Date: April 3, 2022 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Rett Peek | Styling: Stephanie Maxwell Newton |
Family collections and thrifted finds bring meaning and style to a central Arkansas designer’s home
Jen and Ben Bienvenu were not looking to move from their downtown Little Rock residence when they found a stately property for sale in Cammack Village. The couple initially considered it too much square footage for their family of four; however, as the house sat on the market and the price continued to drop, they started to imagine the possibilities. “I love puzzles, whether that’s arranging a shelf or piecing together a floor plan, and I think this home wasn’t selling because people had a hard time seeing past that moment in time when it was last remodeled,” Jen says. “When you’re buying a house, you either get to renovate yourself or you pay for someone else’s renovation. My dad worked in construction, and Ben’s parents are an architect and interior designer. We’ve always been on the same page that if it’s got four walls, you can do anything,” she says.
The Bienvenus are typically drawn to the high ceilings and character of older homes, and this one—built in the 1950s, with a kitchen renovation and second story addition in the ’90s—is the newest they’ve lived in. So when Jacob White Construction Company came on to make updates, it was important to keep a sense of the home’s history. Starting in the main living spaces, they replaced pocket doors and walls with cased openings, which maintain separation of the rooms while improving the flow.
They also addressed the function of each room. For example, the Bienvenus designated the original dining room as a casual lounge. Its crystal chandelier moved to the former living room to create a large, open dining space perfect for entertaining. A custom mix of “Peach Brandy” by Benjamin Moore coats the walls and plays off the terracotta flooring in the kitchen. Here and throughout the rest of the house, the décor is imbued with personality thanks to Jen and Ben’s unique collections—many of which are tied to places they’ve lived or visited together. With an updated floor plan, classic finishes, and mix of new and old furnishings, the home embodies historic charm in a whole new light.
Jen fell in love with one of the home’s original features as soon as she set foot in the front door: the black-and-white checkered floor. She and Ben made the entry their own with a Japanese screen hung as art. “It fills a large wall and gives the feel of a mural without the expense,” Jen says. While this home does not have a front porch overhang suitable for a haint blue ceiling, the Bienvenus brought that Southern tradition indoors to the foyer.
“I love being a part of a property’s history—part of the story of all the renovations that take place over a century or so.” —Jen Bienvenu
As in the dining room, a sisal-blend carpet provides neutral ground in the living space. “We collect a lot of plates and traditional furnishings, so the sisal tones down the more traditional aspects,” Jen says, noting a pair of coral velvet arm chairs from Anthropologie have a similar effect. On the coffee table, an antique typesetter drawer holds a growing assemblage of natural wonders gathered by the family.
In the kitchen, the pièce de résistance is a stunning French La Cornue range. “Had we not had the chance to renovate, it wouldn’t have been a possibility,” Jen says. The countertops are ‘Black Mist’ granite in a leathered finish, a practical choice that mimics soapstone at a more economical price point. The couple’s copper collection stands out against marble tile laid in a traditional subway pattern.
Jen and Ben wanted a new kitchen layout but were taken with the warmth of the terracotta underfoot. There were many discussions about how to match the tiles that would inevitably be missing when the existing U-shaped island was removed, but as luck would have it, the flooring underneath was completely intact. “Of course the tile that was under the original island did not age, and if you look closely you can tell, but that’s part of what we love—being able to see traces of what was before,” Jen says.
Originally the home’s dining space, a small room between the front and back entries now serves as a casual lounge with midcentury appeal. “Having a record player in this room set the vibe, and it made sense to use a more modern style of chair and pay homage to that time,” Jen says. In selecting paints, she followed Jacob’s advice to “pick five colors and stick to them.” The muted green of the kitchen cabinets is repeated here and in the office for continuity. The back stairwell which has access to the backyard, kitchen, and two stories of windows, is the perfect location for a potting station.
In the office, Jen and Ben’s collections of natural wonders make the room feel like a cabinet of curiosities. “We’ve always been fascinated by specimens and the outside world; it was just a natural progression to start collecting those things ourselves,” Jen says. She brought home the zebra-print wingback from a local antique mall as a reminder of Ben’s time in Uganda.
Bold colors and vintage furnishings bring storybook charm to 2-year-old George’s bedroom. With the red-and-blue palette, Jen was able to incorporate Euro shams from her own childhood bed, and a cat-shaped footstool plays to George’s love of felines. “I saw that in a booth at Fabulous Finds and knew he needed it,” Jen says. “It’s a great size because he can also climb up onto it. The elementary teacher in me is always thinking about what we can put in kids’ rooms that they can interact with.”
In George’s bathroom, the existing cabinetry was retained and the rest of the space updated with coordinating marble tile, classic brass hardware, white ‘Cararra’ countertops, and the same light blue paint color as his bedroom.
A palette of pink, green, and yellow brings a cheerful air to 5-year-old Jane’s bedroom. “She’s so full of life and energy, and she was very adamant about painting her room pink,” Jen says. “We chose a lighter shade that could serve as a backdrop for changing décor when she’s a teenager.” The scene over the bed is a 1970s piece purchased from South Main Creative.
THRILL OF THE HUNT
Jen shares a retail space with John Bell of Sweet Home Furnishings and Chris Clement of clement in Little Rock’s SoMa neighborhood. Whether shopping for home or store, here are her tips for finding true gems.
Before shopping, consider what you already have. “Sometimes you can get hung up on an item’s intended use. We try to think, What do we have and how could we repurpose it?” the designer says.
Search the Sales
Estate sales are well-known founts of vintage finds. Jen’s advice? “A lot of people don’t take the time to go through the garage, and there are lots of treasures there that get missed because people want to see the swanky furniture.”
Searching takes perseverance. When visiting charity shops, you might need to spend more time looking, but the price is always right. “You never know what you’re going to find or why someone might have been getting rid of something.”
Follow the Leaders
Vintage malls and antiques stores have curated their selections, meaning what you find has already been vetted for quality. Jen’s favorites, of course, are Sweet Home Furnishings & clement. “Our decorating and style is so influenced by them; every room has a piece of their touch in it.”
Place a Bid
Look to local online auctions, eBay, and even Instagram for flash sales, and keep an open mind. “When you’re buying something vintage, it might not always be perfect, but ask yourself, Can I live with this? If you can, it’s a great find.”
Contractor Jacob White, Jacob White Construction Company Interior design Jen Bienvenu, J. Bienvenu Interiors Accessories, art, and furniture Fabulous Finds, J. Bienvenu Interiors, Midtown Vintage, Roy Dudley Estate Sales, Sweet Home Furnishings & clement, South Main Creative Cabinetry, millwork, and painting Jacob White Construction Company Carpet, flooring, and tile ProSource of Little Rock Countertops Triton Stone Group Fireplace A-1 Chimney Pro, Inc. Fixtures J. Bienvenu Interiors Hardware Kaufman By Design West Lighting J. Bienvenu Interiors, Kaufman By Design West, Roy Dudley Estate Sales, The Shade Above, and Sweet Home Furnishings & clement Mirrors J. Bienvenu Interiors and West Little Rock Glass Paint Benjamin Moore Rugs J. Bienvenu Interiors, ProSource of Little Rock, and South Main Creative Window coverings Budget Blinds of West Little Rock and J. Bienvenu Interiors