Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: Inside the Filmmakers’ Whimsically Wallpapered Manhattan Abode

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin know a thing or two about cultivating drama. The husband-and-wife filmmakers, who split their time between Wyoming and New York City, took home an Academy Award for their 2018 documentary, Free Solo, an edge-of-your-seat thriller that chronicled rock climber Alex Honnold’s epic quest to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The couple also directed and produced 2021’s The Rescue, which recounted the struggle to liberate a group of young soccer players trapped in an underwater cave in Thailand. For their Manhattan abode nestled among the peaks of the Upper East Side, the intrepid auteurs, working in concert with architect Damian Zunino and designer Britt Zunino of Studio DB, have crafted an entirely different kind of story—a three-dimensional tale of family and personal passion told through color, form, texture, and pattern.

“Jimmy and I are so different—city mouse versus country mouse. He grew up in a small city in Minnesota, and I was born and raised in Manhattan. But we are both children of immigrants, with a shared Chinese heritage,” Vasarhelyi says, elaborating on the dual perspectives and affinities that inform the couple’s work. “We are storytellers, and everything here has its own story, everything has meaning,” adds Chin.

The couple with their children, Marina and James, in the living room. A Peter Hvidt cocktail table sits between a sofa from Matter and a vintage Italian sofa in Dedar fabric; the painting by the window is by Isca Greenfield-Sanders.

Art: Isca Greenfield-Sanders.

A palpable sense of joy permeates the home. Just past the mahogany-paneled elevator vestibule, a compact entry hall wrapped in a dinosaur-patterned wallpaper immediately sets the playful tone. Other wall coverings and decorative flourishes deployed throughout the apartment underscore the couple’s deep connection with nature, as well as their Asian roots. Mementos of their travels—dishes from Senegal, chairs from Colombia, rugs from Morocco—mingle amicably with family heirlooms and a curated collection of vintage and contemporary furnishings.

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“Chai is super charismatic. She loves color, pattern, fashion. Jimmy is a T-shirt and baseball cap kind of guy,” notes Britt Zunino.

“We tried to give them something that feels fresh, unexpected, and a bit glamorous—something that conveys a full picture of their lives.”

Among the paintings in the living room is a canvas by the couple’s friend Isca Greenfield-Sanders, who introduced them to Studio DB. In addition to Chin’s own estimable photographs, there are artworks by Dorothea Lange and Hank Willis Thomas that reflect on the complicated history of racial injustice in the US, particularly as it has impacted Asian American communities. “We wanted the overall mood to be whimsical, not too serious, but some of the art raises difficult questions, which we encourage our kids to ask,” Vasarhelyi notes. “There’s a sense of discovery here—it’s part of the fun. Every room makes us happy.”

This story appears in AD’s June 2023 issue. To see Vasarhelyi and Chin’s home in print, subscribe to AD.

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