7 Lessons I’ve Learned As A Decorator’s Daughter About Designing A Space You Love
Welcome to Spire Spaces, our monthly column where we cover tips, tricks, and recommendations for creating a space that speaks to your soul, no matter your budget or the size of the place you call home.
I have a confession: It took me a while to get into Fixer Upper. Yes, Chip and Joanna Gaines are total goals. Yes, Jo is a fantastic designer. Yes, their reveals are remarkable. But anytime my friends would watch those early seasons, I’d catch myself saying, “This is like watching my parents on TV!”
My mom is a decorator and I’ve rarely seen something my dad couldn’t build or fix. (Literally, growing up I can’t recall seeing a handyman unless they were fixing the washing machine.) They’ve flipped houses. They’ve refurbished unending sums of furniture. They’ve constructed and staged spaces. And they’ve transformed every place we ever lived into the kind of spaces that speak to your soul.
Because it was always a part of my life, I didn’t realize how special this was until I left home. (And consequently, missed that home immensely.) However, as I’ve worked to create my own spaces, whether that was in a dorm room, an itty bitty apartment, or a larger living space, I’ve started to reflect on all that my mom, who I now describe as the beach house version of Joanna Gaines, has taught me by example.
If you want to create your own space that speaks to your soul, read on.
Lesson #1: You don’t have to have a big budget to create a space you adore.
Like most people, when my mom finds a discount, she wears it like a badge of honor. Whether it's a client’s home or our own, she is a champion when it comes to scrappy design, and when she would reveal just how little she spent on said item, it would shock us all. We are talking single or double digits for triple or quadruple digit items.
Often, she’d find something sitting on top of someone’s trashcan. She’d sand it down or throw some paint on it and it looked like a high-end product.
Over the years, I’ve seen a ton of websites showcasing products that are far out of most people’s price range. But when you see those items all over Instagram, you assume that’s what they cost and then assume you can’t afford to have a space you love. Trust me, I’ve seen first hand that you can create an equally special space at a substantially less expensive price. The key is defining what it is you want, remaining patient, and searching for it. Check Homegoods, thrift shops, estate sales, and even garbage cans. You’ll be amazed what you can find when you open your eyes to the possibilities.
Lesson #2: You don’t have to have a big space to have a home you love.
For most of my upbringing, we lived in a small 720 square foot cottage on the Jersey Shore. We called it our Happy Place. It was so meaningful to us that I wrote my college admissions essay about it.
It was a small space for four people but it’s a great lesson in simplicity. I watched my mom design the cottage with a high degree of intention, knowing every piece needed to be functional and aesthetically pleasing. From watching her I’ve learned that the key to having a space you love isn’t about the square footage. Everything you could ever need comes in compact sizes (but I can’t say I miss bunk beds…) and to truly have a space you love, you have to clear out what doesn’t actually serve you and ensure that everything that remains has functional and spiritual meaning.
Lesson #3: Patience is key.
I remember one Saturday when I was in middle school, I woke up and my mom said she wanted to redesign a room in our house. By the end of the day, the entire room had been repainted, the wall hangings were updated, and she refinished the headboard. If she had a design idea in her head, she often doesn’t rest until she’s completed it.
That being said, she also practices patience when it comes to selecting design elements. If she knows she wants to update a space with a specific design tweak, she may try introducing some various elements into the space, anything from a lamp to a new chair, and see if it moves the space in the direction she wants. If it doesn’t, she returns it.
I’ve always admired that she never tried to make something work. If it didn’t work, she accepted it and waited to find what would fit the bill. Some design aspirations can be achieved in a day and others take more time. When you wait for what you truly want, just like anything else, it always finds its way to you.
Lesson #4: You can beautify just about anything.
You should see the kind of things my mom and dad would salvage. And I’m not just talking about a chair or a table or some kind of repurposed decorative piece. We lived in a house that they quite literally salvaged. It was a total fixer-upper and little by little, they completely transformed it. We actually had a snobby neighbor who was appalled at the fact we would do all the work ourselves, but some of my favorite memories of that house are painting the exterior with my dad and creating the flower beds with my mom.
Through the process of making that home ours, I saw that you really can turn any living space around. Whether you want to update the look of your desk or fully change the feel of your bedroom, all it takes is a little creativity and a willingness to work at it. You may not be living in the most naturally gorgeous space, whether it’s an old dorm room, a run-down apartment, or a house that has taken a beating, but just look at one thing you want to change and find a creative solution to make that a reality. Everything has the potential for beauty. You just have to bring it out.
Lesson #5: Think outside the box.
Going along with the idea of creative solutions, I watched my parents find a whole lot of them throughout my upbringing.
One of my favorites is how my parents painted the floors in our old house. We live by the beach so that means there’s always a sand issue. You know what creates an even bigger sand issue? Unnecessary rugs. The problem is, rugs add a level of depth and detail to a room, so how do you get rid of it while still maintaining its value? In our case, you paint them onto the floor.
My parents bought beachy stencils and after painting the rest of the floors one solid color, they painted rugs onto the floor. The “rugs” had stenciled tassels on the end and said things like “she sells seashells by the seashore.” Each one was unique and we got to help decide what they each looked like. It was the most fun art project ever. And when we got sick of them, we just painted them over and started again. This went on for years and it made vacuuming in the summer much easier.
It sometimes doesn’t make financial or functional sense to add certain things to your space. Any time my mom came up against that, I watched as she found alternatives that still provided the same end value. If you want something, focus on the deeper why and you’ll likely be able to find something that fulfills it.
Lesson #6: Lighting matters. Have options.
I love how our home felt different from one time of day to the next. In the early morning, we’d have all the lights on before school to help us wake up. At dinner time, my mom would often use the lights with dimmers to create a warmer environment. And late at night, she often would only turn on lamps, lanterns, and light candles, which to this day is how I try to end my evenings because I love how cozy and calming it felt.
No doubt lighting impacts our energy. Now that I live on my own, I try to remember my mom’s tricks by having multiple lighting sources in a room that all have different levels of brightness. That way, they can work in unison or on their own to evoke different energies throughout my day. From twinkle lights and candles to lamps and lanterns, there are a ton of options for what you can add.
Lesson #7: Your home is a feeling.
I mentioned that we call that 720 square foot cottage our Happy Place. That started because my little sister said it was her happy place because she loved coming back from the beach, taking an outdoor shower, and eating corn at the kitchen table while listening to Van Morrison. My mom then painted the words “Our Happy Place” onto a sign that still remains in that house.
I love that my mom never let a special moment pass without documenting it, or, rather, designing it. She’s not a scrapbooker or someone who keeps a journal, but her decorating is her living diary of all our memories. Just like that happy place sign, there is meaning behind a lot of the design in our home and I think that’s something everyone can learn from. Your living space doesn’t have to be what an influencer told you was “in” or what you could find in a furniture store. It can be a representation of your spirit and your memories and all that matters to you.
Above all, home is a feeling. I watched my parents create a home for us and spaces for others by putting meaning into every move they made. In doing so, they gave us not just a sign that said “Happy Place” but a living space that felt like just that. Your home will change plenty of times and with time, so will your style, but if you focus on the feeling you associate with home, you’ll never be far from it.
What lessons have you learned on creating a space that speaks to your soul? Share with me in the comments!