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Home Remodel

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True to form, our bathroom renovation (with fabulous bathroom wallpaper!) took 6.5 months longer than necessary. We do love to avoid suggestions like: have all the materials on-hand before starting the project. If you also would like a two week bathroom remodel to take seven months, read my handy how-to guide!

Modern tropical bathroom with green penny tile and palm frond wallpaper.
The finished product!

Step 1: Gut the bathroom before all the materials are in your possession.

You may choose to have one item on-hand, like we had our vanity base, but don’t stockpile any other finishes. This means, don’t have the tile, sink, faucet, lighting, accessories, wallpaper, new door, door handle, door hinges, or…pretty much anything else ready and waiting before you take your bathroom apart.

Weathered wood vanity with grey and white quartz top. White wood mirror and mauve bathroom walls.
Before the remodel.
Mauve bathroom wall with white shiplap, a grey and white quartz vanity, and shabby chic finishes.
Soon to be stripped, drywalled, and wallpapered.
white bathroom with sink vanity
After the tear-out. There was no floor tile under the original built-in vanity.

The 15-year old mauve paint in our (only) bathroom was weathered. The wood vanity was looking pretty beat, too. We worried what we would find under the white shiplap on the righthand wall, or under the built-in vanity, but fortunately there was no rot or damage. Once the vanity was out, the shiplap and mirror off, our contractor dry walled everything smooth and painted it all Super White by Benjamin Moore.

Step 2. Order items piecemeal as the project goes along.

This can be wildly satisfying and prolong the renovation process many, many months beyond all expectation. Your contractor will also get a real kick out of this. For example, it’s pretty fun to assume that you can easily find square, white tile to fill the hole left where the vanity was removed. 

Wrong! Turns out those f*ckers are elusive. So, we either had to install non-matching white tiles (the scandal!), remove the entire tile floor and install something totally new (no thank you to the cost), or go rogue. 

Step 3. Don’t consider measurements when ordering lighting.

We brazenly ordered (non-returnable!) lights from our local  Berkeley Lighting store. The Berkeley Lighting crew is incredibly helpful and we love the lights, but we didn’t consider how much space the two, 7-inch diameter, mid-century wall sconces we chose would occupy on our vanity wall. Of course we had our contractor install them as soon as they came and we quickly realized that (with our non-returnable lights installed), our mirror size options had become extremely limited. Turns out, there aren’t a ton of mirrors that are 20 inches wide and 32 inches tall. Hmmm.

The lights we selected were the Stella wall sconces and the Nadia ceiling flush mount, both in aged brass and both by Mitzi Hudson Valley Lighting.

white bathroom vanity in a partially remodeled bathroom with green penny tile backdrop
Who us, measure?
white, midcentury modern flush mount globe light
The Nadia by Mitzi
green tape measures out potential mirror sizes between two midcentury modern bathroom wall sconces
Where is this miracle mirror?

Step 4. Attempt to defy logic via endless hours of online shopping.

Even if your wife tells you (repeatedly) that you may have to get a custom mirror (due to your lighting snafu), really clock those hours trolling Wayfair, AllModern, Target, heck, even Amazon, for a not-ugly (heck even an ugly) 20W x 32 H mirror. Persist despite all odds. Seek out any and all home furnishing and thrift stores open in a pandemic, hoping for that mirror miracle. Then, after weeks of looking, ordering, trying, returning, ad infinitum, surrender to the custom route. For our custom mirror, we used  Top Glass Co. in West Oakland to realize our arched vision. They did an awesome job, the mirror is gorgeous, but of course custom is never cheaper. So! Perhaps be more strategic than us? Or not!

Little baby mirror, will you ever grow into your tape?
Little baby mirror, will you ever grow into your tape?
A man in a neon green vest installs a mirror over a bathroom vanity
Custom mirror fits perfect.

Step 5: Make design decisions as you go. 

Nothing’s more fun than a game of chance, right? Why not base your whole bathroom on brassy gold hardware only to discover that no one makes double rocker light switches in the right shade of brassy gold. And, similarly, no one makes the proper brassy gold sink faucet so you’ll have to have more shine than you want in your sink or sacrifice an ungodly (ungoldly?) amount of money that you can’t really stomach paying.

If we had ordered everything before installing anything we would have decided what worked and didn’t. But instead we plowed bravely ahead, wily-nily as the kids are saying these days, ordered piecemeal, became disappointed, returned and waited for deliveries, were dis-pleased, returned and ordered again, over and over again. 

Step 6: Ignore the finish on your lighting. 

Bet you didn’t even think of this. We didn’t, either. Turns out the Mitzi Stella wall sconces we chose have frosted glass globes. But the Mitzi Nadia flush mount ceiling light (which appeared to have a frosted white globe light cover and is by the same brand) looks totally different and is actually milk glass. This means when the lights are all on they don’t really match.

All this may seem like splitting hairs when there’s a global pandemic and racial injustice is rampant (P.S. this newsletter on anti-racism is a wonderful resource!) and people are truly suffering and so I recognize the utter insipidness of these quibbles and yet, I feel compelled to share these lessons learned. How was I to know? Well, apparently, the internet knew. Also, I knew! 

white woman in a white dress taking a selfie in the remodeled bathroom.
Too many golds.

I used to write home renovation articles (for 3 years) for a well-known home improvement services site and I always wrote about how to be prepared for your remodel. Specifically, I interviewed countless contractors who told readers to have all their materials on-hand before starting the work. Turns out in the midst of a national crisis I forgot the simple facts. Next time! For now we’ll be gentle with ourselves.

What we should have done. 

If I could time travel to July 2020 Annie and tell her one thing, it would be: ORDER ALL THE MATERIALS BEFORE HAVING THE CONTRACTOR COME AND RIP OUT YOUR BATHROOM. We had months of a shell of a bathroom because every “32-inch” sink top we ordered arrived too small (not our fault!), or the cool, glass-paneled door we decided we needed last minute (definitely our fault!) would be on back order (because, pandemic). Stuff like that.

I would gently shake that naive girl and say, “July 2020 Annie, focus! Do a little cut and paste, get your vision in place. Then order the parts! You can do it! I believe in you! Then, wait for it all to arrive (!) and see how you like it all together. Why, you might even go ahead and order the tile now because surely that special, celadon penny tile you want will take weeks to deliver. Just think about it, July 2020 Annie. As January 2021 Annie, I don’t want to boss you around or anything, but I do think it’d make your life a little easier.” Or something along those lines. 

Fortunately

The only real disruption to life was the the sink and vanity coming out (and a solid two months of no bathroom door). This means that despite our backwards approach to remodeling our only bathroom—and a good amount of tooth brushing in the kitchen sink—we didn’t have to forgo basic sanitation and pee in a bucket or hose shower in the backyard.

Let’s talk bathroom wallpaper.

There’s lots to love about a fabulous bathroom. A makeup moment. Hair party. Hot showers. But let’s be honest when we admit that wallpaper really makes the party. I’ve wanted bathroom wallpaper since junior high when Jenny T’s parents remodeled and put a dark, floral, elegant paper in the half bath. I marveled. Is this even allowed? Glamour paper in the loo? Turns out as an adult you can do whatever you want. (Mostly. I also loved one friend’s bathroom in Ashland, OR, but as an adult I’ve come to see that carpeting and bathrooms don’t mix.)

The two keys to bathroom wallpaper success are:
  • Moisture-friendly wallpaper
  • Competent wallpaper installation

We got the paper from MuralsWallpaper. They have interesting, modern designs, plus they’ll send three free samples, which I appreciate. We chose their ‘heavy-grade’ wallpaper, which they say stands up better in wet environments. The heavy paper is gorgeous, with almost a linen look.  Plus the design has a full-on tropical palm, modern retro vibe. My wife’s sister said it best when we sent her a photo:

“It looks like a South Beach hotel bathroom.”

Nice. I didn’t even know it, but that was our goal precisely. Kind of a gay art deco Miami dream. Jim’s Wallpaper did the install, thankfully, and it looks amazing. 

white man in red shirt installing wallpaper on a white wall.
Pro wallpaper install! Worth it.
three wallpaper samples against a white wall.
Our three wallpaper samples.
tropical palm wallpaper installed in a bathroom
Install complete!

We swore never to remodel again. 

After our 9-month, no-kitchen heartbreak con man remodel disaster (wherein we were rescued by an amazing cabinet crew, our contractor friend, and my wife finally putting her foot down after a maniac swindler tried to take all our money and we had an empty hole in our house and a random dude in boat shoes showing up every odd Tuesday for the better part of a year) we SWORE we would never remodel again. *sigh.*

Turns out after that terrible experience, our amazing cabinet guys gifted us a bathroom vanity to match the gorgeous custom kitchen cabinets they installed. We hid it in the garage as long as could, but there’s only so long you can hide something that pretty away. After a year had passed with our kitchen complete, we started anew. So glad we did, it looks glorious! 

completed bathroom remodel, arched mirror, globe wall sconces,
All the pretty pieces!

Design party.

Our original plan was to put wallpaper behind the vanity, but then we pivoted and thought, why not rip the funky-ass shiplap off the side wall, wallpaper the sidewall, and cascade tile down the sink wall down and under the vanity. We’re like jungle cats, nimble! Turns out, we loved how it looked. So, it all came together, far slower than we might have hoped, but fabulously nontheless. 

My favorite touches were these square brass shelves. We added one to the left side of the vanity to hold our toothbrush (no one wants to ruin this gorgeous look with an electric toothbrush plugged in on top) and then we added two more above the shower to hold sweet little potted plants. We had the owner of Flora Arte help us make wee little potted buddies. We love him, so all you East Bay folks, go visit his shop in Berkeley on MLK. 

Two brass shelves holding plants, installed above a white-tiled shower
It's a jungle in here!
White bathroom remodel with brass planter boxes hanging above the shower wall.
Plants!

The end.

That’s our latest home renovation saga. We make this house more over-the-top each year. Have you been doing any shelter-in-place home remodel projects? Tell me alllllabout it.

After 8 weeks with no kitchen a gentle despair sets in. You think it won’t happen to you—you’re steady, you meditate—but you’re wrong. The absence of function really starts to erode your ease. The kitchen remodel blues commence. 

You thought, perhaps, ‘washing dishes in the bathtub will be an adventure.’ Like going camping or joining the circus. But instead, cleaning dishware in the same room that you pee sort of starts to bring you down. 

photo of dishes sitting on a bathmat on the floor
The ultimate lay flat shot

Sadly, all those cliches you heard about kitchen remodels were true:

  • The freight company will hold your wife’s range hostage out of spite
  • Cabinets will arrive late and when they finally arrive, they are damaged. Cabinet ETA will remain unknown
  • The new washing machine will malfunction, flooding one side of the kitchen subfloor
  • An appliance delivery truck will destroy 10 feet of your new neighbor’s retaining wall
  • Sewage water will overflow through an uncapped plumbing line where the sink once was. The other side of the kitchen floor will flood 
  • Skipping showers will become all too reasonable (because whoever showers has to wash the dishes at the same time)
  • Your meals will be mostly cereal (this is a secret perk, actually)

You begin to believe that the kitchen remodel will, in fact, never be complete and that the nice, but essentially unknown, men will be in your home forever. You may even start to think you never had a stove or cabinets—and that plastic sheeting has always been your home decor. 

If this is you, dear friend of little faith, please stay strong. One day, maybe even one day this year, you’ll have a kitchen ceiling, floor and cabinets once more. 

Photo of a woman and a dog standing in the middle of a gutted kitchen, surrounded by plastic sheeting
Ruby dog and wifey
*All this to say, complaining is insane. A home to remodel is a luxury and a privilege. But goddamn if I don’t feel uncomfortable. *

Also, home remodeling is really funny when you’re not handy. Despite my dad’s best efforts, and my wife’s sincerest hopes, I am not the tool belt-wearing lady lover who’s clever with an electric drill. Although I did obsessively research best paint colors for north rooms. 

If you’ve always got the blues, you might have the wrong paint for your north-facing room. See, I learned all about paint while avoiding a kitchen remodel. It was the classic home renovation pick and roll; renovate the bedrooms instead of tackling the non-operational kitchen. I mean, why start on a truly urgent project when you can tailspin for months over paint colors for north-facing rooms?

I’ll show you pics of the fabulous coral and true teal we decided, on as well as giving specific color suggestions below, but if all you want are bullet points without the backstory, the key takeaways when painting a north-facing room include:

  • Stark white paint is no good in north-facing rooms. More on why below
  • Warm neutrals (and whites with warm undertones) are a solid substitute for bright/stark white
  • Dramatic dark colors give a north-facing room depth
  • Pastels with warm undertones work well
  • Pastels with cool undertones can look tragic
  • Room decor, flooring, and exterior foliage impact the undertones in your paint selection. I linked resources below for understanding undertones

Backstory:

A few years ago, our electric oven broke (bear with me, this does circle back to paint). The easy fix would be replacing the oven, but my wife really wanted a gas range—and that meant hiring a plumber. Besides that, our janky white shaker cabinet doors were constantly falling off and the footprint of the galley kitchen was tooooo small for two cooks; so if we were going to do one thing, we were going to do it all.

photo of a galley kitchen with white shaker cabinets
The wee kitchen galley with disobedient cabinet doors and non-functional oven.



My wife and I were terrified of taking on a kitchen remodel (rightly so, it turns out the process has been
fraught with drama). So over two years of remodel denial we became experts at the no-stove workaround. My wife should write a lifestyle cookbook for the Instapot, crockpot, and countertop toaster oven crowd. After TWO YEARS of no-stove crock pot cooking we said, this is ridiculous! We are grown women! We can face our fears…and we promptly agreed to repaint the bedrooms.

Renovating the bedrooms

As any novice home renovator soon finds out, just repainting the rooms does not suffice. The carpets were disgusting from years of doggies, the original 1950s baseboards were jank, and the original closet was a dysfunctional monster. So, instead of a quick paint touch-up, we embarked on a two-month bedroom overhaul. Classic avoidance technique (do you see how we artfully pushed aside the kitchen work?). 

Choosing the paint

I thought the pale, icy blue of the guest and main bedrooms always felt cold and shadowy. Even when the sun was shining I’d wrap up in a depression sweater when I was back there.

A pale blue wall with old and damaged baseboards
Sad blue paint and sad 1950s baseboards


What I didn’t know then is that north facing rooms have minimal direct sunlight, so colors with cool undertones make cold shadows. So although the blue was, in theory, a beautiful pastel, in our north-facing rooms the color looked drab and cold.

We tend toward modern design and reasoned brighter and whiter might be a good choice. Boy was I wrong. After deep diving into blogs and paint sites, I learned that the type of sun exposure the rooms get impacts how the paint colors look on the walls. So instead of fabulously airy and light, true white looks grey and dingy in cool light, delivery dreary institutional vibes.

Counter to my ideas, light theory was teaching me that bold, rich colors bring warmth and life to dark rooms. In our shadowy room, deep colors could create a sense of coziness as opposed to the depression sweater vibe of our current pale blue.

View through a bedroom window to a small patio and back hill
We have large windows on the north wall of both bedrooms, but the windows look up a wooded hillside and never receive direct sunlight.
Empowered by countless home remodel blogs, I embarked on a campaign to paint our main bedroom a warm, glowing deep teal and our guest room/office a fabulous coral. Here is my teal paint Pinterest inspiration board and my coral wall paint Pinterest inspiration board.

A few years back when we painted the living room and dining room, we learned (the hard way) that paint color cards DO NOT LOOK ANYTHING LIKE what ends up on your wall. This is because the orientation of your room, your interior lighting, your decor, carpet color, and the amount of natural sunlight you receive all impact how the color looks. 

woman making a silly face in front of multiple paint swatches painted on a wall
Lessons learned from the living room. Don’t lose your mind amongst all those lilacs that had masqueraded as grey at the paint store.
As a result of painting millions of misleading sample grays on our living room walls back then, we had a better strategy for painting our bedrooms this time. Try it out if you like:
  1. Search Pinterest for paint inspo for North-facing rooms! Make a Pinterest board with colors you like
  2. Consider your decor (bed frame, carpet/flooring, artwork and overheard lighting) and what colors would look good?
  3. Bring your Pinterest boards to your paint shop and have them help you color match some of the paint cards to the pics
  4. Buy no more than four paint samples to test on the walls
  5. Paint large (at least 2 or three foot squares) swatches of each color on the main walls

I wish I had better photos of our teal paint samples, but thanks to the crap natural lighting in our main bedroom, photographing this room is like trying to bathe a cat. Never a good time with natural light and overhead light casts strange shadows. Here is my best attempt:

teal paint swatches on a light-colored wall
From the top, clockwise: Real Teal, Seaworthy, Oceanside, Great Falls. All by Sherwin Williams
The coral guest room photographs far better thanks to an overhead skylight that augments the natural light in the room.
coral colored paint swatches painted on a light blue wall. Grey carpet samples against a brown carpet.
From left to right: Ravishing Coral and Lei Flower by Sherwin Williams. In addition to my photog skills, this pic shows off our grody old carpet, the new carpet options (spoiler, we went w/ the darker one) and those beat down baseboards, which are now replaced.
Our final paint choices

Curious how the rooms turned out? We chose Lei Flower for the guest room / office and Real Teal for our bedroom. I LOVE the coral paint and I adore the teal BUT I flubbed on the teal by choosing a semi-gloss sheen. In retrospect I would have done a satin sheen in the teal like I did with the coral. The semi-gloss is just too damn shiny. Here are the final pics:

Resources: Paint for north-facing rooms

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