. So I often find myself going down rabbit holes redoing things.
On bedtime rituals: Before bed and whenever we part, my daughter and I will kiss each other’s hands. We learned it by reading The Kissing Hand, and it’s stuck as our goodbye ritual. I love it so much I’m already sad about the day she doesn’t want to do it anymore.
On fairy doors: I bought Veda a fairy door as a gift. It doesn’t open, but sometimes at night a fairy (I named her Ivy Oakbrier!) will “come through” the door and leave behind handwritten notes, trinkets or tiny glitter footprints. In return, Veda will put out pictures, notes and elaborate set-ups for the fairy to play in. It’s fun to see her sense of wonderment, and it’s also a great learning tool. If her room hasn’t been cleaned up for days in a row, the fairy will gently mention that she would have liked to have visited but couldn’t get past the mess!
On crafting: I crocheted and knit two blankets and made a doll for Veda before she was born. First child! When I was pregnant with Rex, I felt like I had to at least make one thing for him. I used a blanket design from Purl Soho. I’m an occasional knitter, so it took forever, and there I was, in the last days of my pregnancy, finishing up this little albatross. It was a small miracle I finished it before he was born.
On phases: This will surprise no one, but I find that EVERYTHING with kids is a phase. When my daughter was an infant, I remember feeling like I would never again get a full night’s rest. It made me feel out of control. This time around, with Rex, I made peace. I knew that everything that made me nutty would one day pass.
On hosting guests: We recently turned our attic storage area into a guest room. I love how peaceful it is now. When you lie in bed and look out the skylight, all you see are the trees. We have three sets of grandparents who stay in this room, and we had them in mind when trying to make the space comfortable. I always put flowers in there for them, and we stash lots of extra blankets and pillows.
On scouting design: Flea markets and antique shops are my go-to for affordable design, and I like Ikea, Anthropologie and West Elm. Three independent stores that inspire me these days are General Store, Spartan Shop and Territory Design. It’s all about the mix. I also think rugs, especially beautiful old ones, can really make a space, so I’m on a constant hunt.
On creating a sanctuary: I want our bedroom to feel really serene, like a departure from everything. For me, white bedding is the most peaceful, and I love how our nubby coverlet adds a layer of texture against the duvet without feeling busy.
On collections: I used to think you had to have a signature scent (for years mine was an oil I’d buy on Haight street in San Francisco called Egyptian Musk), but now I like to collect oils and change them up. Warm and Kai are favorites. I also collect rocks, shells and little natural bits and pieces, especially when we travel. I cherish the rocks I gathered in Cape Cod the morning I found out I was pregnant with my daughter.
On favorite rooms: Is it weird to say that my bathroom is my favorite room in the house? Until recently, it was entirely mauve-brown, the sink was a hexagon and everything else was straight out of the 80s. We weren’t sure when we’d ever redo it. Then, like a sign from above, a huge leak sprung in there and repairing it was way less practical than starting over. (I swear I didn’t create the leak.)
On having a green thumb: When I was growing up, it was just my mom and me. We lived in tiny spaces, but she always made them cozy with plants. Plus, they purify the air, which is nice in an old house where many of the windows are impossible to open. My favorite is the staghorn fern in our bathroom. The woman at the nursery told me to tuck a banana peel in the soil once a month — it loves that. And I give most of the plants in the house a thorough watering in the bathtub once a week or so.
On living outside: We built a deck and added a fence around the yard, and that has been life changing, like putting another room on the house. We eat outside, take naps, hang out with friends. After years of living in the city with zero outside space, it’s a dream come true.
On building a play house: We were debating between a swing set and play house, and the house won because it would be fun for the kids for longer (and one day could become a chicken coop). I sketched out a design inspired by things I’d seen on Pinterest and Instagram, and my dad, who’s a contractor, gave me advice. At one point, he said, “Why don’t I come up and we build it?” and then arrived from Florida. It took 2.5 days of intense labor, but was the most satisfying thing I’ve done in years. It was really special to work alongside my dad in his element. Plus, using a nail gun feels amazing. We all like to hang out in it now — sometimes I find my husband hiding in there with his morning coffee before work.
Thank you so much, Heather!