Interior Designer Renu Mathias Created Her Own Perfect Home

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Renu used items and inspiration from her travels abroad to put a personal touch on her family’s home

Renu and Sam Mathias with their two children, Taj, 8, and Kirin, 7, in front of their home.
Renu and Sam Mathias with their two children, Taj, 8, and Kirin, 7, in front of their home.

By Leah Josephson | Photography by John Michael Simpson

After traveling together to more than 15 countries and living on both coasts as they grew their careers, Renu Mathias and Sam Mathias settled in Chapel Hill in 2018 seeking a diverse, close-knit community to raise their two children, Taj, 8, and Kirin, 7. Sam was familiar with the area, having attended Duke University as an undergraduate. At the end of a whirlwind 36-hour “scouting trip,” they were quickly under contract for their home in Chandler’s Green.

Now, Renu, an interior designer and owner of Renu Mathias Interiors, uses her house as a testing ground for her eclectic, collected style as she continues to grow her design business for clients in Chapel Hill and beyond.

“For my own home, I want it to feel like a collage of cultures and experiences. I don’t want it to feel so uniform,” she says. “I want it to feel like you’re peeling back all of these stories and discovering where things came from and how they got here.”

While Renu was drawn to the home’s good bones, including a large refinished kitchen, her major project was to remove an interior wall that separated the first floor common areas, creating a large, open dining and living space that flows into the kitchen. The open concept works well for the family as Renu and Sam enjoy cooking and hosting friends and family.

For more casual seating, Renu also installed a curved, asymmetrical built-in banquette adjacent to the kitchen, popular with Taj and Kirin and their friends. Large windows offer views of the wooded backyard.

The warm, neutral color palette plays well with international decor picked up on the family’s travels, including Renu’s childhood trips to India and Europe with her parents, and a ‘round-the-world adventure that Renu and Sam took when they were first engaged.

Yoga studio. "We turned the third floor into a transportive yoga studio. It has offered endless amounts of zen for me and my husband!" Renu says.
“We turned the third floor into a transportive yoga studio. It has offered endless amounts of zen for me and my husband!” Renu says.

“I always would find myself gravitating toward the textiles and home stores, just buying and collecting things for [my] eventual home,” Renu says. “Kudu horns, the ostrich eggs on the dining table, all of these things that I just knew I wanted in my home someday, but didn’t know where they would go.”

She also encourages her clients to find personal inspiration, often from travel, vacations or other meaningful experiences, to guide the design process.

“I think that’s what tells a story, that’s what gives a home depth,” she says. “It’s a good starting point for me when I talk to my clients – understanding not just who they are, but what inspires them. And typically, that’s a place. It’s a memory; it can be a scent. Ultimately, when you’re in your home, you’re grounding yourself into this sense of place. How do you create that environment that’s really grounding and emotionally secure and supportive? I always like to start with that.”

Rather than remaining faithful to a specific style ethos, Renu, who previously worked in consumer brand marketing, engages each client uniquely through the process of pulling together a design inspired by a lifetime of experiences. One recent project bridged a client’s love for both Charleston, South Carolina, and Stockholm, blending traditional Southern and Scandinavian styles. Another project in the Northwood neighborhood involved updating a 1970s lodge-style home inherited from the client’s grandfather. The design began as a “modern lodge” that reflected the home’s surroundings set back in a grove of old trees. The homeowners have slowly incorporated antique and vintage furnishings, with Renu’s guidance, for a more eclectic blend of old and new.

“As somebody who comes from the background of trying to understand the consumer to better figure out how to market, that’s what I do all day long,” she says. “I love that I’m not just designing the same playbook over and over again, and just pushing it into different homes.”

In addition to layering modern and vintage, local and multicultural, Renu uses a blend of high- and low-end fixtures and furnishings in her own home and in design projects, prioritizing durability and livability. Her laundry area is outfitted with IKEA cabinets and a mudroom bench from The Container Store, enhanced with brass fixtures and a cushion upholstered with fabric from a vintage rug Renu found on Etsy. Locally, she shops for unique touches at Patina in Durham.

Renu guides clients to invest more in comfortable seating, as well as textiles and lighting. These elements make an especially big impact in small spaces, like the jewel box powder room off the family’s laundry area. The space is wallpapered floor to ceiling in a moody William Morris print – the traditional pattern juxtaposed with unexpected touches, like the structural modern brass sconce on just one side of the mirror, whose wavy edges lend an organic style to the space. A backsplash ledge is finished with neutral tile with a handmade look, stacked vertically for a more contemporary treatment.

Renu and her family continue to find creativity and community both abroad and closer to home, including at local favorite spots including Hawthorne & Wood and Pizzeria Mercato, and The Casual Pint, the go-to hang out after Friday night Little League games. Inspired by a recent trip to Portugal, where cozy wine bars welcomed guests to settle in and stay a while, Renu has recently been dreaming of supporting a local developer in designing a mixed-use project to elevate dining and retail experiences available to families of Chapel Hill, not just the university ecosystem.

“We appreciate the sense of community [in Chapel Hill]. I think that was the thing that I was missing the most in the Bay Area,” Renu says. “People spend so much of their time working and grinding it out, it was really hard to feel any sort of connection. It’s a simple life, and people are welcoming. And that Southern hospitality thing is real.”

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