It's been exactly ONE YEAR since the start of the biggest project of my life and the demo of my home. My mental and physical selves are back to normal and I can finally say, "I did it! And I lived to tell the tale." This is going to be a long one guys, but I've had so many people ask me about my renovation, for photos and all the details, that I figured I'd fill my Ms Fits in on it all. So hang on tight...
Last May marked the start of the demolition of almost every single room in my family's newly purchased home, a 1951 Colonial, and my venture into home renovation when I took on the full time job of general contractor, architect, interior designer, coffee gofer, mathematician, decorator, debate champion, gardner, mediator and friend. And now that it's all over, I can actually walk around my home and appreciate the jewel it's become... and I think, damn, I wish I knew then what I know now. I think, wow, how fun would it be to take on a whole new project knowing everything I know now. And in those long 6 months of renovation, these are the things I wish I had known to make this adventure even a tiny bit easier...
Listen To Your Gut:
No matter what you want to do with your own home, you'd be surprised at the amount of criticism, negativity and opinions you will receive from everyone as close as your family (they mean well), to your contractor and even the sales person at the tile store. Since this was my first time taking on a project of this magnitude, I was happy to open my arms and ears to suggestions. But, suggestions can quickly turn into strong opinions that will attempt to steer you away from what you want. Trust your gut no matter what! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in this case, in the inhabiter. You're the one that has to look at your end project every single day, not anyone else. It's ok to hear what they have to say, but I'm glad that I didn't sway from my design aesthetic just because it wasn't necessarily someone else's.
For example, I think I got the most commentary about the finishes in the master bath. I saw this faucet at a bathroom showroom and instantly fell in love. The "problem" the saleswoman said was that this faucet was only intended for vessel sinks that sit above the counter, hence their exaggerated height. To me, their height was exactly what made them stand out amongst the thousands of faucets that I had looked at at that point. My gut told me they would look frickin' amazing, while the saleswoman kept telling me it would look bizarre and "wouldn't work." My gut won.
Ask A Lot of Questions... and Actually Listen to Advice:
With the listening of your gut comes its counterpart, listen to advice. If I had a penny for every question I asked during this process, I'd be on to my next house project somewhere in Beverly Hills. My famous phrase as everyone told me was, "ummm, I have a question," which was always followed with their response, "uh oh." The amount of decisions that I needed to make on a daily basis was absolutely the hardest part of this whole thing. Everything from, what color do you want this wall, to where exactly do you want these light switches and to which lights do they belong, to when do you want the appliances delivered, to do you want to keep this dumpster or get a smaller one, to do you want a chrome finish sink drain for $50 or the solid gold one to match the rest of the bathroom finishes for $375? And with all those decisions came the questions. I don't frickin' know where I want the light switch, you tell me where people typically put a light switch for this feature. Which toilet seat is more comfortable? What are the reviews for this bath tub, ceiling fan, refrigerator, glass? What are your recommendations for best air conditioning unit? Do you have an opinion on round sink versus rectangular sink? Why do I have to put that ugly plug right in the middle of my perfectly smooth wall... oh, because it has to be up to code? It is non-stop and that's ok. Any adventure is an adventure because it's a learning process, and if you're not asking questions, then you're not learning and if you're not learning then you might as well not do it. Ask questions!
Do What Works for Your Lifestyle:
Just like everyone has their own unique aesthetic, everyone also has their own unique way of living and utilizing a space. One of the hardest parts about making the said decisions was the balance between loving something for its look versus its function in every day life. The design of our first floor was created to accommodate our two wild boys and my love of the open floor plan. The flow, or lack thereof, of a 1950's Colonial was transformed into a brighter, more open plan by taking down a load bearing wall, getting an engineer to approve it, putting in an extremely expensive piece of metal, and using every ounce of my creative power to come up with a way to actually make it look cohesive with the rest of the house.
Another example was again, the light switches... damn light switches! When you enter a room, you need to turn on the light, but if there is more than one entry way and exit to that room, you also have to think about how to turn that light off from a different exit and think about how you'll be leaving that room on a daily basis. Ridiculous, right?
Another decision was in the kitchen. With the big island in the middle, did I want the stovetop on the island, and the sink at the countertop, or the other way around? Thinking about how I use the stove versus the sink, I decided that it would make more sense for my family to have the sink in the island and the stovetop at the countertop. We use the sink exponentially more than the stove, so I wanted it in a spot that was easier to get to for not only me, but for the kids. I also didn't want a hot stove in an area where my kids do puzzles and draw and eat. And for aesthetic reasons, I didn't want a stove in the middle of my kitchen because I didn't want a huge hood fan sitting above it and ruining the openness of the room.
Don't Get Stuck On the Trendy Train:
My passion for interior design is probably as old as my love for fashion. For me, the two go hand in hand. As they say in the fashion world, you can buy fashion but you can't buy style. Fashion is what they send down the runway twice a year, they are the trends that consume our minds and our wallets, and as quickly as these trends appear, they're soon walking the plank into oblivion. As a fashion stylist, I encourage my clients to have fun with trends and certainly adopt them with an open mind, but I also give caution to the fact that their entire wardrobe shouldn't be the trend of the season. Pick a few pieces here and there and incorporate them into your own personal style. The same goes with interior design. In my design, I thought about what my husband and I really love and what speaks to our design aesthetic and then while picking pieces, I took heed of whether or not those pieces were too trendy. In fashion it's easy to buy a new en trend lace shirt or wide leg jeans. But, when it comes to interiors, this practice will set you back a penny or 10,000.
One of my favorite aspects of interior design is lighting. For some reason, I just have this thing for beautiful and unique lighting and would put a lamp, a chandelier, a sconce in every single room if it didn't make me look like a crazy hoarder. Because lighting trends are the ones that seem to change the quickest, it's easy to fall passionately in love with a piece, spend thousands on it, make it the focal point of a major room and then realize a few years later that perhaps with the expiration of that trend also went your fondness for that piece.
Small pendants are typically the lighting of choice for above the island, or these days, the bulbous industrial or restaurant-kitchen looking pendants are all the rage and they're absolutely gorgeous. But for me, I didn't want to commit to something that I wasn't sure I'd still love, even a few years from now. The lighting I chose for my kitchen was a simple crystal chandelier. Typically, a chandelier is hung in a great room or dining room, not in a kitchen. I wanted to do something a bit different and this chandelier's unassuming crystal features and lack of color and its overall traditional look, I thought, would definitely stand the test of time.
Another huge trend right now is gold. I have always loved, loved, loved gold, especially rose gold and I can see its uniqueness in the sea of chrome that we've been in for the past 30 years. In my kid's bathroom, I toyed with the idea of doing black floors, black counters and then the pop of gold in the finishes... How amazing would that look? But again, I thought about the function of this bathroom and that gold might be a little ostentatious for two little boys that will in time become two big teenagers. Gold faucet, gold knobs, gold shower head, gold shower knobs... the Midas touch was not the place for this particular bathroom. And even now, only a year later, I am so glad that I stuck with a simple chrome.
A Happy Medium
(Between Style and Kid Friendly):
One of the biggest obstacles I faced was making our home kid friendly. To me, kid friendly means two things. One: Designing with minimal sharp edges and keeping breakable objects out of arm's reach. And two: Utilizing surfaces and fabrics that are easy to clean and can stand up to any marker, Play-doh or juice. I love when I look through home magazines with the spreads of those wonderfully beautiful and decorated rooms, with the husband and wife standing there and their young kids climbing on the couch or sitting on the table. What I also truly love is the amount of tiny occasional tables that flank each arm chair with a teeny-tiny vase with a perfect floral arrangement cascading over. I also especially love the gorgeous collection of blue chinoiserie pottery that sits at the foot of the fireplace or the stark white cotton couch with matching pastel pillows. Not on any planet would that picture perfect room stay in that form for more than 3 minutes... but it does look damn good when it's done up by the stylist.
There are plenty of pieces that I wanted to incorporate into my design that I just knew would have looked so good, but, I also knew that someone would eventually suffer, either one of my kids or my beautiful furniture. The place where we spend most of our time is of course the kitchen. For the island counter, I chose an easy to clean surface because I knew that's what would get beat up the most, but equally as important for me was choosing the seating around the island where we eat dinner. For me personally, any form of cotton fabric seating in the kitchen is the kiss of stain stick death. So instead, we chose white leather counter stools to match the rest of the white kitchen, and these guys have truly put up an immense battle against everything from tomato sauce when we're making pizza, to smushed Play-doh, to markers and crayons and even red wine... let's be fair, my husband and I make messes too. My suggestion is to design your space and pick pieces that you love and then figure out if they're conducive to your kid's lifestyle. If you think the corner is too sharp or you absolutely love the fabric but know it's going to get ruined in a day, find a compromise. If it's something that you can change out once the kids get bigger then it won't be too much of a loss, but if it's a kitchen counter or a substantial piece that you know you will never replace, then go with what makes you happy but at least try to child proof it for a few years.
There was definitely a debate or two between my cabinet guy and myself in regards to having white cabinets and white counters and white everything when you're living with little kids. Yes, white objects and kids don't mix. But to me, it actually makes more sense. When I see the amount of dust and let's just call it, "yucky stuff" on these cabinets on a daily basis, I think, had these cabinets been a dark wood, I wouldn't actually see the "yucky stuff" just sitting there undetected... now that's yucky! Cabinetry is one of the most expensive things you'll pay for, it is not something you can switch out every few years when your kids are grown. So think about what will truly make you happy, with kids, with pets, with whatever, and compromise on other things.
It is Possible to Achieve Style On a Budget:
Ummmm.. yes! And I'm not saying DIY everything and shop for the cheapest crap you can find. Unless you're on one of those reality shows (that's the furthest thing away from reality) where the budgets aren't even close to believable, then you're on the same boat as everyone here on Earth. Again, I compare this aspect to fashion too. Any wallet in heels can walk into Saks Fifth Avenue swoop up whatever the salewoman shows and think they've hit the fashion nail on the head. Expensive doesn't always equal the best. This is your home, invest more into your home than just the price tag... anyone with money can do that. But not everyone can make a home look expensive on a conservative budget. Find something you love and if it's too pricey, take the time to hunt for a similar piece for a smaller price tag.
One of the things I took the time to shop around for was tile. It may be the smallest of pieces, but they sure do pack a punch and really make the room. In our master bath, I happened upon a wallpaper that I just couldn't get over. I loved the simple black and white and its geometric shapes that almost reminded me of those pristinely pruned French topiary gardens. I wanted to mirror the shapes of the wallpaper with the same geometric aspect on the floor and I found this tile and fell in love. I then looked at three other tile stores and compared prices, and then realized that even with the cheapest option, in order to cover the entire floor with this particular tile, it would cost over $2,000. Again, when you have a budget, spending this type of money doesn't make sense for just the floor of one bathroom. So, instead of throwing the idea out with the bath water, I compromised with the budget that I did have. We covered the entire floor with bigger slabs of Italian marble and then used the more expensive tile as accent "bath mats" as I call them. I still got my favorite tile in there, but I didn't spend a fortune.
With all this being said, there are also things that cost what they cost because of their function and are well worth every single penny. I believe that appliances should be a big splurge as you use them every single day, should be of high quality to peak performance, and not to mention are a huge resale component to your home. The same goes with cabinets and counter tops in your kitchen. You can certainly compare prices, but make sure you're comparing good quality with good quality. There's a reason why certain things cost what they cost in regards to name brands, because they have a good reputation with performance and customer service.
Sticking to your budget is almost impossible. But compromising isn't. Find ways to make your home beautiful without always settling on what's most expensive. Think about where your money would be most useful. $1,400 for a gorgeous sheepskin rug ooorrr that stainless steel kitchen sink that can fit a horse? Renovating is harder than building a house from scratch because you have to make do with the bones of the house that you have. You don't have to own a Versailles to make it look expensive, just some creativity, imagination and a little patience to work within the budget you've got.
Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone:
This is not for everyone, but this is what I always preach to my styling clients. Everyone has their comfort zone in style, and I find that most of the time this is based on what's trending in the magazines or social media. People are often afraid to do something a bit different because it's not the main stream. What I also find with my clients is that when they do go beyond their comfort zone, they surprise themselves as to how happy they are with the results. I think in recent times with the evolution of Instagram and other such outlets, people's uniqueness has been more celebrated than ever, and this makes me so happy! People aren't afraid to wear something different or put something out there for everyone to see because they seem to be more open to accepting things that are not strictly ok'd by the Anna Wintours of the world. When it comes to your home, find your style and what makes you happy, but also have fun with your design and challenge yourself to try something you may not typically do.
My design aesthetic is eclectic, more modern than traditional, more whites and bright colors than dark, more beach house-y than chateau-y, but I wasn't working with a blank canvas here. This was and is a 1950's Colonial. To me, it wouldn't be right to turn its inner bones into something that looks like it's straight out of Malibu just because that's what I like. I needed those New England traditional features to blend what this house is, with what I wanted it to be. I took a trip outside my comfort zone and turned the downstairs itty-bitty powder room into the complete opposite of me. The dark wallpaper, the elaborate gold faucet and finishes, the customary black and white marble tile, it's so not me, but it's just so right for this house. It's traditional but with a touch of unconventional.
Give it a shot, even if it's a small thing in each room, or making one room something totally different, believe me, you'll have a smile on your face every time you see it.
Be In Your Comfort Zone:
I think of any photoshoot, project, collaboration I've ever done, this was the hardest and most stressful project I had ever taken on. There were days that I really just wanted to give up, tell all the workers to go home and I thought I'd be fine just getting my life back and living in a half-completed house. And there were other days that I was happier than a girl at a Bergdorf's shoe sale, excited to take on my painting projects, my 900 phone calls of the day, my micro-management duties, my math problems for the day and negotiations with everyone under the sun. I think what truly kept me sane when I was in the house with all the projects and all the workers was getting in my zone. I had three Pandora stations that made me so supremely happy: Ella Fitzgerald Radio, Motown Radio and Rihanna Radio. Singing along to Gershwin classics, boppin' along to Marvin Gaye's, What's Going On (my favorite song of all time), and dancing to a little Rihanna just made everything so much better. Another thing that also made me ridiculously happy and slowly became my obsession was a large iced peach green tea from Starbucks. With no AC in the house and 90 degree days, it was the treat that made me cool, literally and figuratively.
One of the first things I did when we moved into our home and the renovation hadn't yet begun was plant myself a little rose garden. David Austin English roses were planted at the entrance of the front door and right by the side door. Every time I walked in and out of the house, their mesmerizing smell made me feel like I walked into a surreal rose garden. The most ironic part was the juxtaposition of the elegant pink rose bushes smelly in all of their glory and the monstrous dumpster a mere 3 feet away (not even exaggerating) smelly in all of its pungent glory. As simple as it sounds, these roses were my sanity saver on so many days.
There was that one day when I asked one of the electricians to bring up from the basement the enormous box in which my dining room crystal chandelier had been stored. It was quite the scene watching him struggle with this box but refusing any help. I held my breathe until the very last step, which apparently was just not long enough, because the next thing I knew, that box landed on the floor with a thud followed by a shattering sound, followed by a, "are you f'in kidding me?!!" One of the crystal arms of the chandelier broke in half, and it took every last ounce of energy I had left to control the flood of tears that had accumulated behind my eyes. I went outside, took a few deep breaths, picked up my sharp gardening shears, and no, not stab the electrician (although tempting), but went to my roses and started pruning them. Sounds crazy, I know. But for me, something about being outside, smelling their hypnotizing fragrance and keeping busy cutting myself a beautiful bouquet just zenned me out.
For some people it's good music, or taking a jog or good food or something as crazy as pruning roses. But my suggestion is find something. Find anything that will put you in a happy bubble for even 5 minutes in which you can collect your thoughts, find the funny in whatever situation you're in and keeps you chugging along in your little adventure. It has to end eventually.
You'll get to that finish line and who knows, it might be the next day, or like for me, a year later, and you'll stand there and look around at your creation and think, holy shit, I cannot believe I just went through all that. I cannot believe I cried over a broken sink, I cannot believe I spent a king's ransom on frickin' plumbing that no one can even see, I cannot believe I sat on 10 different toilets in the middle of Lowe's, Goldilocks-style to find the perfect throne for my king, I cannot believe they didn't put me on payroll at the tile store and Home Depot after the amount of hours I clocked in there, but, I cannot believe that it's finally done and that I did this all by myself.
Here are my ever-precious before and after photos that I never thought I would look at with a huge smile while listening to Ella Fitzgerald Radio seated in my perfect kitchen...
Let the demo begin!
Demo of the wall between old family room and what will become the new family room
Standing in the new family room looking into the kitchen
A few details...
The details I love...
One of my favorite hobbies in life is gardening, so transforming the outside of this house was just as important as what was going on inside the house...
My husband's birthday falls on the year mark of our little project gone big, and there's nothing more that he and I could have wished for than being with our little princes in our castle that we call home...