If you’ve ever tackled a home renovation, then you know it’s an undertaking that’s not for the faint of heart. The real kicker? Finding the right general contractor for the job, one who’ll meet you on the same page from the start and will see your project through to perfection. That’s a lesson Jean Brownhill, today’s 5+5 interviewee, learned the hard way with a reno project of her own. It led her to launch Sweeten—an inspired solution to spare her fellow homeowners from a similarly sub-par experience.
Since 2011 Sweeten’s been matching renovation projects with fully vetted, licensed, and insured general contractors from the firm’s deep rolodex, providing expert-level guidance throughout the process. And did we mention it’s free for the homeowner? Less stress, more renovation magic. It’s no surprise Sweeten’s been called a “Renovation Game-Changer” by New York Magazine, and Brownhill’s been named one of the “Most Innovative Women Founders in America” by Inc. Magazine. She pays it forward, too. Brownhill is a Loeb Fellow from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where she co-founded the African American Student Union to support African Americans in architecture, real estate and urban planning. More recently, she started SAW—Sweeten Accelerator for Women—to help female contractors break through in an overwhelmingly male industry.
As someone whose world revolves around renovations (with a background in architecture!), Brownhill has an understandable inclination toward the tasteful and timeless—several of her 20x200 art picks are classics from our vintage collection. Read on!
— Team 20x200
5 Perfect Picks
1) Plate 22, Sheet 2, Ancient Courses Mississippi River Meander Belt, a 20x200 Vintage Edition
This beautifully captures the mercurial essence of nature. I love the precision and dedication it took to document the Mississippi River, even when it’s clearly going to keep evolving.
2) Animal Locomotion: Plate 759 (Bird) by Eadweard Muybridge
When building our algorithm at Sweeten, we often talk about the history of flight, and that we are looking to understand the principles of aerodynamics and not just copy how a bird flaps its wings. This print is a nice reminder that a bird flapping its wings is also really beautiful.
3) Trayvon Martin + We Are All Trayvon Martin (pair) by Rudy Shepherd
The tenderness in this image is deceivingly simple—I’ve seen this moment play out between brothers and friends so many times. It’s a very specific type of non-romantic intimate embrace. When I realized the younger man was Trayvon Martin, my heart broke understanding that so many men and women wish they could embrace and protect him.
4) Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn by Berenice Abbott
I’m obsessed with Berenice Abbott. "The world doesn't like independent women. Why, I don't know, but I don't care." I just love thinking about her storming around New York city in the early 1930’s with her camera, taking these glorious, powerful images.
5) Camp Fern Rock (archer) by Gordon Parks
Yes! This is my mood everyday. Hair done, dress on, focused, strong and aiming for the bull’s-eye.
5 Q's + 5 A's
1) What's your favorite museum?
Tate Modern London.
2) What's your most coveted coffee table book?
3) Do you prefer a single statement piece or a salon wall?
4) You've got $5m you have to spend on one piece of art. What would it be?
As many of Barkley Hendrick portraits as I could find for sale and afford!
5) Sweeten does a brilliant job of demystifying the renovation world, matching clients with the right contractors for the job. What advice would you have for someone who wants to redesign their space with their art collection in mind?
If you have a special art collection in mind worthy of being a conversation starter, plan out beforehand where you like to see them displayed. It can be as simple as planning ahead knowing you will leave a kitchen or bathroom wall empty specifically for hanging a smaller art collection. All cabinetry and material installation would be laid out around it.
If you plan on changing the floor plan and have the space, consider creating a standalone wall or niche wall specifically to feature an art collection. In a living room, hallway, or bedroom, it could feel like a vignette: hanging art sitting over a decorative chair and side table. Or give it a gallery vibe that is non-functional and purely beautiful to look at. This would make it stand out.
The 411 on Jean Brownhill
After earning an Architecture degree at The Cooper Union, Jean spent a decade working in architecture and construction. Her own challenging renovation inspired her to transform the opaque construction industry and create the first modern renovation experience that is transparent, efficient and personal.
Sweeten (as in “home, sweet home”) launched in 2011. Today, Sweeten has nearly $1.5B of construction projects in the pipeline. The two-sided marketplace brings trust, transparency and technology to a $400B industry, creating the end-to-end standard for the renovation experience. Sweeten has been called a “Renovation Game-Changer,” with Jean hailed as “The Contractor Whisperer” by New York Magazine and one of Inc. Magazine’s “Most Innovative Women Founders in America.”
Jean is a Loeb Fellow from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, where she co-founded the African American Student Union (AASU), an organization supporting African Americans in architecture, real estate and urban planning. As a member of the 2018 Class of Henry Crown Fellows at the Aspen Institute, she recently launched SAW (Sweeten Accelerator for Women) to help female contractors build their businesses. Most recently, Jean was recognized by Goldman Sachs as one of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2020 at its Builders + Innovators Summit.