Interiorssneak peeks

A World Traveler Creates a Home Base

by Amy Azzarito

A former corporate attorney, Rena Thiagarajan spent seven years with start-ups in Silicon Valley, funding her travel obsession before she started her own travel-inspired company, Project Bly. Named for turn-of-the-century reporter Nellie Bly, who went around the world in less than 80 days, Project Bly is an online shopping site that allows visitors to explore a new city every six months through street photography and a range of vintage and handcrafted items that are sourced directly from vendors in local markets. When she’s not traveling around the world, Rena spends her nights in this two-room apartment in San Francisco’s Russian Hill. She found the apartment in 2005, and while she was seduced by the views from Russian Hill and the fact she could walk to her job in the Financial District, what really sealed the deal was the historic detailing in this 1889 home. When she first moved in, Rena painted the entire space blue. She loved it for nearly a year, but then found herself yearning for white walls. Not only does it feel more relaxing, but the white walls allow her travel finds – art and textiles – to really take center stage. Thanks, Rena and thanks to Kelly Ishikawa for the lovely photos! –Amy

Image above: This is my bedroom. It’s small but cozy, and – like my living room – gets great morning light so I almost always wake up before my alarm goes off. The pillows on my bed are from Morocco and Vietnam, and the painting above my bed is by John Tun Sein, a Burmese painter who spent much of his career in India. The kilim in my bedroom is from Turkmenistan.

Image above: My dining room is really just part of my living room, and I also use this space as my home office. It’s where I work and I often move my easel out into the middle of my floor to paint. I used to paint mostly on canvas, but lately I paint more on paper. The striped kilim is from Turkey. 

What I love about my home

See more of Rena’s San Francisco home after the jump!

Image above: This is my favorite piece of furniture and is from Mid Century Modern Finds in San Francisco, a great little store run by a couple named Christina and Carlos. It used to be an office filing cabinet, and I love the brass details and clean lines. The big painting is by an Indian artist named Suhas Shilker, the smaller one is by me and is of an adobe house in Santa Fe. The barbershop sign is from Ghana – I absolutely loved the hand painted signs in Ghana.

Image above: I love this little corner of my living room. Everything started with the rug in this picture and its red and gray muted pomegranate pattern. I dream of having floor-to-ceiling bookshelves someday, but for now my books live on this great little vintage metal console and in my mid-century credenza. The big painting is by an Indian artist named RM Palaniapan and the smaller ones are by Sunil Sree. Sree paints on old train tickets and his art is always about journeys and the process of a journey. The wooden llama was a gift from Szymon Kochanski, one of Project Bly’s street photographers. 

Image above: This puppet is from a 2001 trip to Burma. 

Image above: My living room looks out on to another rooftop but is flooded with light in the mornings. I spend the first twenty minutes of my day on my couch drinking my coffee and just enjoying the quiet. My couch is 8 years old and is from Crate & Barrel. It was my first furniture purchase that cost more than $100. I actually returned the first two couches I bought because making a big purchase made me so nervous! I love mixing patterns and colors and often switch out the pillows on my couch to mix it up. Right now I have a couple of blue and white pillows made from vintage fabric found in Hanoi as well as an ikat pillow from Project Bly’s Bukhara collection from Uzbekistan. The paintings on the wall are vintage shaman masks from Vietnam that I had framed.


Image above: I love jewelry, especially big necklaces. This wooden hanger is on the wall in my bedroom, and is a flea market find. My favorite necklace that I wear all the time is by Lizzie Fortunato. (See Lizzie’s sneak peek here) I love how travel inspires their design.

Source List
Living Room
Mid Century Modern Credenza: Mid Century Modern Finds
Couch: Crate & Barrel
Couch Pillows: Project Bly
Leather & Cane Chair and Ottoman: Crate & Barrel
Brass Lamp: Alameda Flea Market
Standing Mid Century Modern Lamp: Mid Century Modern Finds
Glass & Wood Mid-Century Side Table: Craigslist
Floor Pillows: West Elm
Hand Painted Barbershop Sign: Project Bly (Kumasi Collection)
Side Tables: Crate & Barrel
Brass Teapot: Project Bly (Mumbai Collection)

Dining Room
Dining Chairs: Big Daddy Antiques
Dining Table: Craigslist
Kilim: Turkey

Bedding: White bedspread- Restoration Hardware; Blue Kantha Quilt: India
Pillows: Project Bly (Vietnam and Morocco)
Side Table: Room and Board
Side Chair: Etsy
Wooden Jewelry Hanger: Alameda Flea Market

Suggested For You


  • I really love when spaces are multi-functional and serve different purposes. The dining room/office is a great mix and I love that the easel has a prominent role in that shot. I’ve also been trying to come up with fun ways to display my jewelry and I love the hanger that was used for the necklaces. A very pretty collected home!

  • Love this space! It’s rich in colour and texture without being predictable. Plus those 2 brass lamps are great! They have such a beautiful shape and patina. I’m enjoying everything I see here. Smiled at the puppet (we have a similar one hanging above a tall mirror we check ourselves in before leaving the house).

  • Absolutely lovely.

    I do not mean to criticize, but it is not a bit insulting to the artists intention to cover part of the painting with another piece of art?

    • Alexander

      It very well might be, but I think the thing to consider with a private home is what the home owner’s intention is. We can rarely know what an artist’s intention is (perhaps they would like being part of a more lived-in arrangement next to other artists, perhaps not) but we definitely know that this home owner’s intention is to display as much of their art as possible and this is an arrangement that speaks to their personal preferences. It may not be for everyone, but I’m always all for anything that means people are investing in original art and displaying it at home in a way that makes them happy.


  • Every time I go back to India, I am frustrated by the trending of the kitsch. But here we have a beautiful interpretation of Indian design and decor sensibilities, merging so fluidly with other global styles. Thoughtfully and skilfully executed. I also admire your nod to modern Indian artists.

  • That’s a very reasonable comment Grace.
    I still feel ambivalent, that a painting deserves to be seen in its entirety. I also get this silly notion that the piece gets reduced to a decorational item if you put another piece in front of it.

    On the other hand, it sure does look really nice and impactful with that cluster of different paintings over the credenza.

  • Well hello there, fellow San Fran world traveler :-). Love love love to see other travelers who have collected their house goods through adventures. It just adds a level of personality that West Elm and Nate Berkus can’t emulate!

  • Alexander, for many people art IS a decorative object, or an emotional touchstone. Art is different things to different people. Your take on art (as a statement or story, I presume?) is not any better or worse than another person’s take.

  • Thank you everyone for your kind comments. I’m thrilled to have my home on Design Sponge!

    Alexander, You’re right, it would be great if I could showcase each piece of art by itself, but unfortunately, I only have two small walls in my living room to display art, and the rest are windows. I love art, and I hope someday to have enough wall space to display my collection properly, especially Shilker’s since it’s such a big canvas.

  • I absolutely love the puppet from Burma! My daughter has an “around the world collection” made up of wonderful gifts from friends and family. It is inspired by my aunt’s doll collection, given to her by my Dad, her older brother. As he visited different countries when he was in the Navy he would send home a doll. Hopefully my daughter & I can travel one day ourselves but in the meantime she has been given many unique beautiful gifts that teach her about the world. This apartment is inspirational ….I currently do not have her collection on display …I keep trying to find that “perfect” display cabinet….but I am definately going to display her treasures now! They deserve to be seen :)….

  • love, love this home!
    BTW Artist name is Sunil Sree
    (I’m an artist…just wanted to make sure he gets the recognition)

  • Rena- Your home is so….exquisitely beautiful- every little detail! I was couple of years ahead of you (and Maya) at Sishya.

  • Hi, I love that you have the nearly identical puppet to mine from the same place – I love mine. Great house, thanks for sharing, Katie

  • Your home is gorgeous! I LOVE the large gray & yellow painting!! Is the canvas mounted on the wall directly?

  • Hello,

    Please tell me where your beautiful gray and red muted pomegranate pattern rug (that inspired you) is from– Thank you!! :-)