Living With Kids: Noelle Nicolai

Noelle, her husband Matt Lybert, and their two kids share an absolutely charming 1750 square foot home outside of NYC. I am so excited to show it to you. Noelle had to get inventive to figure out school and work from home in a relatively small space, and managed well with some creative activities and use of a nearby family member’s home. This house is so smart and stylish. It’s full of art, bright light and thoughtfully chosen pieces (you can’t waste any space when there isn’t extra space to spare). Welcome, Noelle.

Four larger than life personalities fill these walls — and like all those laws of physics I learned about in high school — atoms in a small space bump into each other A LOT MORE. But we absolutely love it. Our seven year old is a Harry Potter mega fan, on his third year of imagining and drawing mythical creatures. He wakes up 2 hours before the rest of us and sneaks upstairs to their playroom to listen to his audible account. Our 5 year old loves to all be together … sleeping in the same bed, sitting on the same couch square, eating from the same plate … all the behaviours you’d expect after 13 consecutive months of pandemic togetherness. 

My husband and I met skiing, when the girl he was dating at the time called and asked me to go with him one Saturday. (Don’t worry we kept it kosher — and kept our friendships!). He told me hated the name Francesca. I told him I’d name my daughter that. (10 years later we did!) And I remember sitting in silence in the lodge at Alta and scarfing french fries with this guy I’d never met and thinking to myself how comfortable it was not talking to him. 

We were married in a big fat Italian wedding in the Bronx (ice sculptures, live music, flaming dessert tables, open bars, glass elevators coming up through the floor) 18 months later, and started our life together in New York City. Then Salt Lake CIty. London. Connecticut. New York again. Portland, Oregon. AND FINALLY back to the small little town I grew up in, just outside NYC. 

We live in a charming little village called Pleasantville — 5,000ish residents outside New York City who walk their kids to school every morning. We’re too small to have buses! It’s charming as hell, but without the bougie pretense you can get in other elite suburb locales. It’s home to the Jacob Burns Film Center and film school, a banging farmer’s market, a bustling restaurant scene — the breakfast burrito at Sundance deli IS WORTH a train ride — and the most loving community of parents and kids. 

When they say it takes a village, Pleasantivlle delivers. Our family is third generation in town. My grandfather settled here after arriving from Italy in 1912. And like a good Italian daughter, I’m a mile from my mother, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles.  

You can’t walk in the 1.5 square miles of our village without stopping to chat with a neighbor, school parent or friend.  If you leave something at the local park, it’s folded on a bench waiting for you the next day.  

Home prices in town average around $750k (but are soaring post pandemic), with property taxes around 3% of appraised value.  We snagged our teeny dream, for just about half of that. (When I say NO ONE WANTED THIS PLACE, I mean it.) 

After the rainiest year of my life in Portland, Oregon, we decided to head back east for employment opportunities and vitamin D.  We knew we wanted to be in Westchester for proximity to grandparents and our offices, and began the search. But the inventory was dated, the taxes were insane, and we were disillusioned about spending our max budget on a fixer upper we didn’t even love. We had a 4 month old baby, a toddler, 2 new jobs starting in days, and nowhere to call our own. 

We were feeling defeated, when a tiny little 1500 square foot home, with almost no visual appeal came on the market. The price was half our budget (and we negotiated lower), and we couldn’t NOT see it.  When I walked in, I knew it would be a MAJOR project — but I watch HGTV, no big deal, right? I loved it’s history as a cobbler shop in the late 1870s, and the potential it had. The location was in the heart of town, walkable to parks, restaurants, schools and more. And we didn’t have a better option.  

The buying process was challenging — more emotionally taxing than I expected. There were times we were ready to walk away, as negotiations got contentious. Did dead mice in the crawl space mean an infestation? Can we please add a roof cleaning to the contract? Oh, what’s that? The third floor is illegal and needs to be ripped out? Is that tiny bedroom legal (it wasn’t … so we negotiated for 2br pricing). It took 2x longer than we anticipated but 3 months after making an offer it was ours.  

As you can imagine, in a tight-knit Italian family, with no boundaries and lots of opinions, the response from my parents was unsure. It was in bad shape. It was unattractive. It needed SO MUCH work. “But the taxes are low.” Was it too late to get our earnest money back? Matt and I had a vision and plowed forward with the help of an amazing architect who makes every home in our town the loveliest, Tim Lener. And a family friend who had a General Contracting company and called our project “The Doll House.” He graciously waived GC fees, and reminded us weekly that we had champagne tastes and a beer budget! But we ARE BEYOND happy with how it turned out. 

We exhale when we walk in the door. Deeply. The coats and shoes fly off, and we shake off the stress of the day and settle into our safest, most comfortable place. The house reflects our own personal style, but I also wanted to be mindful to honor its heritage. It’s open, calm, relatively clutter free and a comforting place. 

After years in the hospitality business building brands at Starwood and Wyndham hotels, and then marketing them, I put everything I learned to work in our home — like creating a sense of arrival, and using color to evoke feelings of calm and comfort. We have piano pop covers or classical music on a low volume almost all day long (bonus is that it’s good for my house plants) and candles burning. We created open, multipurpose zones in the open concept and we love it. 

We’ve tried to balance form and function. We have beautiful meaningful things we’ve collected, and really efficient storage to make this place work for us. There are baskets of puzzle pieces, building blocks, crayons, paints and markers at kid level throughout the house. The snack storage was where my then 18 month old could access herself! And we’ve tried to incorporate their things into our home, and in doing so, have helped our kids feel like this is OUR home. Theirs as much as ours. 

Our airbnb guests have liked staying here too — they’ve said it feels modern, comfortable, well-designed, and the most comfortable beds they’ve ever slept in. (Also a hotel take away — with Westin Heavenly Beds in every room!) 

On March 15, 2020, I wish I had known just HOW LONG we’d be coworking, colearning and cohabitating in our space. I would have paced myself. I started out in a sprint, unaware of the mental / emotional / educational marathon that was in front of me.  

To survive, we created zones for school, activities and crafts, and a routine for our kids that included a LOT of time hiking, beaching, and scooting — even in 45 degree weather. We quaranteamed with my family in town early on, and had those homes and people to visit, and it SAVED US. My husband would work from my parents’ home when things were crazy at our house. The cousins would play in my sister’s basement for hours when they were feeling isolated. We hosted a teddy bear picnic on a school day with a Willy Wonka worthy table of treats. We struggled. We lost steam. We cried. We fell apart. And we rallied. 

Our home was our safe space — our shelter — in a truly scary time; a safe haven from the storm. Hotel brands and the marketers who sell them, didn’t have much work after travel halted, and I was able to focus my time and resources on my children and their zoom schedules. We stocked up on craft supplies. We sourced a sold out bounce house. We baked every all purpose flour recipe on the internet. 

I won’t downplay the toll of chronic stress, unemployment and illness in 2020, but our kids were so happy and engaged at home they cried when school announced it was opening full time. Our seven year old listened to the entire Harry Potter series on audible … TWICE. Our daughter finished HUNDREDS of pages of coloring books. We watched all of Planet Earth. 

And after 12+ years spending 50+ hours a week in a fast paced corporate environment, and much of the time on airplanes to hotels around the world, I learned to embrace stillness, boredom, and quality time together. Life is resuming normalcy to some degree, and I don’t ever want to forget the lessons we learned this year.

We learned to spend more time outdoors. To not fill your schedules and stack your dominos so tightly you can’t actually ENJOY what’s planned. To quit the show 10 minutes in if you hate it, you wont like it 40 minutes later. To guard your energy, mental and emotional resources and make time to do nothing. TO SAVOR A MEAL AT A RESTAURANT. To talk to your neighbors. To nap. To let yourself or your kids be bored and find a way out of it. To pursue people and relationships that fill your cup. 

I gave 100% of myself to my career for more than a decade. Working most of my waking hours. Tackling work planning and ideation in the shower. In the car. During a movie. It consumed so much of me — I was engaged, and I loved what I did — but it was not a healthy balance. And now, seeing how my former colleagues and coworkers have developed hobbies, exercised, socialized, and found balance in this time — to feel that balance myself — is a change I think we’ll all be reticent to give up. The pendulum and demands of corporate America are going to need to reconcile with this new workforce in the coming months and years.  

I’m terrible at logistics and administrative mothering. Our physicals only happen when the school nurse reminds me we need one. I forget to sign up for sports and after school activities so consistently you’d think it was willful. I let the gas tank run below 0 on our park outings and excursions. But I’m emotionally present, and very aware of their needs and feelings. We’re physically and verbally affectionate. We learn about healthy ways to express negative feelings, process them, and talk about them. Our family is their training ground for future relationships — emotional intelligence and communication are skills I want them to know well. I’m not bad at birthday parties either. 

We’re 1750 square feet on 3 floors — I joke that it’s one of the nicest apartments in town! Our kids are constantly astounded when we pull up to friends’ homes… “IS THIS ALL ONE HOUSE?”  “IS THIS A CASTLE?”  “THIS CAN”T BE JUST THEIR YARD!” I hope they forget about comparing size, and focus on how cozy our space was, and how much fun and time we had together. 

I hope they remember the sounds of the birds chirping us awake in the morning. That there was always music playing, songs being sung and dance parties happening. I want them to remember the feeling of climbing into our bed in the middle of the night and settling into a DEEP sleep. Or the sun streaming through the windows every afternoon and basking in the sun spots on the rug. I want them to remember how sheltered and safe they felt. And how we opened our home, our fridge, and our hearts to friends and family. 

(I hope they forget the times the atoms bumping into each other pushed mom to combustion.)

Bedtime is my absolute favorite part of the day…. usually. After baths and pjs, we congregate in a room together and read books. We talk about the best and worst part of that day, and what we’re looking forward to in the coming days. My kids express a lot of love, and ask for back tickles and cuddles as they drift off. It takes 90 minutes some nights, but I’m always sad when it’s over. 

I’ve also loved the passive conversations that happen when we’re brushing our teeth, or cleaning up a mess, or folding socks — just seeing how their brains develop through their questions and expressions.

I wish someone had told me marriage is hard, and requires as much effort as anything else you give your time and attention to. I wish someone had told me you’ll survive 100% of your hardest days. I wish someone had told me — and I had listened — to take ticks more seriously. (I’ve navigated neurological lyme disease the last 3 years.) I wish someone had told me that finding a good therapist is the best money you’ll ever spend. I wish someone had told me to go BIG in 2019 travel. 

——

Thank you, Noelle! It’s always fun to see home tours of smaller places because you can really see how all the spaces connect and overlap — the bit of the kitchen counter peeking into the family room, the corner of a rug leading you into a new space. Noelle and Matt have done such a great job of making this space feel special.

I also really liked what Noelle said about being forced to develop hobbies and interests outside of work. It’s so easy to let work become your whole identity when you spend so much time there each week. Having a year where many of us had to slow down and spend some time thinking about what we care about and how we want to spend our time has been eye opening. I think Noelle is right that as people return to a more “normal” schedule they’re not going to easily go back to long work weeks away from home.

Have you discovered new talents and interests over the last year? Do you think you’ll manage your time differently going forward? Or are you anxious to get back to work?

SOURCES

Handmade Pillows

Caitlin Wilson Rug

Schoolhouse Poster

Peach Covered Shower Curtain


Photo credit to the inimitable Lesley Colvin. You can follow Noelle on Instagram here. 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.

23 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Noelle Nicolai”

  1. This home is gorgeous – so light and warm and comfy looking. Noelle and her husband have done an amazing job. I know it’s all relative, but I very vividly remember when I was 10 and we moved from the apartment I’d grown up in to the 1450 sq foot house my mom still lives in – and I thought it was so big! And I wasn’t wrong – it has 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms, and both a den AND a living room. Sure, none of the rooms are huge, but it was and is plenty of space.

  2. What a lovely house and story! What a charming setting for kids to grow up in.
    Can you tell me the name of the mosaic pieces in the basket at the beginning of your article? They look like something my grand-kids would love playing with!

  3. Beautiful home! That blue kitchen island is fantastic. I also loved her thoughts on the past year, especially this sentence: “We struggled. We lost steam. We cried. We fell apart. And we rallied.” Oh, did we ever.

  4. Super cute house! I would love the Airbnb link if that is ok. I travel to Westchester a lot (and used to live in Pleasantville).

  5. Your home looks lovely! I live in 1200 sq feet with two boys (now ages 18 and 21), two cats and a dog, so 1725 feels like a lot of space!! Small is good!

  6. What a beautiful home!
    I live in Germany where 1750 sq feet is considered really big for a family of four (we live on 1450 sq feet, but many people I know live on much less!) – so this home is something I can relate to much better than those gigantic American houses! Lots of idea that inspire me to change things around here a little. Thank you, Noelle!

  7. I love this house! It feels open, calm, and welcoming. The colors are beautiful!
    It’s interesting that this is considered small when this is the average/slightly larger home size where I live. Thank you for sharing your home with us.

  8. I think small space living has so many perks. We’re so purposeful in our consumerism – our house holds us to a standards of really asking IF WE NEED IT (or have space for it, or would use it enough to justify the space). We’ve been looking for our next move for a year and haven’t found anything that we love quite as much – so who knows!!!

  9. Yes! When I lived in Italy, the homes were sized more similarly. But we super size everything in america – cars, sodas, and houses! We’ve loved the lessons living here has taught us, and my husband loves that it foreces us to stay as clutter free as we can.

  10. I had to re-read your sq.ft. because your home looks incredibly spacious, and so perfect! I love the pops of color, the way you organized, and YOUR CAT *we are a cat loving family here.*

    I think all you said about what you wish had known earlier is so very true — thank you for opening up your home, and I hope you get the travel BIG very soon! Until then, bask in your gorgeous home.

  11. I love the stools at the kitchen counter but are they comfortable? What a beautiful home overall, I loved this post!

  12. Just lovely! We house hunted in Pleasantville but ended up in Tarrytown which we love too. Can you share the paint color(s) of the interior front door and the island. It is hard to tell if they are the same or not but they are so soothing.

    1. I missed this! Walls are white dove by Benjamin Moore. Stairs and front door are Wrought Iron. Kitchen is Farrow and Ball Pigeon!

  13. Where I live this is considered quite big actually! We live in a 1450 square feet home, spread over three floors with two small children (aged 2 and 4) and our friends think our home is spacious! But I have the feeling in Europe we are used to much less stuff. I think I have a lot of clothes (and we live with all four seasons) but I can get everything in a single Ikea Pax. Anyways, nothing about this house looks cramped. They did great, you can feel the tranquil mood they are after when you look at the pictures. One of my favorites you posted.

  14. Yes! The front door and staircase – and all interior doors – are wrought iron. The kitchen cabinets are farrow and ball pigeon!

  15. Super comfortable! We got them from All modern – it took ordering, assembling and returning 3 different styles before settling on these. Also, super easy to clean with kids.

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