Where Fairy Tales Come to Life
There are two ways to enter the whimsical, animal-filled world of renowned children’s author and illustrator Jan Brett: Turn to page 1 of any of her 32 books, or walk through the front door of her Massachusetts home. Both Jan’s books and her home are filled with exquisite, colorful detail and meaningful mementos from her travels and childhood. Jan and her husband, Joe Hearne, a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have crafted a home that supports, reflects, and blends their artistic lives.
Although located in a Boston suburb on less than two acres, the house borders conservation land and is visually oriented toward the backyard. The setting is wooded and cozy. Over the past 25 years, Joe and Jan have made several additions to the house, which was built in 1978. In the process, they have converted a tight 800 square feet into an open-concept, light-filled 3,000 square feet. Architect Jim Kelliher of Axiom Architects in Hanover, Massachusetts, designed all the additions. “Jan told me she wanted the house style to be ‘New England folkloric,'” Jim says. “The house still has a New England feel, with some separate rooms like the dining room and kitchen, but the rounded doors and archways and the stair tower make it playful.”
Jan and Joe spend a couple of months each year traveling to research her books and touring with the BSO. The influence of these trips is evident in the design of their home. Numerous excursions to Scandinavia are reflected in their choice of unstained, honey-colored, varnished pine for all the interior trim. In Frankfurt, Germany, the couple admired the marble borders edging the carpet in the Alte Oper (Old Opera House). That led to their distinctive flooring design — sisal hemp carpet bounded by light maple wood, which is incorporated into much of the house. “The sisal has a soothing feel,” Joe says. “It reminded us of the raked gravel we’ve seen in so many Japanese gardens.”
Jan Brett is a lively woman with blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair. She is an avid collector, and her home reflects her passion for animals: Wooden lions roar from bookends; ducks paddle in artwork; painted herons guard her fireplace. An extensive collection of majolica ceramics (shaped into ducks, lily pads, and a porcupine) is on display throughout the house, as well as Grenfell hooked silk mats depicting various animals.
Even Jan’s silver and turquoise bracelet is etched with feathers. There are boxes fashioned from porcupine quills, spotted clay eggs from Africa, and woven blankets depicting polar bears. And, of course, a seemingly infinite population of hedgehogs — stuffed, ceramic, wooden, crystalline — many given by fans in honor of Jan’s iconic animal, represented frequently in her books.
What astonishes the visitor is that despite an endless array of art objects from around the world, Jan and Joe’s home does not feel at all cluttered — instead, it pulses with interior life. As with Jan’s drawings, an observer sees something new every time she looks. “Jan has an ornate but orderly way of doing things,” Joe explains. “There’s tons of detail, both in her books and in our home, but there’s a cleanliness to it.”
Their architect agrees. “We gave Jan the palette to work with in the house design,” Jim says. “Her touches are what make the house fun to be in.”
Jan’s home also reflects her passion for family. “I’m inspired by [them],” she says. “They’ve been living in nearby Hingham — where I grew up — since it was founded. I am so rooted in this area. And my sister, uncle, and great-uncle all are or were also artists.”
Heirlooms are everywhere: Jan’s living room sofa belonged to her great-uncle, artist Harold Brett; the rocking chair next to it was made by Jan’s great-great-grandfather; a dining room chest displays a model wooden whaling ship finished and rigged by Jan’s father, George, when he was a teenager.
One wall of the master bedroom is devoted to the framed paintings Jan makes for Joe each year, portraying their favorite experience from the year past. The couple loves to gather family and friends for dinner, so their latest home addition, two years ago, expanded the dining room (which can now seat 16) and upgraded the kitchen.
A loft above the living room serves as Jan’s library. An entire section of it is devoted to Norway, another to the Arctic, yet another to books on coins, which Jan delved into for her latest book, Hedgie Blasts Off. “Small nuances make things real for me and for the reader,” Jan says. “I try to include visual details in my drawings that readers may not even recognize or know about, but that nonetheless make them feel that they can walk right onto the page.”
Ultimately, their home reflects Jan’s ongoing explorations — of her world, of her past, of her art. “I tell both kids and adults to create the mental space for their art by listening to their muse, that quiet voice that points you in a certain direction, that says draw this, or write this, not that,” Jan explains. “For me, it’s the same as listening to my six-year-old self, who sits on my shoulder. The beauty of art is that it lets individuality flower — whatever you create is something only you could have made.”
“Jan’s business is to create,” adds Joe. “She gets endless ideas from a place I call ‘Jan-Land.'” If Jan’s enchanting books and home are any indication, Jan-Land is a magical place indeed.