A designer combines her love of community, cooking and secondhand finds to create a thriving business and blog in Omaha.
When it comes to living the good life with sustainability and style in mind, Jessica McKay of Birdhouse Interior Design wrote the book…or the blog, as the case may be. Her blog COOP, written and edited by herself, husband Christopher Van Buskirk and a handful of contributors, is “all about dropping pretense, getting our hands dirty and still enjoying the finer things in life,” a philosophy that’s helped Jessica build a thriving community of artists, artisans, cooks and writers, as well as a bustling interior design business, in the heart of Omaha, Nebraska.
In a way, Jessica’s life today came about because of ties she built within the community. Raised in New Mexico, Jessica came to Omaha after graduating college with degrees in art and sociology. She met her husband, Christopher, and the two bought a 1910 American Foursquare home in a historic neighborhood. “It needed love,” Jessica says. “It had been partially renovated in the ’60s and it was so bad. We completely renovated it and restored it to its former glory.”
The reinvigorated home was put on a home tour, and people started asking how she had done various parts of the house. “I started helping people, and then I started a design blog to chronicle what I was doing,” she says. Jessica fell in love with helping others see how they could renovate their spaces, and she realized it was what she wanted to do full time. She and Christopher sold their home—at 2,400 square feet and three stories, it was much more space than they could use—and used the money to buy a 1½-story brick Tudor home and launch Jessica’s business, Birdhouse Interior Design.
At Birdhouse, Jessica puts to work a love of vintage and one-of-a-kind pieces, a predilection inspired by her mother. “I’m lucky because my mother has great taste, and in my family we have always had cool antiques,” Jessica says. “I would go to auctions with her once in a while, and I always liked that. I like the history of things.”
As her fledgling business got off the ground, Jessica discovered that her taste for the well-patinaed became the lynchpin to her design aesthetic. Before she got into professional design, she chose secondhand because it was easy on the budget, she says. “Then I started realizing it adds so much more personality and character to the space when you mix in those pieces because they feel more one-of-a-kind,” she says. Now when she takes on a new project, her first step is to visit the house to see what the clients have, figure out the design direction, then determine which things they already own that can work. “Either I’ll push clients to keep something they already have and reupholster it or paint it or rework it somehow, or I’ll find really great-quality vintage pieces,” she says.
She also helps create custom pieces for her projects, a task made possible by her well-established network of local artists and artisans. Around the same time she opened her design firm, Jessica and Christopher leased a small studio space in an up-and-coming part of downtown Omaha, where graphic designers, photographers and designers could showcase their work. Jessica had already started renovating secondhand furniture finds. “It was kind of a small showroom,” she says. “We kept some of the furniture we had revamped there, and we would host local art shows.”
Although she and Christopher gave up the studio as her design firm grew, it proved a solid long-term investment. Today, Jessica often turns to her relationships with artists and artisans to create custom pieces—often made of reclaimed materials—for clients’ projects. “I’ve found some really amazing furniture makers locally,” she says. “They go all around Nebraska and Iowa when people are tearing things down, then we come up with a design together of something cool we can create or an installation. We did this ombre wood wall in a commercial conference room recently. We’ve made tables and all kinds of stuff. I’m very interested in creating in that way.”
Jessica also does a lot of shopping for vintage pieces, either specifically for projects she’s working on or for gems she knows she’ll use in the future. She says finding high-quality vintage pieces is becoming easier all the time thanks to an increase in secondhand stores and constant access to items nationwide via eBay and Craigslist. The secondhand buying bug and a design business that makes good use of the bounty means Jessica rarely says no to an amazing find. “I constantly have stuff I buy for myself or with the idea of reworking them for clients,” she says. “Our basement is full of old furniture that just needs a little bit of love.”
Much as Jessica found the path to design via friends and family connections, her husband Christopher returned to his roots with a career change several years ago. Formerly employed in the financial industry, Christopher grew up spending lots of time in the kitchen in his hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa. “His family grew up cooking a lot and it’s a really big deal for them,” Jessica says. “They like to gather, and food is a fun way to share. His mother has cataloged decades’ worth of family recipes, and his father has always baked breads on the side as a hobby.”
Having inherited his dad’s knack for baking, Christopher had been a hobbyist bread baker for years. After the financial crash in 2008 left him without a job, he started focusing more and more on his culinary interests, finally deciding to take a few classes and make it a profession. Today, he works at Ferd’s Bake Shop in Omaha’s Broadmoor Market and is in culinary school.
Christopher and Jessica’s shared love for food and cooking also led them to garden. Several years ago, Christopher’s bread-baking hobby spawned their first attempts at growing their own food in a culinary herb garden. “Christopher was starting to make herb breads, and herbs are so expensive and it seemed so wasteful when you go to the store and buy that package that dies in a second,” Jessica says. “So we started planting containers on the side of the house so we had fresh herbs.”
The two loved the fresh ingredients and the money they saved, so when they moved into their second house, which had a gigantic backyard with nothing in it, they decided to expand the garden. “We liked the idea of trying to put in a vegetable garden,” Jessica says. “It helps us live more within our means and it tastes better.” They now grow tomatoes, lettuce, jalapeños (“I’m from New Mexico so I have to have some spice!” Jessica says), radishes, garlic, scallions, raspberries and strawberries, along with a large container herb garden. They also have a backyard coop and chickens, which provide them with fresh eggs Jessica describes as “the most delicious things ever.”
As they both grew into new careers, Jessica and Christopher found that they were also growing a strong community of friends with similar interests. “We both love to cook, so that grew into us making up recipes and getting excited to share with other people,” Jessica says. Long dinner parties where guests dined on meals made from garden produce and talked about local art and design became the perfect incubator to hatch a new project. Somewhere between the talk about garden greens and vintage style, Jessica had a vision for a new platform where she and her friends could share some of their ideas. “I had always blogged about design for Birdhouse,” Jessica says. But she liked the idea of extending that experience. “Birdhouse focuses on accessible design and sustainability, and mixing high and low budget-wise, and we like communicating that idea,” Jessica says. Growing vegetables, baking bread, supporting local art, renovating secondhand furnishings, wearing vintage fashion: It all seemed to play into the same theme. “We asked a few people to get together and contribute. It all just kind of came together,” Jessica says.
What’s your favorite piece of art in your home?
I have a painting in the dining room by artist Christina Renfer Vogel. It’s a portrait entitled “Tana.” I love the colors and the shape of the woman’s body. I like that even though she isn’t looking at the audience, the viewer still observes a quiet confidence within her.
What are your most prized vintage clothing items?
I love my mother’s (now mine) navy Calvin Klein pea coat from the ’60s and a little plaid Pendleton jacket I found at a local secondhand clothing store called Scout. And my grandmother’s turquoise jewelry handed down to me.
What’s always in your fridge?
Ketchup, salsa and hummus. I’m a condiments kind of woman.
It’s Saturday at 7 p.m. What are you doing?
I’m either going out to dinner or a movie, or I’m staying in drinking wine and watching Netflix.
What’s a favorite go-to recipe?
Breakfast tacos. Corn tortillas, scrambled eggs, salsa, sour cream and fresh jalapeños from the garden. Easy-breezy and so good.
Who inspires you?
I love the interior design style of Kate and Andy Spade. It’s so layered, with tons of original art and found pieces. I also love the vibe of Emerson Fry. Her style and clothes are chic but edgy. Add in the fact that she and her husband live on a farm with chickens and a huge organic garden, and I basically have a girl crush.
What music do you listen to while you work?
I love music and what I’m listening to changes all the time. If I want to get pumped up I’ve been listening to “Settle Down” by No Doubt, “Warrior” by Kimbra, and “Royals” by Lorde. For easy-going inspiration activities, I’ve been listening to the band Cayucas. For moments of concentration I like the composer Ludovico Einaudi.
An admirer of those who creatively reuse materials from the past, Jessica Kellner is the author of a book about homes built with reclaimed materials, Housing Reclaimed: Sustainable Homes for Next to Nothing.
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