There’s a joyful, exotic-bazaar energy about Erin and Jesse Fearins’ Cobble Hill apartment, bursting with color, texture, pattern, and lovingly accumulated objects. Erin’s watchwords for her family’s space: welcoming and cozy. “We don’t care if things ‘go together,’” she says. Animals are everywhere: two hugging monkeys on a lamp base, a ceramic zebra filled with tulips, a crab ashtray, a bull’s head made of straw. Art hung salon style ranges from framed maps and butterflies to portraits found at flea markets and an antique Chinese artwork in a padded frame, purchased long ago at a now-defunct live auction house. “Nobody was bidding on it and that made me sad, so I bought it,” she says.
Erin, a founder and principal designer at Studio SFW, a recently minted Manhattan architecture and interiors firm, and Jesse, an architect and partner at The Brooklyn Studio (formerly CWB Architects), met in the ‘90s as students at the University of Tennessee and married in 2001. Erin is the collector-in-chief. She’s a regular on Etsy and eBay and the LiveAuctioneers website, “which is an addiction I have to keep in check.” They are also fans of the old-school road trip. “I map out vintage and junk shops wherever we go,” Erin says. “There are about eight places in Sarasota, Fla., and great little antique shops in Tennessee I visit when I’m home to see family. Same in Maryland when we visit Jesse’s family.”
Whenever they travel abroad, whether for work or vacation, they acquire. Nothing fancy, nothing precious, as Erin puts it. “I love pieces that evoke a memory of the place we found it, or the person who gave it to us.” They’ve bought woven reed animals in Spain, cool mod clothing in Denmark, Italian glass, Icelandic woolcraft. “When we went to India in 2013,” she recalls, “we bought so much brass — trays, animals, a chain for a garden swing — we had to repack all our bags on the floor of Cochin International Airport. Every suitcase was overweight.”
The three-bedroom condo the couple shares with their two children in an historic Victorian brick building complex measures 1,115 square feet, every one of which the Fearins make work. They moved in as renters in 2015 and subsequently bought the unit. Each summer, when Willa, 12, and Avery, 9, are at “grandparent camp” on the eastern shore of Maryland, they embark on renovation. One year it was a new marble wall and high-gloss burgundy cabinets in the open kitchen. They also added floor-to-ceiling millwork in the living room, and another year wrapped their bedroom in built-ins of gleaming forest green, all designed by Jesse to maximize storage.
Even so, the space is not large enough to contain the multitudes Erin would like to collect. Luckily, she has a safety valve — House SFW, a year-round shop filled with colorful, appealing home furnishings and accessories in Rhinebeck, N.Y., which Erin runs with architects Rachael Stollar and Ward Welch, her partners in the two-year-old Studio SFW. (They opened the studio in 2020 and store in 2021.) “The great thing about the store,” Erin says, “is we can enjoy buying stuff we don’t have room for in our own homes.”
The three SFW partners were colleagues at CWB Architects until 2020, when they amicably left the firm and started their new ventures. “We realized the projects the three of us worked on together felt the most fulfilling,” Erin says. They started Studio SFW with “a few great clients” they’d worked with before, and their roster quickly grew. Now they have ongoing projects in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Montauk, Columbia County, and Palm Beach. Each is highly personal. “We get down and deep and draw out those things that make our clients happy, that are specific to them,” Erin says. “I’ve always been anti- making it about a certain look or style. That’s how designers get famous, but for us it’s about what would make our clients feel good. What’s the point of design unless it makes you happy?”
The Fearins approach their own home the same way, except, says Erin, “We have no budget — that’s the main difference.” She is the primary collector; Jesse calls his role “editorial.” “I don’t have a strong attachment to many things individually. I trust Erin’s judgment on what comes and what goes. And she listens when I do have a strong point of view on something.”
Both members of the couple grew up on farms, he in eastern Maryland, where his grandparents lived in an old school building complete with bell, and Erin in rural Tennessee, where her father, a skilled cabinetmaker, was “a massive collector,” she says. “He built entire buildings to house his vintage car and oil memorabilia, a replica service station, a barber shop, and a soda shop behind the house I grew up in, packed with stuff on the walls and hanging from the ceiling.” Also on the property: a woodworking shop and a log cabin he and Erin’s mother “dismantled from an adjacent farm a few miles away and rebuilt next to our house.” And windmills. “They used to buy windmills, dismantle, and rebuild them too — I’ve never quite figured that one out.”
Clearly, the collecting impulse is genetic. Erin’s dad passed away last year. “I think of him anytime I’m wading through a junk shop in search of treasure,” she says. “It was a bit of an eccentric childhood, I guess, that led me to today.”
[Photos by Lesley Unruh | Styling by Heather Greene]
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Brownstoner magazine.