Once upon a time Ana Bianchi shared her home tour when she lived in New York. Since then, she and her family (her husband, her daughter, and her pug) have moved to Walnut Creek, California and live in a beautiful house with an even more beautiful garden. It seems like the perfect place to spend quarantine, and Ana is grateful for all the work she and her family have put into the space to make it what it is now. You’ll love poking around and seeing all the lovely art on the walls, and the way Ana makes you feel totally at home. Welcome, Ana!

We are the Bianchi family. Mom, Dad, 10-year old daughter, and our pug Pepa. I am Ana, the mom. I am a designer, illustrator and artist. I am always making stuff — creative colorful stuff. It might be a branding or illustration project for a client, or working on my children’s clothing line, called PaperGirl Collection, or writing/illustrating a children’s book, or creating my own artwork (right now I am mostly making ceramics, sculpture, and art on paper). I also like to embark on big gardening projects and cooking challenges.

I met my husband, Alberto, 15 years ago in New York City, where I lived for 18 years. It was a blind date gone perfect. It was his birthday (who organizes a blind date on his birthday?) and right away I thought, “I like this guy! He is smart, solid and kind, I feel like myself when I am with him, conversation just flows, I like that I don’t feel I need to impress him”. We got married two years later.

If I am the artist in the house, he is the science guy. He has a PhD in molecular biology and works advancing discoveries in cancer so that they can be tested and brought to market to help patients. He does not work in a lab anymore (though he did discover 2 genes), he now works in oncology business development for a big company. He is also an avid reader of all things art, history, politics, economy, etc.. I still think he is the smartest, kindest person I know. 

Our home is multicultural. Like my daughter says. “My mom is from Mexico, her family from Spain, my dad is from Argentina, his family from Italy and California, and I am a New Yorker” Yes, my daughter does not say she is American, she says “Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker” though she has been learning the sunny ways of living in California (ie. she is on a mission to teach my husband how to be a “dude”). 

We speak both Spanish and English at home, we sprinkle in a bit of Italian, and we cook food from everywhere. I am the kitchen person and he is the Argentinian grill “dude” and coffee & cocktail barista.

Our daughter Florencia, was born in 2009 in a hospital overlooking Central Park. She is 10 now and I am enjoying every bit of her growing up. I truly believe she is a really old, wise soul. For example, a couple weeks ago, after a full day of gardening, she offer to give me a massage with meditation. She recorded it for me as she was doing it — and it was a really good hour-long, improvised-on-the-spot meditation! And it is actually really good to listen to it again during these crazy days of quarantine.

She is also a 50/50 mix her parents! She does science with daddy and takes after his kind spirit, and she makes art and writes stories with me (creativity and drawing ability seams to be genetic). She is empathic and generous, friendly and fun.

And last is Pepa our pug. She snores all day, loves a bit of ham in the evening and she is basically my shadow. We joke that she is an emotional support animal, because she needs all our emotional support! 

After 18 years living in New York City, we finally moved to the Bay Area 3 years ago. As much as we LOVE NYC, we were starting to feel too tight in our 2 bedroom. We all really wanted to have a garden and better weather. So in 2017 we made it happen. We moved from the Big Apple to Walnut Creek, California. Not that I wanted to go from “Apples to Walnuts”, it just happens to be the place where we found our future dream house.

To find the house I spent A LOT of time on Zillow, studying the Bay Area in detail:  Where could we get the most bang for our buck (the further you are from SF towards the East the cheaper it gets), while still having good access to San Francisco cultural life (museums, ballet, restaurants, potential clients for me, work meetings for Alberto who would be setting up a home office), as well as good access to airports, and good local schools?

Where could we have a nice garden that could also produce food, and where is the weather nice? The Bay Area has many microclimates, we are on the hot and sunny side of the Bay.

Regarding the house, even though we are a small family, we needed a 5-bedroom house so that we could turn a room into Alberto’s home office, another into my studio and a fifth one to be both a play room and guest room since my dad comes from Spain and my sister-in-law from Buenos Aires, each for a month every year.

We wanted something that was not cookie-cutter or in a “planned community”, we preferred mid-century modern houses but could not find any, we wanted to do some interior and garden design projects but not a total-gut renovation, we wanted a good view since the New York apartment had no views, and we did not want neighbors encroaching on us, but didn’t want to be too isolated either.

So after seeing zillions of houses online, and then taking a trip during which I saw 30 houses including this one, we placed the offer and got it. Alberto trusted me completely and saw it for the first time when he moved here, 5 weeks before us to start renovations. So for him it was “sight unseen.”

The house was really ugly and overdecorated in a mix of styles: English Manor, French Rococo, Southern Colonial, etc.. Rooms were painted in all sorts of colors. Trust me it was ugly. But it also had good bones, solid construction, and great potential that was mostly cosmetic and surface work.

The house was having a hard time selling because people are sometimes afraid of projects and can’t always envision the potential. I saw it, Alberto trusted me, and it allowed us to get it at a better price than comparable homes in area (well, there were no comps really, since it was a bit of an odd-ball, but just based on square footage).

Of course make no mistake, the Bay Area is an expensive market — the closer to the city or Silicon Valley the more expensive it gets! But we were coming from Manhattan, the other expensive market. All in all, we sold an 1800 sq. feet two bedroom in Manhattan, and with 15% more money, we bought a 4500 sq. feet ugly house on an acre in Walnut Creek. In San Francisco, it would have bought us a tight little house or a 3 bed apartment; in Livermore, the furthest point I saw, it would have bought us a large 1960’s home with a pool and horse-stalls on 3 acres near wine country.

This house also bought us something no other house I saw had: a huge 200 yr old oak tree that Florencia named “Uncle Grandpa”, unobstructed views of Mount Diablo from every window, and a glorious terrace (the house is at the top of the very steep hill). The house also has another feature that intrigued us: a vineyard with 170 mature Syrah grape vines, which was in bad shape, but could be brought back to health with TLC, and could produce 300+ bottles a year.

As a town, Walnut Creek has surprised us! It sits in the center of the East Bay, 20 min (when there is no traffic) from Berkeley and Oakland, and 40 min from San Francisco. It has a Bart train station (Bart is the public transit system in the Bay Area) that connects with the city and other towns. It is in a valley below Mount Diablo Regional Park (great for hiking), and is surrounded by other open spaces (we sit on the edge of one where we go for afternoon strolls).

It has lots of good shopping downtown, two Whole Foods, and two farmers markets. It has a theatre with all kinds of performances (we go to classical music concerts and they give ice cream during intermission), a huge library, and my favorite, a fantastic ceramic studio for the community where I work on my sculptures once or twice a week.

The ocean is 1-2 hours away, Lake Tahoe is 3 hours away (though in a snow storm, it once took us 9 hours to get there). The three of us are city people (Mexico City, Buenos Aires, New York City) but we have really come to love our town life.

During the last three years, little by little we have transformed the house. I have been the designer-contractor. To tackle all the different projects, we have both hired wonderful tradesmen directly, and have DIY’ed many ourselves. We have saved a lot of money doing things this way.

The house now has a unified style that reflect us. And finally, we don’t have anything in storage! We brought what we had in New York to Walnut Creek, plus things I kept in storage for years from my mom’s house in Mexico.

The house has tall walls that are perfect for showcasing art: art that has come down through my family, art that I make, and most importantly, art my daughter makes. I have favored ultra white walls and a blue/white/gray palette for permanent things like the cement tiles I used indoors in the kitchen, hallway, foyer, and bathrooms, and also used outdoors on the terrace. We are currently painting the house outside, from an ugly big-brown to a light blue-gray, with whitewashed brick.

For furniture the focus has been on a foundation of neutrals with bright color accents from the art, and hand-crafted textiles from around the world which I collect, along with some from Serena and Lily, and some from my PaperGirl Collection, and AnaLovesColor surface designs.

Some of our accent furniture includes our Saarinen red chair (in the reading area), a mid-century orange chair snatched on a sidewalk sale in Southhampton, and a colorful illustrated armchair for my studio. Wooden furniture is a combination of cherry wood furniture pieces we’ve picked up over the years, and antiques.

The antique furniture is a mix of flee market finds from Mexico City and New York, along with some family heirlooms like the seventeenth century inlay desk from Spain that has been passed down through my mother’s family, and several eighteenth century Hacienda furniture pieces, like the round trough that is now a coffee table housing a collection of ancient Mexican maternal figurines.

We’ve redecorated Florencia’s room too, as a surprise. I worked on bits and pieces in hiding at night, and one day while she was in school, my sister-in-law and I re-painted and redecorated her room! She was blown away!

Alberto and I built a Lego table in the playroom, painted clouds on the blue walls and I arm-knitted a chunky rainbow blanket. But the best project is her Harry Potter room in the cupboard under the stairs.

I asked her, without telling her what it was for, to do line drawings of all the Harry Potter characters. Then I collaged them to create repeat patterns for wallpaper. For soft surfaces I made her a three -headed pug and plenty of owl pillows. And I gilded the interior of a little cabinet, where after the big reveal, she put all her magical stones and potions in true wizard style. 

If the change inside the house is big, the change in the garden is huge! When we arrived, it was only a steep hill of mud with beautiful mature trees. The mud hillside was as tall as 7 stories, not a safe place for kids or playdates.

I designed the garden forming 4 terraces. The first is the oak area. Nothing is planted here that requires irrigation or is not a California native, disrupting this area could risk a fungal infection and kill our oak.

Then we have a narrow flat terrace with gravel ends, and a long bench where we sit for breakfast on the weekend, or I take calls from or take naps looking up to the Oaks gnarly branches. It also has a swing hanging from a thick branch for kids to play with.

The largest flat area is next. It’s a great place for kids to play or break a piñata or for a summer outdoor movie. We had to build a retaining wall and fill it in with soil before growing the lawn, which is planted with grass that needs very little irrigation. Mowing this grass with an old-school push mower is my Saturday workout.

The grassy area is flanked by two long planting areas for small bushes and flowers. I work a lot year round to make these two areas the focus: one is mostly blue and purple flowers and the other is multicolor. Both are planted with natives and drought-resistant annuals and perennials. I have learnt a lot about water conservancy since we moved out here and have planned the garden accordingly.

At the bottom of the yard where a bunch of trees are, we added a fig tree and a persimmon tree. I call it the Spring garden because over the last three years I have planted about 300 naturalizing daffodils into the bare soil along with sweet alyssum and California poppies. The cherry tree blooms and the daffodils are out usually in early Spring, this is where we do most of the Easter egg hunting. It is really beautiful. The rest of the year it is a shady spot for siesta time with two hammocks my dad hung.

In some crazy, renaissance-style topiaries that were here when we moved in, Alberto and I built raised beds for the edible garden. I start seeds in the tiny greenhouse in January, I sow things that I use a lot of in cooking or things that sound interesting and colorful. I get my seeds online and start them in the greenhouse.

In April (weather permitting) I move everything out into the planting boxes: red, purple and blue tomatoes; Italian wrinkled costoluto tomatoes; tomatillos and several kinds of chiles for my homemade salsa (it’s where I get my superpowers); zucchini mostly for blossoms; heirloom, drought resistant corn from Mexico; string beans, celery, carrots, basil, and herbs. Plus citrus, avocado and a grafted tree that produces different fruit in each branch.

Finally, occupying a large area of the yard is the vineyard. With care and a lot of new learning (we did not know anything about vineyards!!) it is back to good health. It’s cycle of growth marks the seasons for us, the highlight is harvest in October. We invite friends and their kids to help us harvest about 1200 pounds of grapes, a brunch is served to all who help, and we take the grapes to another Walnut Creek resident that helps us make the wine. Florencia loves stomping the grapes with her feet! Though most of the mush is made in an old wine press. This year, after quarantine is over, we will bottle our first vintage. Our house wine is called Rosso dei Bianchi (Italian for Red from the Bianchi family.)

It has been three years of getting our hands dirty and using resources and creativity to turn the ugly house into a beautiful one. Above all, we are so happy to have created a place with lots of spaces for creativity and family time. The house is done, the garden is never ending but worth the effort. It has all been a lot of hours of dirty hands, and back-breaking digging, and carrying stuff!!

The arrival of COVID-19 and the statewide stay-at-home orders have not impacted us as severely as others, since both my husband and I work from home. We are all healthy since we have barely left the house for a month!

Work-wise we have not been impacted too badly either. He works in healthcare and is as busy as always but works remote. For me, as I also work from home, the biggest impact has been that most of my client work has been cancelled or postponed. I am choosing to take a positive attitude and I am working hard on learning new skills for my illustration work and for my creative business, taking some of the many wonderful online courses. I am also taking the time to prepare for what I will tackle once this all passes.

The biggest change has been the homeschooling aspect. My sweet, wise girl has risen to the occasion in a way that makes me very proud. But she really misses going to school and playing with friends. Pepa Pug, is super happy to have us all in the den 100% of the time.

We try to find a balance between hours when each one is in their room/desk doing their job and the hours when we are together as a family. Meals are important anchors for us to sit together and talk. Garden work is also a good chance for being outdoors together, plus the idea of growing your own food is even more relevant now than ever. Watching the plants grow is a beautiful way to watch time pass (better than freaking out about all the time). We have also added things like pajama day on Saturdays and dress up nice day (yet to happen). There has also been a bit more binge watching (yes, I watched TigerKing, and I am going through the Great British Baking Show, as a way to see not eat my carbs).

Florencia had a nice idea the other day: she wants to ask us things about our childhoods and family growing up. I really liked this because in the normal busyness of day-to-day life we tend to not talk in depth about those kind of things.

This is a good time to really get close to the people you live with in a positive way. It will all have a lasting impact. Doing creative work, figuring out little creative challenges in the studio or kitchen, also keeps us entertained in a productive, memorable way. Since we are not wasting all the time we normally do driving to places and running errands, we’ve been making a point to connect with friends in other places to have longer conversations. This has been a lovely way to touch base with people we care about that are not normally part of the day-to-day or live abroad or in New York.

I am extremely grateful to be able to shelter in a lovely place and with a family I love, to have options in my home to keep us safe and entertained. It has been particularly mind-blowing to think of everyone dealing with this across the world, and my heart sinks when I think of people that are alone in the hospital, or trapped in a home with people with whom they have difficulties, or the vast majority in the world who don’t have resources to have security in these days. The thing I wish the most is that this experience would bring about positive changes for those in deep need.

When this is all over, I hope we will remain resourceful, more aware, less wasteful (I wasn’t wasteful before, but now am even less so), that we carry on with an emphasis in quality conversations that bring us together as a family and with our friends. I hope that we learn from this time and adjust priorities. Working from home may become the new thing.

Personally I hope the creative seeds I am sowing now bloom as the flowers in the garden. I hope to continue practicing gratitude, to keep on using my creative time, and focus with this intensity and with less distraction and procrastination (my real dark side and bad habit that sometimes holds me back). 

I have really been enjoying hanging out with my daughter. I have really been so proud of her! So thankful for how she is doing her homeschooling. She has approached this time as “a chance to practice being responsible, learn time management, and see how work life as a freelancer working from home is” (her words).

All this time cooped up has brought us closer to her, from talking scientifically about the pandemic with dad, and learning math with him, to doing creative writing and art with me. We’ve even been playing basketball (normally I don’t come anywhere near a ball).

It has also facilitated long conversations at the bench under the oak: from family history, to “the Talk”, to learning more about her interests, which range from wanting to be a psychologist so she can help people with their feelings, to watching LegoMasters, DudePerfect, and 5-min crafts on YouTube.

A moment I loved yesterday, as we were hanging out in the bedroom, she decided to bring down all the picture books on the shelves, to choose which to keep for her kids, which to keep on the bookshelf, and which to donate. She stopped and said, “ I am really thankful to you and daddy for all the good things you have done for me in my life; all the nice creative things you buy me to expand my mind. I know it all comes with a lot of effort and sacrifice, but I want you to know how much I appreciate it”. Then she went on to tell me she wants to start a vlog or something where she reads books for other kids to listen to. (Oh! Please help me navigate this kid online venture!! Contact me with advice!) I will never forget the gratitude and joy I feel every time she says this kind of lovely thing.

One thing I hope she forgets, is the image of mommy in striped pajamas and pink lounge sweater! I may have to throw these away after quarantine. I have been wearing them too much. All this time together, away from the world, has been full of memorable moments, too many little moments to write here. I am so grateful for the moment, and the place I am in my life, for the love of my husband and daughter (yes, and pug). I am so grateful to be calm and safe in this historic time (when I know not everyone feels like that). In my life things were not always this lovely, I think that is why I appreciate this time so much.

When things were rough for me in my teenage years, in my 20’s and early 30s, I wish someone had told me: Trust yourself, ignore the hurtful comments and mean people in your life, move on, continue to work hard in your creativity, carry on, stick with it. There is a lovely place for you under a big, old oak waiting for you in the future. A place full of love and kindness, where you can stay safe and calm even if there is a pandemic.

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Thank you, Ana! This home seems like such a lovely space to shelter in place — even the yard is divided into little areas so you could just as easily spend time together as you could go and be separate when you need your own space. And having a garden that will be producing food soon seems is something many of us are thinking about right now. Their hard work is paying off big time.

I appreciate too, that Ana and her family are still working on having some structure. Getting together for regular meals, planning theme nights, and carving out space to work on their different interests. I also think it is really admirable that Ana, instead of focusing on the work of hers that has been postponed, is taking the time to learn new skills so that when she can return to regular work, she’ll be more prepared.

This situation we are all living in is so unprecedented — I’m so glad we’re getting to hear how other families are coping and making this work. I think the more we can see and experience different ways of “surviving” something as crazy as this, the more that we can be okay with the choices we are making for ourselves and our family.

SOURCES

Cement Tiles throughout the house and yard

Saarinen Red Chair

Ana’s illustration and design business can be found here and on IG. And her clothing line for girls has it’s own page and Instagram too. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.

Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at features@designmom.com