By TYLER ELLYSON
SAN DIEGO – Nothing about Jenna Pilant’s life is ordinary.
When the 35-year-old renovated her master bedroom, she went with purple carpet, orange and blue doors and a lime green bookcase.
For Christmas, her rainbow tree was decorated with disco ball ornaments, and she dressed her dogs in dragon costumes that matched her sparkly blue dress and cape on Halloween.
She’s not afraid to wear polka dot rompers, knee-high, gold boots or anything in leopard print, and she owns a different pair of eyeglasses to match all of these outfits, which are usually accented by bright-red lipstick.
“I definitely march to the beat of my own drum,” the Gibbon native said. “I don’t like trends. I do what feels best in my creative gut.”
Pilant sees things a little differently than most. Not only does she color outside the lines, she chooses a palette that reflects her bold personality.
The self-described “Jenna-of-many-trades” was displaying this creativity long before she became a successful upholstery artist, interior designer and design-and-style blogger in Southern California, where she lives with her husband Darrell and their four “fur babies.”
Pilant’s world has been colorful since birth.
Her parents, Mike and Carol Johannsen, brought their oldest child home from the hospital to a yellow nursery with rainbow patterns and navy carpet.
At Gibbon High School, the do-it-all kid from small-town central Nebraska was active in choir, band, dance, theater and cheerleading. She was president of the school’s FCCLA chapter and vice president of the student council.
She also had big dreams.
“I loved growing up in the Midwest and I love everything Nebraska stands for, but being a more creative person, I felt like I needed to spread my wings and get outside my home state to see what I’m really capable of,” Pilant said.
After graduating from high school in 2003, Pilant had her sights set on Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and its music business program.
She was accepted into the prestigious program, but decided to spend her first year of college at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which is just 15 miles from her hometown.
At UNK, Pilant quickly discovered she didn’t need to leave Nebraska to get the education she was looking for. She developed close relationships with faculty in the department of music, theatre and dance, received a scholarship and realized she could earn a degree without spending $40,000 a year.
“I felt like I could get the one-on-one attention I needed for my vocal progress and my musicianship,” Pilant said. “I don’t have one regret about deciding not to go to Nashville after that first year and staying at UNK.”
Pilant participated in various choirs and theater productions at UNK, and she was also involved with Kearney Community Theatre as a performer, director and board member.
Her on-stage talent led to a position as an on-air host with the local Fox affiliate, where she worked for two years despite having no previous television experience.
“I only had my work ethic and this quirky personality,” said Pilant, who credits UNK professors Anne Foradori and Janice Fronczak with helping her land a gig she “had no business even applying for.”
To this day, Pilant considers Foradori a mentor and friend.
“She’s always been someone I can lean on and look to for advice, so I’ve been very thankful to have that relationship,” Pilant said. “There’s just something to be said about going to a university where that family dynamic exists. UNK is a big university, but I very much felt seen and heard, and I felt like I had the support I needed to succeed.”
On Memorial Day 2009 – less than a month after graduating from UNK with bachelor’s degrees in musical theater and music business – Pilant loaded her belongings into a Honda Accord and left for the West Coast.
She joined her then-husband Thomas, a UNK graduate working for the National Association of Music Merchants, in San Diego and hit the ground running. Pilant booked a commercial with Jerome’s Furniture, a Southern California business chain, and she appeared in a Wendy’s commercial and the music video for Orianthi’s “According to You.”
“I was having a lot of fun,” Pilant said.
But it was also exhausting.
Oftentimes, she would make the 120-mile commute from San Diego to Los Angeles late at night, crash on a friend’s couch, then audition for a role the next day before returning to San Diego to work whatever temp job she had at the time – receptionist at a chiropractic office, promotional model for a liquor company, merchandise unloader for a large retailer, among others.
“I was literally doing anything and everything I could just to make ends meet and get the bills paid,” Pilant said.
After spending 11 months as the special events and art foundry manager at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad, California, where Pilant was hoping to join the acting company, she was feeling burned-out and lost.
Darrell, who she was dating at the time, asked a simple question while they were drinking wine on the sofa: “Are you happy?”
The answer was no.
Pilant quit her job, and within two months she’d launched her design-and-style blog – “Lucky Little Mustardseed” – and started a full-time upholstery business – Homebird Upholstery.
Using the skills she learned from her seamstress mother while assisting with do-it-yourself projects at the family farmhouse as a child, Pilant was ready to take on her first client – a board member from New Village Arts Theatre with a 1969 Airstream travel trailer that needed some interior upgrades.
Or so she thought.
“If I’m going to be truthful, I remember in March 2013 standing over the upholstery project going, ‘Oh God, what have I done? Have we bitten off more than we can chew Jenna? This is a little crazy.’”
It’s been seven years since Pilant started Homebird Upholstery, and the one-woman business is still going strong.
Pilant uses her “knack for bright colors” and love of all things vintage to turn once-tattered furniture into one-of-a-kind pieces for clients.
“It’s been quite a pinch-me moment, because people are really digging what I’m creating,” she said.
Her blog, which Pilant describes as “a mini-trip through this technicolor brain of mine,” has also taken off and she currently partners with Cabi to promote the fashion brand.
Pilant has 15,000 followers on Instagram (@jennapilant) and she recently launched her new website, jennapilant.com.
As if that weren’t enough, she also has a home renovation show – “Room Bloom” – that premiered in August 2018 on YouTube.
In the self-produced show, inspired by her love for HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” Pilant modernizes the Pauma Valley home she and Darrell purchased four years ago – room by room, project by project.
She calls it “a culmination of my constant need for creativity mixed with my lifelong obsession with colorful interiors.”
“Plus, what woman doesn’t want her home updated by her own rainbow-tastic standards?”
The YouTube show, which currently has 25 episodes, allows viewers to follow the progress as Pilant renovates the home, sharing her design and decorating tips along the way. Each episode focuses on a specific project, such as building a custom headboard, reconstructing a fireplace, adding a wall or installing wallpaper.
“I’m trying to show the nitty gritty of it and really help people see the whole process and show them it’s not as easy as one may think,” Pilant said. “There is a lot of work that goes into it.”
Pilant, who has already revealed her new family room, master bedroom, entryway and office, estimates there’s about two years of content remaining before her dream home is complete and she shifts her focus to other houses.
The ongoing renovation project was featured in the August 2019 edition of San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine. Her colorful creations and unique style earned Pilant the magazine cover and a 10-page, centerfold spread inside.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d have the cover of a magazine,” Pilant said. “To quote my grandmother Margaret (Dalby Fowler), I must be living right and paying the preacher, because I don’t know how that happened, but I am beyond grateful.”
Her interior design work is also featured in the current issue of Origin magazine, available at newsstands nationwide.
Although she doesn’t perform very often these days – Pilant refers to herself as a “way overtrained car and shower singer” – the UNK graduate isn’t second-guessing her decision to study music.
She believes all of those past experiences led to her current success.
“As long as I’m doing something that’s creative, I’ll be happy,” Pilant said. “That’s honestly been my main goal. I just want to be happy.”