Connecticut has long held a special spot in Jae Joo’s heart. “It’s the place I went to college, met my husband, got married, and had my first apartment,” says the interior designer. It’s also, she notes, where she’s spent “countless hours antiquing and looking for the best flea markets around.”
The vintage furniture shopping in the state proved particularly appealing for Joo, whose design practice grew largely out of her penchant for collecting antique and artisanal items. (She laughingly admits to some hoarder tendencies.) In its six years, her eponymous Manhattan-based studio has become known for the way she mixes contemporary decor with decades- and centuries-old items to create layered, low-key, and character-rich spaces filled with warmth and patina.
And so when she noticed a late-midcentury house for sale not far from one of her client’s homes in a wooded enclave of southwest Connecticut’s Fairfield County, about an hour’s drive from her offices in Tribeca, her curiosity was piqued.
“It’s in a town that really feels like a forest, and the home had [the look] of being really fun. It felt like a party house,” she says of its 1970s leanings. At the same time, the abode seemed very low maintenance and—thanks to the largely open-plan ground floor, vaulted wood ceilings, and tree-filled views—it had warmth and comfort too.
Joo and her husband, Devin, thought it ideal for the gatherings of friends and family that they envisioned hosting. “We didn’t want to worry about stuff getting messed up,” she emphasizes. What’s more, the space also successfully brings a sense of the outdoors in, while incorporating her various antique and artisan finds. In other words, it “is everything I like, all put together”—which is, of course, exactly what one’s home should be.
If there’s a room Joo likes more than any other, it’s the kitchen. “I cook, and my favorite thing is to have people over,” says the designer, who wanted to ensure that guests could occupy the space with her. That meant she needed it to be as welcoming as possible: “Somewhere people could relax, that wouldn’t feel too functional—a space you could hang in.”
The existing kitchen was something of a blank box, so she started from scratch, adding elements to warm things up, sometimes literally (like the big Ilve stove). Throughout the space, plastered walls, all-wood Shaker-style cabinetry, and crown molding painted in Hardwick White and Shadow White, both from Farrow & Ball, were added, along with tons of vintage pieces. The four-legged counter stools and Moroccan carpets, which flank the massive custom oak island, recall old country kitchens.
While those nods to traditional design might sound like they would be at odds with the house’s modern architecture, Joo didn’t see that as a problem. “I always love contrast…something so contemporary and something so traditional working together.”
That something-old, something-new mix can be seen throughout the house, and on occasion even within a single piece of furniture. In the living room, for example, newly added vintage brass legs and a glass top turned an early-20th-century watercolor-painted Chinese screen into a coffee table that nestles into the clean-lined, low-slung custom corner sofa she designed. And, in the dining room, an RH table, big enough to seat fourteen people, anchors an assortment of mismatched vintage chairs. “I’ve been holding on to them for a while,” Joo says of some particularly special 19th-century Chinese chairs. “I’ve never been able to use them because I didn’t have enough. Now was the perfect time.”
Outfitting this house also proved to be the ideal opportunity for Joo to indulge her love of playful color—something her clients don’t always share. Case in point? Los Angeles–based painter Skylar Hughes. “He was here for two weeks, hiking around, taking in the natural surroundings, and getting really inspired by them,” Joo fondly recalls. He then created the abstracted forest scene that enlivens the more child-friendly of the guest bedrooms, echoing and embellishing the sylvan view outside. Finishing the space are hand-thrown organically shaped ceramic pots by Joo’s friend Jenny Min, which sit on the headboard of the custom red-lacquered bed. (Other Min vessels adorn the kitchen, primary bathroom, dining room, and dressing room.)
“I wanted this house to just feel really lived in, really comfortable, and to be family-oriented,” says Joo. “A lot of the time, my projects are very linear, very curated. But my own style is more relaxed.”