Last fall, my sister Lucy came to visit us in Brooklyn. She was grieving the loss of her husband, Paul, and she felt very lonely. “I want to burst into tears whenever I think about returning to an empty house,” she told me. It still felt like the house she had shared with Paul, but she wanted it to feel like a home of her own, where she could have a fresh start with her daughter. So, we brainstormed: What could we do to cheer up her place? I reached out to my super talented interior-designer friend Jenny Komenda of Little Green Notebook and Juniper Studio, and she was kind enough to agree to help. What she did was more than we had ever hoped for. Here are the before-and-after photos…
LIVING ROOM BEFORE:
LIVING ROOM AFTER:
Jenny on brightening up a room: Lucy’s windows get indirect sunlight, which is beautiful and soft, but doesn’t give a lot of fresh brightness. So we instantly knew the walls needed to go white. I love to use pure white paint, but since Lucy’s apartment is shadowy from all those lovely trees outside her windows, we went with Benjamin Moore’s Chantilly Lace, which has a nice warmth from the tiniest bit of yellow pigment. It’s like instant sunshine!
Jenny on choosing family-friendly furniture: Before, there was a giant black sectional. I love black, but it’s hard to have a dark piece in a room that’s a little dark itself. So we lightened up the furniture. I LOVE using leather furniture in homes with kids or pets. It holds up well against everyday wear and tear, and then it becomes practically new again with a good leather conditioner. (This one is my favorite.) We selected the Sven sofa from Article. The buttery camel leather is fabulous, especially for the price point of the sofa! Since Lucy wanted to keep the carpeting, we layered rugs on top to make it feel fresh.
LUCY’S TAKE: When Jenny asked what I hoped the house would feel like, I said bright and colorful and nature-y. And that’s exactly what she did. She even decorated the bookcase with a brass grasshopper and a geode. There’s so much love and care in everything.
Jenny on building the custom bookshelf: Lucy loves books, so we knew we wanted to build a giant bookshelf. The shelves are DIY — we bought plywood from the hardware store and painted it white. The molded brackets are from Amazon. We needed to work around the big mirror, which was permanently installed by the builder and dry-walled into the wall. That’s great for earthquakes, but not for décor! I was happy to keep it, though, because mirrors reflect light, so it’s almost like adding another window.
Jenny’s tips for styling bookshelves: I’m a big believer that bookshelves are for books. I love stuff on shelves, too, but if you start with books, you’re taking care of the important thing, and then you can style around them. And I like to keep similar books together. You can either organize by subject or loosely group them by color, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a hodgepodge. If you place the books in groups, your eye has a place to land, and then move on. Once the books are in, you can stack some horizontally, so they act like bookends. Finally, layer some other pieces in, but be careful not to overstuff shelves. You want it to feel curated and less like storage.
LUCY’S TAKE: Mom and I literally did KonMari before Jenny came. I got rid of a lot of books because Paul never got rid of a book in his life, literally, really truly. But I kept the books that were especially important to him: all his favorite novels, and the tattered neurosurgery book he carried around during his residency, and books about religion that he read when he was dying. Before, we each had our own bookshelf, but Jenny mixed all the books together — now they feel way lighter. They feel like Paul is in the air. I love knowing they’re in there, that’s our little secret. He’s in the mix.
Jenny on choosing art: It’s important not to overcrowd your walls. It’s always better to hang fewer pieces, and make them bigger, so you can enjoy what’s happening. We had planned on hanging lots of art over the sofa, but in the end it felt right to hang just three pieces. They play nicely together. If a gallery wall is the only thing you have in a room, it can be a great focal point. But here, the bookshelf is providing a lot of interest, so we kept the art softer.
Paint color: Chantilly Lace by Benjamin Moore in eggshell for walls and semigloss for trim. Leather sofa: Article. Buffalo check throw: Schoolhouse Electric. Pillows: Juniper Studio. Striped lamp: Schoolhouse Electric. Aqua sofa: Article. Brass and marble lamp: Anthropologie. White scallop side table: Juniper Studio. Arthur’s seat: Laura Bell, from 20×200. Love print: Max Wanger. We Are So Good Together Print: Dylan Fareed, from 20×200. Custom frames: Simply Framed. Coffee table: West Elm. Wallpaper: Hygge & West. Area Rug: West Elm. Armchair: Modernica. Black planter: Modernica. Back porch rug: West Elm. Bookshelf brackets: Welland. Letter K: Anthropologie. Planetarium terrarium: Anthropologie. Pottery: Juniper Studio. Abstract art: Brenna Giessen. Striped baskets: The Land of Nod. Bookshelf paint: Simply White by Benjamin Moore.
DINING ROOM BEFORE:
DINING ROOM AFTER:
Jenny on going for a chandelier: Changing overhead lighting always makes a big statement. In the dining room, we bought an IKEA chandelier and spray painted it white. It was very inexpensive but made a huge difference.
Jenny on creating multiple light sources: In design school, they teach you to have eight sources of lighting for a single room! That’s probably too much for an apartment-size house, but having multiple sources creates a nice ambiance. I say, have tons of table lamps. Then choose the right bulbs. You can get soft white or natural sunlight bulbs, or even those light pink bulbs for a room where you want a very pretty, soft glow.
Jenny on the magic of oversized prints: If you’re struggling with choosing art, or how to fill your walls, the best thing you can do is buy one hugely oversized print. It feels dramatic and expensive, like a piece of art. I’d choose one giant piece over a gallery wall any day. Just remember that it’s important to pick something with colors that work for the room. It’s like committing to wallpaper.
Jenny on creating an accent wall: We wanted to incorporate some pattern on the floating wall between Lucy’s kitchen and living room. The (fully removable and reusable!) wallpaper tiles from Hygge & West were the perfect solution. Lucy loves imagery with a nature theme, and I liked that the pattern was smaller and tone-on-tone. There is already a lot going on with the bookshelf wall, and seeing a crazy color and pattern reflected in the big mirror would have taken things too far.
Jenny on making room transitions feel seamless: All the art — in the entrance, the living room and the dining room — is hanging at around the same height. That helps unify the rooms and makes them feel more considered.
Jenny on putting rugs in every room: Rugs help define a space in an open floor plan. Here, the dining room feels like a very separate space. Rugs also make a room feel much more designed. I always think rugs should be as big as possible, though — dinky rugs are such a bummer.
Wall color: Chantilly Lace in eggshell by Benjamin Moore. Pink wall print: Madelon Verdoorn, from Eventide. Grass print by Brooke Schwab, from Eventide. Custom frames: Simply Framed. Gem stand: Juniper Studio. Table, chairs and secretary: vintage, sourced by Juniper Studio. Grid rug: Dash & Albert. Blush tray: Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co. Custom floating TV credenza: Juniper Studio. Paint color on credenza: Classic Gray by Benjamin Moore. Paint color on vintage table top: Simply White by Benjamin Moore.
Jenny on tackling small spaces: The entryway was smaller than we had anticipated, so we made the portraits smaller, too. We also kept the color in the room limited to the accessories. We had thought about doing a more colorful rug and color portraits in bigger frames, but when we saw the ceiling was lower in the entry, we knew we wanted to keep all the permanent decor light and airy. That’s another design tip: In a smaller space, it’s good to go neutral, and then carefully, carefully add in pops of color, so it won’t feel too busy.
LUCY’S TAKE: I really like the hooks. Cady’s tiny coats look ridiculously cute hanging up there. The photos are of Cady’s aunts and uncles and godparents. It reminds me that I’m part of a really tight, fun group of siblings in my generation. You have a long day, and you walk into your house, and you’re like, THIS is who I am.
Paint color: Chantilly Lace in eggshell by Benjamin Moore. Door paint: Champion Cobalt in semi-gloss by Benjamin Moore. Custom wall shelf by Juniper Studio, paint color is Simply White in the advance line by Benjamin Moore. Rugs: IKEA (three sewn together!). Camel cashmere throw: Parachute Home. Wall hook: Schoolhouse Electric Supply & Co. Orange bag: Schoolhouse Electric Supply & Co.
Jenny on choosing paint colors: In the bedroom, we decided to go with a blush color, because it felt important for her bedroom to feel different from before. It’s a feminine moment without feeling overly girly. It’s also a warm pink, not a Pepto Bismol pink.
Jenny on testing colors first: We actually chose several paint colors, but didn’t make the final decision until we were on-site. I cannot stress how important it is to try swatches on the wall. It’s a great idea to look at the samples at different times of the day; and it might seem like overkill, but it is also helpful to paint samples on all four walls of a room.
Jenny on making a bedroom feel serene: I like to go soft and light on bedding, almost always. Here, we chose a white duvet. It’s like having white towels — there’s something nice about knowing something you’re putting directly against your body is very clean. When something occupies such a big place in a small space, it should be really light in color, and then you can layer more color and texture over it.
LUCY’S TAKE: I sleep so much better now. We used to have foam pillows, but these are big down pillows, like you’d have in a hotel. Now I’m sleeping in a little oasis in my house, and it feels comforting.
Jenny on hanging curtains: I always love having a lot of textiles in a bedroom. In this case, Lucy didn’t really need curtains, because she has shutters in the bedroom. But as soon as we hung the curtains, it felt really soft and cozy. It helped everything come together in such a happy, happy way.
LUCY’S TAKE: When I first saw the bedroom, I said, “The curtains are so pretty, where are they from?” Jenny said, “They’re from IKEA, but I stamped them with leaves.” I burst into tears. I was like, you stamped them? All these things are like gifts. She put her hands on my house, I think of her every morning.
Wall color: Love and Happiness in eggshell by Benjamin Moore. Bed: BluDot in Edwards in Poppy color. Floral pillow: Etsy. Sail print: Kati Dimoff, from Eventide. Sconces: West Elm. White shams: Parachute Home. Duvet and shams: Parachute Home. Blue chair: vintage Milo Baughman via Modern on Melrose. Jewelry stand: Anthropologie. Gosling Lake print: Kurt Tong, from 20×200. Brass rod: West Elm. Custom frames: Simply Framed. Dish: Schoolhouse Electric Supply & Co.
Jenny on the finished product: We wanted it to feel sophisticated but happy. Lucy’s a professional woman, so we wanted it to be cool and feminine, but definitely a grown-up’s house. “Fresh” was the word we kept using, and I think the finished look reflects that.
Jenny on watching Lucy’s reaction: It was the most emotional week for all of us. It was amazing and heavy and wonderful and hard — oh my gosh, it was hard in a lot of ways. But we were thrilled with how it came together. Just as we finished, we were so tired, and Lucy texted us that she was there (she was returning from a week away). We had talked on the phone before, but we hadn’t met. She walked in, and it was seriously the sweetest thing. She was so genuinely happy and excited. You could tell she wasn’t just trying to be nice. She just kept saying, “This is so good, this is so good.” She said what we had all been feeling all week, that this is what Paul would have wanted. It was one of the most rewarding moments I’ve ever had.
LUCY’S TAKE: I walked in and could see all my important stuff around, but it was so colorful and beautiful. They had everything set up, even the TV — Jenny said they wanted it move-in ready. Before, I’d be sitting at home watching TV and it felt so lonely. But now it’s really easy for me to sit on the couch and feel like I can drink a glass of wine and watch a show! I’m excited to come home now, I’m excited to have people over, I’m not itching to get out like I was before. I feel like a fresh, cool lady in my house. So much love and care went into it. The kindness of strangers is in my house.
Thank you so, so much, Jenny!
P.S. More house tours, and where to find affordable art.
(Photos by Julia Robbs for Cup of Jo. Styling by Kendra Smoot. Home design by the incredible Jenny Komenda of Juniper Studio. Thank you so much to everyone, including the brands featured here, many of which generously provided products or furnishings.)