CHICAGO -- Checking items off an ambitious bucket list is nothing new for Eva Niewiadomski, 55, who has launched a successful business, traveled the world and even fulfilled a longtime dream to take a class in puppetry.
In 2015, Niewiadomski achieved another goal: She bought a spacious three-bedroom home in the Magnolia Glen neighborhood on Chicago's North Side.
"I'd never lived in a house in my life, and I wanted to have that experience," she explains. "When I walked in, I felt like this was my place."
Although she had only just begun house-hunting -- and not very seriously at that -- the American foursquare-style house, built in 1904, had generously sized rooms, stained glass windows and other original details that proved too hard to resist.
"I was not going to strip paint from the woodwork," she says. According to the home's prior owner, she adds, renowned writer David Sedaris did just that when he rented a room in the house years ago. "That's before he made it big," she says.
There are stories behind many of the furnishings, too, a vibrant mix of pieces scavenged from secondhand stores or collected on Niewiadomski's many travels.
She credits her unique style, in part, to her parents: first-generation Polish immigrants. "My dad was all about how well crafted and solid the old furniture was," she says. "Plus it's less expensive."
She points to the matching 1950s sofas in the living room, which although still upholstered with their original blue brocade fabric, seem pristine. "The beauty is that they were still covered in the original clear plastic covers that people used to put on their furniture," she says of the lucky antique store find. "When I pulled them off, I had two brand-new sofas."
The vintage couches seem perfectly at home among an eclectic mix that includes a boldly patterned rug made in Turkey using a brocaded weaving technique and a pair of '70s wing chairs that she recently had recovered.
"They have such a great shape," Niewiadomski says. She originally bought them for Catalyst Ranch, the similarly decked-out meeting and event space that she founded in the West Loop, before deciding that she couldn't part with them.
Her collection began with a stone sculpture by an eastern European artist that she purchased from a folk festival at Navy Pier many years ago. It's displayed atop the fireplace mantel alongside colorful "outsider" artwork and a pair of handmade, vibrantly painted animal figurines. Those figurines were part of a suitcase full of pieces and textiles that she brought back from a journey to Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2005.
"There's always something interesting to look at, but it doesn't feel like a museum," she says of her home. "Everything has a story, so it sparks conversations."
The conversation continues in the adjacent dining room, where a grass-cloth wall covering installed by the previous owner creates a textured neutral backdrop for colorful odds and ends. A set of wooden chairs with orange vinyl upholstery surround the large midcentury honey maple dining table, where Niewiadomski's already hosted many dinner parties. "It got inaugurated pretty quickly," she says.
When working from home, Niewiadomski can usually be found at the kitchen island -- an old metal workbench base that she found at the Lincoln Antique Mall. It's been outfitted with a new wooden top made by a friend. Vintage ceramic and glass jars from Sweden and the Czech Republic line the shelves of the classic white cabinetry with glass panels. The walls are filled with a boisterous array of artwork; plates from the Ukraine; and a row of vibrant faces, which were hand-carved from coconut in Mexico.
"I just collect crazy, random things that catch my eye and go together well," she explains. "There are complements and commonalities within cultures, and these things can be blended in harmony."
A 3-D wall textile from Thailand, for example, makes a statement in the master bedroom, while still coexisting peacefully with the vintage bedroom furniture. And in the bedroom-turned-workshop at the front of the house, an antique costume purchased at a Lyric Opera sale commingles with abstract wooden animals from Poland and several puppets from her extensive collection, including one she made herself out of newspaper, masking tape and rope.
Just down the hall is a rear sun porch, which Niewiadomski recently had weatherproofed. To preserve its vintage character, she instructed the contractors to carefully save and reinstall the original wood floor and ceiling after adding insulation.
But when the weather is nice, you're more likely to find her reading in her backyard hammock. This past summer, she cultivated two gardens, including a 20-foot row of raspberries and mint that spread like crazy.
The privacy and ability to plant what she wants without seeking input from the neighbors are particularly enjoyable, she says, after decades of apartment life. As are the open layout and square room sizes that foursquare-style homes are known for.
"Living here has given me a chance to put my collections into a totally different context," she says. "I love it."
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