This paper reports the design, synthesis and characterization of thin films as a platform for studying the separate influences of physical and chemical cues of a matrix on the adhesion, growth and final phenotype of cells. Independent control of the physical and chemical properties of functionalized, swellable hydrogel thin films is achieved using initiated chemical vapor deposition (iCVD). The systematic variation in crosslink density is demonstrated to control the swelling ability of the iCVD hydrogel films based on 2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate (HEMA). At the same time, the incorporation of controllable concentrations of the active ester pentafluorophenyl methacrylate (PFM) allows easy immobilization of aminated bioactive motifs, such as bioactive peptides. Initial cell culture results with human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) indicate that the strategy of using PFM to immobilize a cell-adhesion peptide motif onto the hydrogel layers promotes proper HUVEC growth and enhances their phenotype.