Monica Chavez’s Family Home Has the Most Spectacular Bookshelves (and a Surprise Under the Stairs)
Name: Monica Chavez; partner, Ruben; and children, Esperanza (7 months), Mauricio (3 years), Abel (passed away in 2010)
Location: Bay Area, California
Monica Chavez is a mother, blogger, and DIY expert whose Instagram account offers a steady, stunning stream of creative projects and inspiration. She lives in the Bay Area with her family, including a new baby who arrived during this strange year. “I’ve got a COVID baby!” she laughs. “She’s 7 months old. It’s just so weird because she doesn’t see a lot of people; we don’t go anywhere!” But for Monica’s children, going elsewhere may be overrated when they have a home like this. Over the four years they’ve lived in their 3000-square-foot suburban home, Monica has used her design savvy and building expertise to create spaces that delight the whole family.
We talked with Monica about the aha moment that led to an incredible under-stair surprise, her favorite function-meets-beauty detail of her home, and (of course) the magical two-story library in her family room.
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On her favorite room for family time: Our home library is my favorite room in the entire house, by far. I like it because there’s no TV in there, so we have to interact and talk! The kids come play on the floor and they can read and we can read.
I actually live next door to my sister; she’s been part of our little isolation bubble. So we hang out in the room, and our partners hang out and drink in there. It’s the whiskey room sometimes!
On having a vision for a room: When we were touring homes to purchase, as soon as we walked in, I knew we could put the library there. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Even as a kid, I liked having a little home library and I wanted to have that as just the most magical feature in a house, no matter where we lived.
It took us two years to build on the weekends because we were both working full-time at our jobs, but it was worth it.
On creating the library: It’s basically one giant IKEA hack! We built a giant structure into the house. So it’s very structurally sound. It’s got a frame that it sits in that’s secured into the studs. The BILLY bookcases sit into this frame, and then on top of that is all this just trim work that took us forever. You know, hiding all the seams and the painting. It was worth it because it looks like a million bucks — but they’re IKEA.
On filling the shelves: I always say that the books found us. At first, I had enough books to fill four shelves. I started going to garage sales and Craigslist and buying books, a few at a time. A family member called me one day; he was at an estate sale and they were going to clearance out a batch of books no one bought. It was $10, and I was like, yeah, duh, of course. Well, he didn’t tell me how many books there were. We had to rent a U-Haul truck because there were thousands! I sorted through those books for an entire year. Every couple of days I would grab a case and go through them. Most of them are very old, from someone’s personal collection. Luckiest find ever. If we were to ever leave this house, most of the books would have to stay with the library. I feel like they’re meant to be together.
On kids’ books: There’s one section on the bottom where it’s all our kids’ books and they get in there and you pull them down and read them. My son knows where those books are for him. He really likes these little mini animal books.
On the clubhouse under the stairs: It was a storage closet where we used to keep our suitcases. I never thought twice about it. Then we went on a family trip to Denver to visit some of our friends and we went to a restaurant; it was super cool. They had a space for kids to draw and play in at a chalkboard wall, and they had a cutout in the wall and I just kept staring at it while we were eating. It was almost like a little mouse door, like a cutout in the wall. My son was having a great time. I couldn’t get that out of my head after we left there. And I was like, we have to do something like that at home.
On creating the clubhouse: The first thing we did was cut out a door — and realized this was going to be perfect. It was the coolest little space for kids and it wasn’t just going to be for him. It was for any other kids that come in, whether his friends or my sister’s kids and have it be just for them. They could put all their toys in there and I’m not going to have to clean them all up every single day. It’s a safe, quiet place if he needs to get away somewhere.
On practicality vs. good looks: When we do projects, especially for the kids, we ask first: Is it going to be safe? How can we make it so that we’re not worried about anybody getting hurt? And is it going to be practical? And is it going to look good? So the look, always for me comes towards the end. I want it to be practical and last for our family. Sometimes, you know, you see things on the internet that look awesome, but they’re not always the most practical — especially for families.
On the clubhouse details: One part of the closet dips down; you have to like crawl in there, but if you’re a kid it’s super fun. It’s like a little fort. There are pillows in there and a bookshelf, so he can lay there and read. We didn’t want to run electrical, so the motion-activated lights are perfect. They’re just these little puck lights.
On her favorite home detail that is both beautiful and kid-friendly: My oversized chalkboard in our breakfast nook area. It’s like, eight by four. It’s massive. But I like the black, and you can tell it’s a chalkboard because it has that white haze on it. It’s trimmed out with some walnut-stained wood, and it just looks beautiful.
It’s a great backdrop for photos. And it’s also functional. We have chalk, and the kids go crazy on it when they want to. And when they don’t, it looks beautiful as is. I feel it’s a nice focal feature in the room. It kind of centers it and grounds it, but it’s also great for the kids.
On her go-to meal for this kid-plus-baby phase of life: With the new baby, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to focus on cooking and food. We order Vietnamese food — that’s like my go-to clutch. If I’m busy and the kids are just like a mess, like we’re going to order Vietnamese food and everyone’s getting pho.
Does Mauricio have a favorite treat? My son loves cupcakes.
On her daughter’s nursery: I wanted something that was going to grow with her. I wanted it to be sophisticated. And then, we were going to spend a lot of time in there. She’s a baby; she has no idea what the color on this wall is! I feel like the nursery isn’t necessarily for the baby; it’s for you!
On the feelings of spaces: I wanted to enjoy the space when I’m in there and I wanted it to make me feel a certain way. I think that the spaces we create should make us feel something. In this room, it just feels good. It feels like I’m at a boutique hotel. It feels like I’m staying somewhere else. I just love that feeling.
On designing spaces for children to grow in: If she ever wants to change it, we can, and I’m not going to hesitate to do that because it’s our home and I want to love it at every phase that we’re in.
On learning her craft (and passing it on): I grew up making and taking apart any and everything that I could. My mom is a seamstress. My dad was always a handyman around the house, learning to do everything and fix everything. He was not going to call anybody to come in to, you know, fix the plumbing or build a bookcase. I watched him do that and he let me participate. I think that was huge in planting that seed and letting it grow with me.
When people ask, how do you do this with kids? Well, sometimes I let them get involved if it’s safe to do so. My son knows the names of tools now, because I don’t keep him away from all that stuff.
I think that’s a big part of teaching your kids from a young age — that they’re capable of doing things. Then letting them see you do things. It’s really empowering. My parents gave me that. Now as an adult, I feel like I can do anything. And if I don’t know, I know I can learn to do it.
On her essential clean-up secret: We have a two-story home and any time I go upstairs or come downstairs, if there’s something that needs to be put away in a different room or taken to a different part of the house, I use that trip to transport those things.
On unwinding: I just like to sit in the quiet. Like nobody touching me, nobody talking to me, nobody asking me anything. I like to watch dance videos, or listen to people singing. I love things with music and movement.
On balance: Balance is impossible. It does not exist. You can find harmony. The analogy I heard is that you can’t have all your buckets full at the same time because they’d be too heavy. So if my business is doing well, my house could use some attention, and my kids might feel a little neglected — and vice versa. If I’m paying 100% attention to my kids and my house is spotless, my business probably needs some attention.
It’s just a matter of prioritizing what’s important for that moment or for that day. For me, I’ve found that that’s what works and finding harmony and being okay with asking for help and finding a support system.
On her next project: We are just getting started on renovating our guest room. With COVID, obviously nobody’s coming over and hanging out, so we want to get on that now!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.