Family and Art are the Focus in This Cozy Forest Hills Abode

Family and Art are the Focus in This Cozy Forest Hills Abode

The Jociuses made good use of the added space in their new home, letting their passions for food and art drive its design and decor

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The Jociuses spend a lot of time in the backyard of their Forest Hills home playing basketball and grilling, but the front yard has a very specific appeal.
The Jociuses spend a lot of time in the backyard of their Forest Hills home playing basketball and grilling, but the front yard has a very specific appeal.

Leann and Gavin Jocius’ roomy Forest Hills home is both sprawling and intimate, seemingly an impossibility. It’s why they love it. “Despite having 4,500 square feet, it feels really cozy,” Leann says.

That’s because they moved in with a game plan: Carve out an everyday family area, use it to the max and let the rest become functional accessory. They were moving from just a few neighborhoods over, where “we had an open-concept kitchen and living room that we weren’t willing to give up,” Leann says. The Jocius brood was expanding – daughter Lyra, now 4 years old, would soon be joined by her sister, Jett, now 16 months old – and they needed more bedrooms; they found a house with the space and set to recreating the kitchen and living area.

Lyra advocated for pink walls, but Leann talked her into the “more sustainable” choice of green. It matches with pink for now but will match other colors later, too. Lyra loves having a room “big enough that she can do cartwheels.”
Lyra advocated for pink walls, but Leann talked her into the “more sustainable” choice of green. It matches with pink for now but will match other colors later, too. Lyra loves having a room “big enough that she can do cartwheels.”

“For us, there were three big things,” Gavin, the executive vice president of Great Big Canvas, explains. “Leann cooks; we wanted a great entertaining space. We have kids; we wanted a place for them to play outside. And I sell art and collect art, so I wanted to have wall space.” With a few architectural tweaks and a healthy dose of design sense, they made the paradox happen.

Focal Point

“We bought this house on the condition of the kitchen renovation,” Leann says. Despite plenty of square footage, the home’s original kitchen was dated and enclosed. As a passionate cook – she founded the recipe blog Bull City Food – limited kitchen space wasn’t an option. Despite an open doorway into the living room, the kitchen also felt unnecessarily isolated. “You couldn’t see from the kitchen into the living room,” Leann says. “With small children, that was going to be a problem for me.”

"This was my baby," Leann says, gesturing at the island in the kitchen. Well, besides her actual babies: The Jociuses designed the kitchen when Leann was pregnant with Jett. “It was a little nerve-racking making major decisions when pregnant,” Leann recalls. “You’re warned to not even change your hairstyle, and I’m making permanent construction decisions. Fortunately, I still like everything.”
“This was my baby,” Leann says, gesturing at the island in the kitchen. Well, besides her actual babies: The Jociuses designed the kitchen when Leann was pregnant with Jett. “It was a little nerve-racking making major decisions when pregnant,” Leann recalls. “You’re warned to not even change your hairstyle, and I’m making permanent construction decisions. Fortunately, I still like everything.”

They decided to bring in a pro, which they found in architect Douglas Janes. He recommended removing a sunken living room feature and opening up the ceiling to make the kitchen, dining area and living room feel like one large space. Rather than have a stairway in the thick of it all, they added a definitively hip spiral version in the corner. “We were able to open it up and have that open concept that everyone wants.”

Sure enough, the family spends most of their time hanging out in the space – snacking and chatting while Leann cooks dinner or watching a movie after the girls go to bed. “That’s why we did that work,” Leann says. “We knew we would spend a lot of time in that room, and we do.”

“Our [spiral staircase] is solid oak with stained wood. It’s now a piece of art in its own right.”

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“It’s funny the things you do when you become a homeowner.” – Leann, on “going down a rabbit hole” researching spiral staircase options

Setting the Tone

While the family nook is cozy quite literally by design, it’s amped up by its interior decor. At Great Big Canvas, Gavin and his team work diligently to make art accessible and to offer something for everybody. The Jocius household is the perfect example: a gallery of Gavin’s modern-urban taste. In the den, skateboards painted by contemporary artist Damien Hirst set a street-art theme, which is followed with what looks like abstract photos in an adjoining sitting room. “They’re photos by Chris Hadfield, who was the commander of the International Space Station,” Gavin clarifies. “As he was orbiting earth, he took all of these amazing photos in space. We reached out to him and asked to license his photos. This is Australia, and it’s the very first one of his photos we printed.”

“He’s into art. I’m more of a family photos person,” Leann says, hence the numerous canvases bearing the smiling faces of the couple and their children.
“He’s into art. I’m more of a family photos person,” Leann says, hence the numerous canvases bearing the smiling faces of the couple and their children.

The foyer is filled with street artist renderings of women from across the world, including a commissioned portrait of Lyra by Parisian street artist Christian Guémy. It’s a funky but cohesive approach, each room a foray into a different interest. Gavin says he’s loved having the space to spread out and display his art, and plans to continue a lifetime of collecting.

The foyer contains street artist renderings of global women as well as a commissioned portrait of Lyra by Parisian street artist Christian Guemy.
The foyer contains street artist renderings of global women as well as a commissioned portrait of Lyra by Parisian street artist Christian Guemy.

True to Gavin’s company philosophy, though, is the integration of art in every sense of the word. “He’s into art. I’m more of a family photos person,” Leann says. Which is where having a husband who prints canvases for a living comes in handy. “A canvas makes photos look so much more polished and art-like.” The main living room – the one attached to the kitchen – bears family photos in various canvas sizes on the walls. It’s genuinely a room to celebrate their family.

Lyra adds to the display space, too, by frequently contributing to her own personal gallery wall. Layers of drawings, paintings, glittered creations and feather-bedecked portraits by their older daughter cover a substantial connecting sheath. “Between it all, we get more artwork than we can possibly display,” Leann says with a laugh.

Lyra obviously inherited her parents’ love for design; she has her own gallery wall where she displays various artistic creations.
Lyra obviously inherited her parents’ love for design; she has her own gallery wall where she displays various artistic creations.

‘Forever Home’

Leann’s mom, Ginny Widmark, lives right down the street, so visits with the grandkids are easy and frequent.
Leann’s mom, Ginny Widmark, lives right down the street, so visits with the grandkids are easy and frequent.

Having perfected the interior doesn’t mean the Jociuses neglect being out of doors. Leann grew up in Forest Hills and marvels at the full-circle chance to raise her own kids just down the road from her mother. For Leann, there’s no place like home, but Gavin is a convert. The two met at Duke, and Lyra was born
in Durham, but they weren’t committed to putting down roots yet. “We looked at packing up and moving,” Gavin says. “We were thinking about [my native] Canada; we were thinking about cross-country. And then we were like, ‘Why? Durham is affordable. There are jobs. There’s family.’”

Forest Hills represents everything they most love about the area. “We’re a five-minute walk from downtown, and we can also walk to Nana’s and bring the kids to Nanataco,” Gavin says. “There are deer in the backyard. There’s a city beaver in the creek across the street. We see wildlife all the time – Leann’s sister lives in Hillsborough, and we see just as much nature and wildlife as she does. We have just as many trees.”

It’s the whole package: a home base for a budding chef and hostess and an avid art collector. “We’re not going anywhere,” Leann says. “This is our forever home.”


Photography by Briana Brough.
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Jessie Ammons
Jessie is a former Durham Mag editor-turned freelance culture writer based in Chapel Hill. She tends to structure her days around a morning cup of coffee and evening glass of wine.