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Design

This Chicago Designer Turned Her Historic Townhouse Into a Floral Explosion

Everything's coming up roses.

July 8, 2021
With just five months to turn her family’s turn-of-the-century Chicago townhouse into a bright, liveable home, designer Jenny Holladay pulls out her floral-embellished bag of tricks—courtesy of her mentor, Summer Thornton.

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“I love crusty old homes!” declares Chicago designer Jenny Holladay. While the Lincoln Park home that she shares with her husband, Whit, and two young children, ages six and three, is indeed old—the building dates back to the late 1880s—it is by no means crusty. In fact, it’s positively bursting at the seams with a garden’s worth of botanical prints in a spectrum of hues that might as well have been specifically prescribed as an antidote to the city’s famously long, dreary winters.
Holladay climbs to new heights in her unabashedly glam closet (wearing an Agua by Agua Bendita skirt). Roman shade in Wisteria Vine by Schumacher.Francesco Lagnese
An eight-year veteran of Summer Thornton Design, Holladay found herself in possession of the four-bedroom Victorian as the result of an assiduous house-hunting campaign. Determined to find a home in Lincoln Park that maintained its turn-of-the-century charm—“that gave me that jittery feeling inside of excitement and potential,” as she puts it—Holladay began dropping letters in the mailboxes of several promising-looking homes, asking if their owners might be willing to sell. When one wrote back, Holladay leapt to secure the property, which checked off many of her wish list items, like original plaster moldings and grand stone mantels. A few badly needed structural updates—the floors, electrical wiring and plumbing were in a sorry state—would be a small price to pay, she thought.
A lot of times, you see linear florals in dining rooms or foyers, but I thought it would be more interesting to do it in a living room,” says Holladay of the Pyne Hollyhock. The Neo-Grecian chandelier from Vintage Hardware was chosen because it “felt like an old gasolier fixture that would have been in the house originally.” Curtains in Lange Glazed Linen by Schumacher. Wicker urns by Mainly Baskets.Francesco Lagnese
The butterflies quickly turned to pure nerves when Holladay learned that she only had five months to pull off the renovation: Unbeknownst to her, her husband had gone ahead and sold their existing condo. “There was no discussion of a timeline—he’s in finance, so he didn’t really understand what would go into a project like this,” Holladay laughs. “I still give him a hard time about it!”
Luckily, Holladay had the tool kit to pull it off, having worked alongside Thornton on numerous high-profile projects in historic homes. “I knew exactly who to call to build my cabinets and fix my plumbing and all of those other crucial things, thanks to her,” Holladay explains. She also credits Thornton with the design ethos she came to live by: When in doubt, just add pattern. And more pattern. And maybe another pattern, for good measure.
Holladay’s three-year-old son Whit dashes through the foyer. The Slim Aarons print hanging above is titled, appropriately enough, “French Holiday.”Francesco Lagnese
“Summer taught me that pattern just brings so much life into a space,” says Holladay, who took a no-holds-barred approach to deploying them in her own home, where eye-catching motifs play a starring role in nearly every room, from the front hall to the third-floor closet. The unabashedly bold blue-and-white Pyne Hollyhock wallpaper in the living room (“I knew I wanted to use it before I even had a house!” says Holladay) is the backdrop to chintz-covered chairs and tiger-print pillows. In a guest room, the small-scale botanical on the walls plays nicely with a ticking-stripe headboard and gathered ikat lampshades on the bedside tables. When walls are left bare, ceilings received Holladay’s pattern-happy treatment: A busy floral wallcovering pulls the eye upward in the white-walled foyer, while a whimsical raspberry-hued border of animals and palm trees highlights the existing millwork in her daughter’s room. (That attention to the “fifth wall” is yet another Thornton signature, the designer notes.)

While the mix has a certain amount of mad-granny feel to it, Holladay was careful not to venture too far over the threshold that separates eclectic from eccentric. “I didn’t want it to become precious—the idea was to create a happy, colorful home that’s filled with hope and life and energy,” explains the designer. To add verve to the old-fashioned florals, she relied on gutsy, unexpected colors: fuchsia velvet for a bullion-fringed sofa, lavender paint on the dining room walls, pitch-black trim in the main bath. There’s plenty of traditional brown furniture, some of it actually inherited from Holladay’s grandmother and great-grandmother (“I think every room needs a bit of brown furniture to make it feel collected and authentic,” she states), incorporated with mid-century finds, like a set of vintage French dining chairs and a 1960s Carl Fagerlund for Orrefors chandelier, to break up the period feel. Holladay’s art choices, too, are part of a carefully considered strategy to lighten the mood: For every heavy gilt mirror hanging on the walls, you’ll find pieces of the pop art and Slim Aarons variety alongside them.
As a reward to herself for whipping the house into shape in just five short months, Holladay indulged in an unabashedly feminine walk-in closet, carved from a onetime “office-slash-junk room” next to the main bedroom. Open shelving on one side shows off her (unsurprisingly) colorful, pattern-filled wardrobe; cabinets on the other hold her husband’s. Liberal doses of brass hardware and lighting sparkle like vintage costume jewelry. An oft-used rolling library ladder allows the couple to take advantage of every square inch of space, all the way up to the marbleized-paper ceiling.
Lacking the space for full-size built-in vanities, Holladay (wearing pajamas by J.Crew) transformed a pair of shallow vintage dressers with marble tops in the main bath. Bathtub by Vintage Tub & Bath.Francesco Lagnese
No room is off-limits to the family’s youngest members, though: The profusion of color and pattern hides a multitude of sins. The finished result, says Holladay, “feels in tune with my more formal design tendencies, but isn’t so fussy that our three- year-old couldn’t eat Goldfish crackers on our sofa. It turns out that florals make great camoflague!”

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