Midwestern decorating prodigy Matt Carollo translates his lifelong penchant for remarkable finds into a one-bedroom rental with old-world soul
It’s morning in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, and while others are enjoying a cup of coffee and a cream-cheese-smeared bagel with Robin Roberts, Matt Carollo is admiring the view of his charcoal-gray living room (the color: Down Pipe by Farrow & Ball). “I love the way the sun streams through the windows,” he says. “I have a Moroccan wedding blanket and a lumbar pillow, each with little silver sequins, and I like to get up and see how the light is hitting them.”
Carollo, as you may have guessed, is in the interiors business—he works as an assistant buyer for the Chicago-based furniture and decor retailer Jayson Home, where he started as an intern while at the Illinois Institute of Art. But the 25-year-old’s passion for beautiful things and his curatorial sense of their placement in his thoughtfully assembled world extends beyond a mere day job to something more serious and capitalized: a Life’s Work. He found his calling at the age of 12; while other kids were dusting off their cleats for Little League, Carollo and his mother would drive for hours from their home in Kingsford, Michigan, each weekend in search of treasures at auctions, estate sales, and antiques stores. “I ended up doing most of the decorating in my parents’ house,” he says. His version of a middle-school crush? Shabby Chic mogul Rachel Ashwell. “She was very popular at the time—and she had this whitewashed linen duvet cover that I loved. My mom finally caved and let me buy it.”
Though he’s since transitioned from his French Country distressed-paint days, a hefty portion of the spoils of Carollo’s coming-of-age decor adventures—a chartreuse tufted chair, a taxidermy blowfish, and a crystal chandelier, to name but a few—came with him when he moved into his one-bedroom apartment two years ago. (The rest lies in wait in his parents’ garage.) He was initially drawn to the ’20s-era building for its character, and was soon sold by the DIY challenges it presented. “I love to put in work, so I painted every single surface, sanded and stripped the kitchen cabinets, changed out all the light fixtures, and took each knob and hinge and handle down to its original brass base. My friends think I’m crazy because I rent, but I like to make a space my own— it doesn’t feel like home otherwise.”
A quick survey of Carollo’s manifold belongings evokes a sensibility best described as dignitary meets magpie—as though a cabinet of curiosities and an attic’s worth of historical relics had been laid bare, meticulously edited, and presented in salon form. Carollo attributes his inclination toward a moody, gray-blue backdrop to the influence of British decorator Abigail Ahern, and cites J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons’s former Brooklyn townhouse as inspiration for the Benjamin Moore Chalkboard paint in his bedroom. “There’s such depth to it,” he says with admiration. Having favored a more traditional vibe in his early years, he now prefers to mix eras—a midcentury Milo Baughman coffee table shares floor space with an early-20th-century green mohair settee inherited from his great-great-grandmother and a pair of leopard-print velvet chairs picked up on his first buying trip in the South of France. “I have a bit of a chair addiction,” he admits.
Artwork is both plentiful and diverse. There’s a Gauguin-esque vintage figurative painting on a gallery wall; hand-colored family portraits of distant ancestors; an oil painting diptych (each panel measuring eight feet high) depicting a classical scene in the living room; and an abstract black-and-white piece in the dining room—just something Carollo threw together by painting over an abandoned canvas he found while doing laundry. “I always enjoy sketching and doing stuff like that,” he says modestly.
This is a guy who clearly delights in working a theme. Zebra patterns abound (in Sharpie-sketch, floor-rug, and papier-mâché-bust forms), as do brass trophies (“I was never a huge sports person in school, so maybe I’m unintentionally awarding myself?” he posits). Most notably, there’s the ironstone servingware—enough to accommodate a banquet at Downton Abbey—housed in a perfectly chipped antique hutch in the kitchen. “I have service for 16, which is a little nuts because my dining table only seats four,” Carollo says. He’s also not inclined to throw formal dinner parties, preferring Thai takeout when his friends come over—though he does “love to set a table.”
But one gets the sense that Carollo’s finery, as with everything else in his Aladdin’s Cave of a home, will yet fulfill its raison d’être; after all, he’s always been the planning-ahead sort. “It was never just about buying things for my bedroom,” he says of his impulse to begin collecting in his tween years. In other words, good design can’t wait, but life—that can catch up later.