Cool to the eye, but warm to the touch

Cool to the eye but warm to the touch, designer Sara Esnaashari's apartment is bright and vibrant.

Cool to the eye but warm to the touch, designer Sara Esnaashari’s apartment is bright and vibrant.

Born in Tehran and raised in Toronto, Esnaashari moved to Shanghai over six years ago to pursue a career in design, where she met her husband Arash Jalvan who moved to China as a child with his parents 20 years ago.

The couple decided to move in together after two years in a relationship. But finding the perfect home was rather impossible for them as they were both drawn to older homes with history and yet both were picky and had a long list of requirements. 

It took them about six months and over 100 lane houses to find the place they’ve been calling home for the past three years.

“We always knew we wanted to live in a lane house, and we never liked living in a newly built apartment because all the apartments around the world look the same: charmless and disconnected from the city outside and its culture and history,” Esnaashari said. “That’s not how we want to live our lives. Now that we have the opportunity to live in this charming city, we want to take in every bit of it with all of its ups and downs.”

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The living room features the bright bursts of color, mismatched items and globally curated vintage pieces.

But finding a truly authentic yet renovated lane house that retains its charm while incorporating modern features is not so easy in Shanghai anymore. As lane house living is becoming more and more popular, many agencies are renting lane houses for the long term, renovate them with fake loft style and lease them to foreigners who want to experience lane house living.

“And that’s why as soon as I walked into this property, I knew it was it,” she said. “Our landlord kept all the charming features of the house like the original flooring, the doors and the windows and restored it to be more of an open concept home with plenty of light, an open kitchen and a separate entrance.”

So the couple rented the apartment as the landlord was moving to England, and brought in their furniture and make it theirs with all the soft furnishing. “We didn’t touch any of the original structure of the house, but over time, we changed and upgraded some of the newer features that were added throughout the years like all the built-in closets in the bedrooms, the cabinets and the fittings in the kitchen as the previous ones were not working properly anymore,” she added.

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The highlight of home is the built-in bookcase, which is turned into the couple’s “global souvenir shop”.

“Living in an old Shanghai lane house which was constructed in 1907 in the city center, we feel like we are living in a part of the history which will not be here in a very near future,” Esnaashari said.

“Our home indeed mirrors us, our interests, our travel stories and our multi-cultural backgrounds. There was never a particular style we wanted to follow in our home decor. Instead, we went room-by-room with no regard to what was going on in the rest of the house, and we decorated and added elements to every space along the way as we traveled the world and found a piece we loved.”

Living and building a home together in this energetic city and our obsession with beautiful things inspired them to start ESNABOX, an online lifestyle brand and the modern-day gifting solution. This brand is essentially an extension of the couple’s lives and what they are interested in, and their home is a reflection of the curated world they work and play in each day.

“I use my home as a way to experiment and try new things. I love bright bursts of color, mismatched items and globally curated vintage pieces and that combination is visible in every room of our home,” Esnaashari said.

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The home office is decorated with African baskets brought back from Cape Town.

The master bedroom, on the countrary, is cozy and quiet. They have an extra-high ceiling and lots of natural light in the bedroom as it is in the attic so they complemented that with keeping the colors light and natural and adding richness to space by layering natural fabrics and textures.

The highlight at home is definitely the built-in bookcase in the living room which is now turned into what they call their “global souvenir shop.” It is right in the middle of the house and almost visible from every corner and the perfect spot to keep all the items and accessories they collected over time and along the way on their travels around the world: from decorative plates from Cappadocia in Turkey, antique vases from Paris and shells from the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar, to name a few.

“The kitchen is the heart of our home. My husband loves cooking and having an open kitchen was a must when we were hunting for a home as we both know we would spend a lot of time there, but we couldn’t dream of a better kitchen. Because of the open design of the house, our kitchen is as much a dining room as a kitchen. So every day, when we come home from work, we sit around our kitchen island, open a bottle of wine and talk about our days as we prepare our dinner,” she said. 

They even have a comfy bed for their dog Shekar in the kitchen so he can also relax in that room.

Esnaashari said she grew up in a home where they had friends, family or guests pop in and out all day long, which meant at least all the areas insight had to always be kept tightly, which of course was more work for her mom, but it also brought them a lot of positive energy, fun memories and laughter.

“And that is precisely what we want in our home — an open door policy, and so we always have some snacks and a bottle of wine around the house, ready to entertain the unannounced guests.”

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The master bedroom is cozy and quiet.

Q: What’s the best thing about living in Shanghai?

A: Being part of the local community and living side by side with our Chinese neighbors, many who have been living in the same house for more than 50 years and seeing their appreciation of everyday life and their joy in small things in life bring us back to earth and reminds us of what still matters the most in this modern life. 

Q: Describe your home in three words.

A: Colorful. Diverse. Fearless.

Q: What’s the first thing you do when you get home?

A: Go to the bathroom and wash the makeup and the pollution off my skin.

Q: How do you unwind?

A: By having a cup of coffee on our rooftop patio, looking at the ever-growing Shanghai skylights.

Q: What’s your best view outside your window?

A: The view from our living room, of the lane behind our house which to me is a window to the real Shanghai life of the locals. 

Q: How do you scent your home?

A: As I have my own lifestyle brand ESNABOX, I am always testing new candles at home so everytime you come to our house, it probably has a different scent.

Q: What’s your favorite object at home?

A: Our acrylic Trunk Coffee Table with Chinese metal accent which I designed a few years ago.

Q: Where do you shop for furniture in Shanghai?

A: I love travel finds and flea markets for vintage items. But most of the furniture in our house is bespoke by local shops around the city or the contractor from my interior design projects.

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Sara Esnaashari and Arash Jalvan 

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