We originally learned of a unique potential interior design project two years ago. A lovely woman was in our store and she mentioned the perfect project for us—to redesign the original boyhood bedroom of Ernest Hemingway as a distinctive guest room in her Oak Park home. We were thrilled at the prospect. The conversation was left with, “We’ll be in touch.”
A year later, we hadn’t heard back, but we never forgot that conversation. Without any contact information, we began our own search to locate the homeowner and find that room. First we visited the Hemingway birth house, assuming that this could be the place, but came to discover that the home Hemingway was actually raised in was right down the street. The boyhood house was formerly owned by the Hemingway Foundation and then sold to Kurt and Mary Jane Neumann in 2012.
We managed to obtain the address, and we found Mary Jane right in front of her house. Luckily for us, she remembered our conversation and was thrilled that we were so interested in pursuing the project. As faith would have it, the International Hemingway Convention was due to be held in Oak Park for the first time in July of 2016 and the boyhood home would serve to host the after party following the Hemingway Foundation Fundraiser. This was a perfect opportunity to redo the room in time for the event.
The couple, who are both great Hemingway enthusiasts, restored the home beautifully throughout. Mary Jane, who serves as a board member for The Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, said that she could not have anticipated how much the house would enrich their lives. Ernest’s bedroom is located on the third floor of the house. With partially pitched ceilings and a dormer facing south, one can imagine a boy growing into a young man in this space. The bones were good, but the ceiling and walls were in rough condition with some peeling paint in a tan color. We started with this as our backdrop to the stage that would become the story of the room. We had the walls and ceiling skim coated to an ultra smooth finish so no imperfections were in sight. We wrapped the room in gleaming Benjamin Moore Silver Cloud to create an infinite, continuous atmosphere in the space. The color merges the original architecture of the room with a fresh attitude.
We knew that the room’s history was paramount to the project. Hemingway had to be present, but we were not interested in trying to recreate what the room may have looked like in 1915. Rather, our goal was to design a modern and distinctive guest room in the spirit of a boutique hotel that would embody elements inspired by various parts of Hemingway’s life. The homeowners agreed completely.
Our original sketches included a large painting of a yacht to emphasize the headboard and create verticality in the room. Hemingway’s famous Wheeler yacht, Pilar, from 1934 was chosen for the painting. We commissioned Chicago artist and illustrator, Shayne Taylor to create this monumental piece. Yearbook worked closely with the artist on the composition and directing the painterly style we were after. It was important to capture the yacht in an artistic style that would feel original to the period.
The bed, by Mitchell Gold, has classic, clean lines with an upholstered headboard in a natural weave. The design is both contemporary and classic, which allowed us to incorporate a blending of ideas in the bedding derived from Bohemian Parisian hotels of the 1920s, seaside homes and Native American trade blanket patterns.
We designed two simple identical shelving units to serve as bedside tables. The shelves were drawn specifically to recall the many bookshelves throughout Hemingway’s home in Havana, Cuba. We had to scale them carefully to house books on two shelves with a table height that would align perfectly with the mattress, offering both functionality and an ultra custom built-in look. The shelves were painted in a putty color with a gloss finish to contrast against the walls. The lamps on the two shelves are by Robert Abbey. We wanted contemporary designs with a mid-century vibe. Originally, we thought of low, round shapes for these lamps, but once we were further into the project, it was clear that tall, distinctive linear forms were ideal. The black tripod bases with brass detailing provided crisp contrast to the walls and anchored the artworks above in a stately, yet relaxed attitude.
The main lighting throughout the room is primarily brass. The picture lights and the ceiling fixture are by Thomas O’brien. We wanted a continuous, ambient glow to surround the room, so we used these fixtures as architectural lamp posts to punctuate the perimeter of the space and incorporated charming lamps on the barrister, next to the armchair on both sides, and on the desk.
Accessories were carefully chosen to harken to travel and adventures, but we did not want the room to feel ‘theme-based’. It was important to create visual interest with a sense of wonder without feeling commercial or predictable. We chose a short stack of matching vintage suitcases near the bed to serve as a platform for an original wooden sailboat that was handmade by a father and son from the Ohio Yacht Club during the 1940s. A steamer trunk serves as a table next to the armchair which is accessorized with a throw pillow made from an original Red Cross Army blanket from World War I. A 1920s Underwood typewriter, similar to a model Hemingway would have used, is on the desk. A series of small vintage clocks are sprinkled throughout the room, vintage ivory pottery and select picture frames completed the look.
The draperies were custom-made to resemble those from a 1930s men’s college dormitory room. We chose Ralph Lauren Hawthorne Plaid wool and had the drapes finished with pinch pleats. To go with the dormitory style, we had them finished just below the window sill, rather than to the floor. We chose a large contemporary rug from West Elm to anchor the entire room.
Other details include several throw pillows on the bed which were custom-made by Yearbook Studios, blankets by Faribault Woolen Mill and an original 1920s Army blanket at the end of the bed. And of course, we brought in plenty of Hemingway novels to fill bookcases.
We were honored to design this unique space for Mary Jane and Kurt. While it is nearly impossible to know what this room looked like when Ernest was growing up, we can only imagine a young Hemingway awake at night, sitting at the window and looking to a star-covered Oak Park sky, envisioning where his journeys might take him. Even he wouldn’t have imagined what was in-store. We hope our guest room can take those who are lucky enough to stay there to an inspired, magical place—if even for only just one night.