Step Inside The Shippan Point Home of Designer Jill Kirk

Form meets family in the Instagram-worthy renovation of a 1917 Colonial that launched the interior design business of Shippan Point resident Jill Kirk

photography by andrea carson

At the dead end of Shippan Avenue, on the vast expanse of Long Island Sound, one finds the abundant, ever-changing light that has seeped into the visual vocabulary of interior designer Jill Kirk who has made the photo-ready ‘hood her home. Ebullient rays from the sun might be busy making the water dance like flirty, shiny fish; rays refracted by transitory clouds may turn the water into shards of mercury glass; or a low-hanging fog might suggest what it feels like to be trapped inside a cozy woolen sock. Nature’s palette and its rhythm—the fine-tuned economy of the seasons and what they yield—are all the designer seems to need.

Paint swatch by paint swatch, tile sample by tile sample, Kirk has honed a style that one might call radical naturalism, both for its interpretation of exterior surroundings and for its intuition about how the inhabitants of a space will move about—and with how little stuff they will need in order to do so.

In December of 2020, deep in the Covid doldrums, Kirk and her husband, Haddon, bought this dignified fixer-upper, a 1917 Colonial Revival by architect Aymar Embury II. Since their 2014 arrival in Stamford, they had lived only a few blocks away, and having been wooed by the enclave’s foliage, the beachfront, the wide, pedestrian-friendly streets, and the posse of kids on scooters whose ages matched those of their own boys, they decided to stay. The house, designed for an aunt, was the first residential building by Embury, the renowned and versatile designer of the Whitestone, Triborough, and Henry Hudson bridges as well as the Central Park Zoo, Hofstra University and several buildings on the Princeton University campus. Only three families had lived here before the Kirks; in January of 2022, they became the fourth.Taking cues from her family’s twin penchants for music and sport, Kirk ordered a custom maple ping- pong table, hung their guitars, and drenched the walls and ceiling in the color of her dreams, literally.

“The house hadn’t been touched up, and I needed a project,” says the designer, who for the prior 12 years had occasionally renovated or furnished single rooms and whole homes for friends and clients.

Just before closing on the 7,000-square-foot triple-decker that is centered on a level acre, but long before living in it, Kirk established a command post on Instagram (@verplankavedesign) where she garners hundreds of likes for self-deprecating quips about her own maddening meticulosity, snaps of her boys in matching gingham pajamas and surveys that poll her followers on brick sizes and shapes. She also gushes praise for @theexpert, a live video platform where, when experiencing decision-fatigue about a trim or a cabinet pull, she seeks affirmation from leading designers. “They help me stop overthinking things.”

Other essentials include Facebook Marketplace for furniture and decor, and Facebook Groups where she has gathered tips not only on design implementation but also, perhaps more important, on the fundamentals of running a business.

As her journey progressed on, followers  began sending messages with increasing frequency. She fielded requests for paint recommendations and shopping tips. She launched a $350–per room mood-board business in which a client who DMs her for recommendations receives a furniture plan, images and resources. Soon enough, she went from the occasional client of years past to the slate she manages now. Verplank Ave Design was born.

Kirk jokes that she bought the house because of the staircase, a butterfly configuration that lends the first floor its statement-making symmetry—and which brings to mind a future promposal. But it did not meet current code. After replacing “mismatched” details with appropriately scaled custom balusters she painted them the color of wrought iron. The staircase has featured prominently on her feed.

Kirk adheres to the aforementioned pragmatism in the design of her own home, i.e., how will she use the space every day after dinner guests have left and the household returns to its routine. It helps that she has put her sons, ages two, seven, and nine, through a take-no-prisoners style clean-up-after-yourself bootcamp that leaves a homework nook devoid of any trace of Chromebooks or crayons, a kitchen free of stray Cheerios, and bedrooms tidy because her sons fluff their own pillows and tuck in their duvets, nary a Lego in sight.

Ornamentation seems frowned upon yet the sensibility of the spartan space manages to be familiar and warm. Here and there she hangs a large abstract, a small landscape in an antique frame she loves, or a still life with the lighting style of a Vermeer.

Kirk’s reimagining of her home’s original living room is a choice illustration of how she eschews formality. Having foreseen a destiny of stuffy neglect for said space, she converted it into a ping-pong arena—her husband is an avid tennis player—and added musical accompaniments, including a drum kit, guitars, keyboard and a piano, used in impromptu concerts by the Mach 5, her sons’ band.

“Why have another sitting room no one will use?” she says, gesturing toward the massive maple tennis table with an inlaid center line of black-walnut, which was made by a Canadian couple who drove it down from Ontario. In scale and silhouette, the table mirrors the spare plaster mantel Kirk designed to bring the fireplace up to code. Matching benches flank the fireplace, doubling as firewood cubbies.

Paint selection was an odyssey. Ultimately, she landed on a color she had imagined all along; it approximates the gorgeous interior of a slot canyon in southern Utah.

“I’m making old homes work for young families,” says Kirk. “[A house] must [function] differently from how it did 110 years ago.”

Kirk speaks matter-of-factly of having no formal education in interior design. The harbinger to the DIY career in domestic aesthetics, she says, was the raft of unsupervised projects of her youth in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., where she and her sister were raised by their mom, a lobbyist, and where she attended a small girls-only school before studying fine art at Siena College. In fifth or sixth grade, she hung mosquito netting fit for a princess over her bed using glue and a stapler, and carved a flower shape into an apple, dipped it into mustard-colored paint, and used it as a stamp on two dressers, which she says were “very ugly.” Trips to Europe with her mom solidified her interest in architectural lines and the hues of cobblestone streets and terracotta tile.

Kirk is a person with ideas that keep her up at night, imagining how to replicate the richness of an earthen red or fiddling with a stencil for months only to abandon it to paint by hand. She is also one of confidence who knows when to delegate a drawing to a CAD-fluent contractor or when to decline a client whose aesthetic—or affect—is not a fit. As the punch list on her Shippan opus gets shorter, and the list of
@verplankavedesign followers gets longer, odds are she will be bringing her talent and her intuition to an even wider audience.

Tour The House

The Foyer

Though the entry and its butterfly staircase may have been the feature that sold Kirk on the house, she could not have anticipated the vitriol that arose online when, in bringing the staircase up to code, she off-loaded the 10-inches-too-short balusters to an architectural salvage outfit. When the reseller put them online, preservation ideologues uninformed of the danger they posed to the toddler of the house, expressed outrage. Some day, Kirk hopes, the aforementioned toddler will be posing for prom pics on the very same staircase.

Left: A warm alabaster pendant tops the front foyer in the main thoroughfare of the home. Balusters were designed with a nod to designer Rose Uniacke’s London showroom. Right: The black-and-white tile floor is Kirk’s checkerboard twist on a classic harlequin pattern. The pedestal is concrete.

The Kitchen

On most weekends, Kirk’s husband, Haddon, a North Carolinian, dons a toque to feed the family biscuits and gravy for breakfast and braised meats for dinner. “Any other night of the week,” she says, “I’m the one boiling the pasta.”

Left: A black granite island evokes an old apothecary table, which takes the place of a breakfast nook Center: To anchor the aesthetic in the natural world, Kirk chose a deeply veined porcelain for the countertops and backsplash and unlacquered brass for hardware and fixtures. Right: In a pantry that’s out of sight, Kirk hides all things she’d rather not see. She installed shelves to accomodate a judiciously chosen assortment of wares.

The Dining Room

For her dining room, Kirk chose a table and chairs that would not only comfortably accommodate her own family of five but also her mom and her sister’s family who live nearby. “They’re always here,” she says.

From the ping-pong room on one end of the house to the kitchen on the other, one feature of the sprawling Colonial is the open, unobstructed sightline. Mingling tones and textures that flow naturally from space to space was essential.
Left: When choosing paintings and other wall hangings, Kirk waits for inspiration and urges her clients to do the same. She is also willing to create her own. Drawn to its unusual oval shape, she acquired this floral study at a consignment shop. She taped up the flowers she liked, painted over the rest, and then peeled the tape to reveal a trio of voluptuous blooms. It hangs like a punctuation mark between two windows. Right: “I trust my gut instincts on random things,” says Kirk. One such item is the sideboard she purchased from Facebook Marketplace while on a flight between Charleston and New York. “I’m an anxious flyer so this was a good distraction.” In accommodating her mother-in-law’s china, the piece has proven Kirk’s intuition to be on the money. The Winston-Salem print that perfectly pairs with it was gifted by her own mom.

The Whiskey Room

The Whiskey Room, as Kirk calls it, is her happy concession to the man who went along for the Verplank Ave Design ride without a peep. The wet bar was at the heart of a girls’ party she threw in December in honor of Taylor Swift’s birthday. She proved her pours are strong and her hardwood floors are built for dancing.

Right: While lifting it from his car, Kirk’s husband cracked the original stone of the coffee table. She replaced the topper with a rust-colored remnant from Tristone Marble & Granite.
Left: Kirk filled the room with objects imbued with meaning for her husband, like the tennis trophy trays won 40 years apart by him and his father. The cigar is his addition. Right: A photo of the home as it stood in 1919 sits in an ever-changing still-life with family heirlooms, books and bottles of booze. The vibe of the room is cozy cabin meets Manhattan townhouse.

The Ping Pong Room

“The last thing I wanted was a stuffy living room we didn’t use,” says Kirk. Behold the Ping-Pong Room. For its unapologetic service to the family’s lifestyle, the room may have won architect Aymar Embury’s approval.

Taking cues from her family’s twin penchants for music and sport, Kirk ordered a custom maple ping-pong table, hung their guitars, and drenched the walls and ceiling in the color of her dreams, literally.

Matching the adjacent mantel, plaster benches double as firewood cubbies.

The Primary Suite

Kirk set out to replicate the essence of a swanky hotel suite in her bedroom and accompanying bathroom. She wakes before the sun rises to check her email, Instagram and Facebook Marketplace. By 5:30 a.m. she is standing on her balcony,  staring into the distance and gathering energy for a day’s plans—per biohacking guru Andrew Huberman.

Left: The primary bedroom was built out as part of a construction project that added to the east side of the house. Right: Kirk is trying her hand at growing an olive tree in her refined suite where walls are Off-White by Farrow & Ball.
Left: Installed this winter, chocolate tile accenting the tub nook was the suite’s final touch. Right: Four-inch wide shiplap is the perfect, classic width, according to Kirk, who painted hers in Farrow & Ball’s Purebeck Stone. Vanities from Restoration Hardware sit atop Belgian blonde limestone floors from Historic Decorative Material. 

The Kids’ Rooms

Kirk prefers children’s rooms to be less dinosaur-heavy and more neutrally focused. Knowing her kids’ obsessions are whimsical and bound to change, Kirk eschews decor that is too age-specific. The result is an elevated design that evolves with them bit by bit.

Left: Kirk’s middle son is the one she says has inherited her creativity. His princely canopy evokes the mosquito netting she rigged in her own bedroom as an adolescent designer. Right: One of his early paintings hangs above his personal art table, which he keeps tidy as part of his nightly routine.
Soon her youngest son will graduate to a bed, a furniture selection Kirk can’t wait to make. The trim is painted in Treron by Farrow & Ball.

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